New Politics MonitorA Policy Exchange Project
About New Politics Monitor
The last four years have witnessed the transformation of British politics – in ways still barely understood. The outcome of the Brexit referendum, followed by the 2017 general election, revealed the fundamental parameters of British public life to be in flux. It is no exaggeration to say that the traditional parties are each facing an existential crisis. The Labour Party has effectively been colonized by Corbynism, which stands outside the historic mainstream of left-wing politics in this country. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have appeared divided and bereft of a unifying sense of purpose. Politics are devoid of any sense of the familiar.
One symptom of these turbulent times has been the drift towards ever more abrasive and obnoxious forms of political discourse. This phenomenon is a function of the broader collapse of respect for ‘traditional’ politicians (and members of various social ‘establishments’) and the extinction of ‘deference’ as a social good. It has been exacerbated by a succession of political issues and episodes that cut across traditional party lines, which raised fundamental questions about what it meant to be ‘Labour’, or ‘Conservative’. The resulting discourse has often been internecine in character, directed vehemently against ‘traitors’ from within one’s own political ‘tribe’ – as much as it has been directed outwards. Everywhere you look, new ideological trenches have appeared. Political opponents are no longer seen as rivals to be argued with and/or persuaded; rather, they are deemed to be enemies, to be vanquished and eliminated.
The rise of Momentum and Corbynism has served to turbo-charge this shift. To many within that movement politics are an exercise in morality. Even as they vote for what is largely (in material terms) in their own self-interest (expanded higher education, enhanced state spending and the protection of public sector vested interests), they frame their actions by appeal to virtue. Opponents – whether Conservative, or on the ‘right’ and ‘centre’ of the Labour Party – are held to be morally degenerate and/or unprincipled. They are judged worthy only of contempt and, at worst, dehumanized – all of which drives the coarsening of British political life.
Political debate is impoverished by such narrow-minded partisanship. And even more worrying is the damage that is done to civic, democratic norms. It is for this reason, that last year we launched a new Civility Hub to analyse the coarsening of British political life – and to promote a more civil and open discourse.
Yet it is clear that we are only just beginning to understand the contours of the ‘new politics’ that are reshaping British public life. It is for this reason that politics is developing a new project to monitor and analyse what is going on beneath the surface of contemporary politics.
Of course, we are not the first people to recognize that something has changed. Within both the mainstream media and in the scholarly community, invaluable research has been done to examine key developments across the western world, such as the rise of populism and the new nationalism. Yet much remains to be explored – and across the political spectrum. It is clear today that on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ there are new movements in play; equally, there are other political forces that do not sit comfortably on a conventional left-right axis; and there are alliances and cross-currents that defy easy categorization. We are at present witnessing a “great re-wiring” or political causes and interest groups, turbocharged by the power of social media.
It is against this backdrop that we are launching the new politics monitor as a project that seeks to chart and understand the ongoing transformation of British politics.
This compendium, part of Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project, represents a first attempt at drawing together a range of recent developments, which all turn on the place of history in the public square – including the removal of certain statues on public display, the renaming of buildings and places, and changes to the way history is taught in university curriculums. In cataloguing these examples, we do not offer any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.
Universities should be places of open debate, where ideas can be debated freely. Recent events, however, have revealed a chilling effect, with high profile campaigns to sack academics and fewer than four out of ten Leave-supporting students feeling able to share their views in class. Our polling reveals that a solid core of 30% of students are consistently in favour of free speech: this report presents policy recommendations for universities, for government and for civil society to ensure academic freedom can thrive in our universities.
At a cross-party event in Parliament, Policy Exchange launched a new report, The Age of Incivility: Understanding the New Politics, and a new Civility Hub aimed at analysing the worst examples of abuse which coarsen our public discourse. Former EHRC Chairman Trevor Phillips, who co-authored the report, chaired a debate with Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, FT journalist Sebastian Payne and Labour activist Emily Benn.