Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Stop the bigots from making the political divide any wider - my Universe column

Like a great many columnists, it won’t come as a surprise to you, that from time to time, I write for other publications (although in the words of the late, great Sir Bruce Forsyth “You’re my favourite”).

As well as spending hour upon hour composing my often erroneous but always thoroughly considered thoughts for you each week I am also very privileged to have an equivalent piece in my local newspaper which seeks to put forward often political views with a leaning to the place where I live.

It’s that newspaper where I would like to start my contemplation today.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about some local issue or other and filed it ready for publication a few days later. I didn’t think too much about the piece after that; the life of a writer is very much about going forward after all and moving along with the issues of the day.

In truth I didn’t actually remember that the piece had been published when I went one evening to a meeting and a Labour Party councillor, once a colleague but now sat across the political divide, came up to me.

“Leon, you were dead wrong in your column today,” the man said to me “I’ve got a mind to write in to the paper.”

On hearing the comment I was somewhat thrown off guard but I realised that although we disagree about many issues, although we very much share the same opinion about others, this man, Dave, wasn’t simply a political adversary but also a valued and treasured friend.

“Dave,” I replied “please do write in to the paper. Debate is all about listening to different opinions and I am sure our readers would be interested in hearing yours.”

Dave told me he would do just as I had suggested.

When the following week’s newspaper was published I looked to see if Dave’s epistle had been published on the letters page; it had not and so thought that he had decided not to write in after all.
It was a couple of days later when Dave telephoned me on a crackly line, he happens to be a collector of antique phones, to complain to me “I wrote about your column and they didn’t publish it. Would you mind finding out why?”

The following day dutifully I spoke to the editor who told me the very simple answer “We got it late and our letters page was already full; but we will definitely publish it next week.”

I duly let Dave know and waited for the next edition to be printed. When I opened my newspaper the following Thursday I read Dave’s letter; he had been absolutely scathing about the points I had made in my column, he opposed everything and indeed in some respects he was right and others completely wrong.

Crucially though Dave had criticised my arguments and not me, he had played the ball and not the man, but looking back it did strike me as a little odd and very funny that I had ended up facilitating him quite so much in ripping my column to shreds.

But, you know what? That is what friends do. They help each other through thick and thin; they can take a little deserved criticism; they can disagree without being disagreeable because ultimately they trust and respect each other.

It does not matter one little bit that we sit across, in reality, a very narrow political divide. I could not be prouder than to call my mate Dave a friend.

The reason that I mention all of this is a political story that has evolved over these past few days concerning Laura Pidcock MP, the new Member of Parliament for the Labour held seat of North West Durham.

Ms Pidcock last week gave an interview to left-leaning website skwawkbox.org about her first couple of months as a parliamentarian. As well as railing against many of the traditions and practices at Westminster the 29 year old commented on her political opponents, the Conservatives “I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them…I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral…the idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional.”

I, like a great many others, was taken aback by the hatred contained in those words; they were, after all echoing those of the post-war Labour politician Nye Bevan who once described Conservatives as “lower than vermin”. Surely we should have moved on in that time?

The simple truth, of course, is that for some on the extremes of party politics we have not. In the wake of the Ms Pidcock’s interview many Members of Parliament took to social media to say that they, like me, were proud to have friends across the political spectrum.

Will Quince, the Tory MP for Colchester, was one such parliamentarian tweeting “This is such a disappointing attitude, Labour MPs are the opposition not the enemy and I count several as friends.”
It perhaps shouldn’t come as a great surprise that less than twenty four hours later he followed up his first post with “I’m genuinely getting tweets asking who my Labour MP friends are so they can be added to the ‘to de-select’ list. Unbelievably sad.”

In truth Ms Pidcock’s view isn’t that rare nor is it isolated to just the opposition benches, I would certainly be the first to admit to having heard similar views amongst Conservative activists, albeit far less often.

But ultimately, whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, it is a tremendously flawed position to take.

It is often said that in polite company one should never talk about religion or politics and certainly one should never talk about politics whilst in church but I absolutely guarantee you that when you sit at mass on Saturday night or Sunday morning you will be surrounded by fellow Catholics of all political persuasions.

They won’t be bad people, although one or two may have failed to fast for an hour before mass, indeed on the whole Catholics are remarkably decent and amongst them there will be greens and tories and socialists and liberals; and they will be your friends.

There is a word which means intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself; it is called bigotry and, sadly Ms Pidcock’s comments reflect just that.

Many commentators would argue that our world is becoming increasingly divided and doubtless it is that intolerance of different views that is playing a significant part.

It’s true that we do tend to gravitate to others with similar experiences and interests to ourselves but most of us do not discount the possibility of friendships outside of those groups.

So this week I set a challenge not just to Laura Pidcock but to all of us. Try and speak on a human level to someone outside of your comfort zone; it might turn out that you like them; they may even become a friend.

Doesn’t crossing those artificial divides make the world a slightly better place?

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