Today has been a weird day for me. A day where the onset of two very unconnected things left me asking some questions about why it feels divided in these politically tribal times and if there is anything that actually unites us as a nation. My day of soul searching and research left me feeling rather more positive about our social unity than I had started it with.
I watched, as I normally do, BBC's Daily Politics and amongst all the obvious electioneering, emotive brexit rhetoric and partisan positioning for the upcoming general election there was a beautiful reminder of the simple British truth that we believe in equality. A beautiful thing that it is easy to forget when surrounded by so much politics that is combative and tribal. It was a moment when Owen Jones, someone I disagree with on many issues normally, went up against a bigot hiding behind religious ideology as a way to justify his bigotry.
The second thing that happened as I ate my lunch and gave the dog his necessary lunchtime cuddle, is that the Ellen Show was on celebrating the 20th anniversary of her coming-out episode on her sitcom. The guests and Ellen talked about how far things had moved on in 20 years for the LGBTQ community in the US going from death threats to gay marriage. There were many powerful anecdotes from Oprah and others which left me pondering how far have we actually come as societies?
It reminded me that personal freedoms are engrained in all true democracies across the world. More than anything, I would argue, the protection of those personal freedoms is what shapes democracies and certainly what has shaped ours in the UK from the Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights (devolving sovereign power) to today.
It also reminded me that we have a long way to go. The arguments for reciprocity of the right to have your opinion heard know matter how opposing that may be to our own view is exactly the argument we are having now. Things like the bigot accusing the BBC of bias by not letting him reply to Owen even though he had more time than Owen to state his position. Or the response from some calling the BBC a disgrace or bias when a right or far-right panellist is on BBC Question Time. These are the rights debates in offices and communities all over the country. They are debates around personal freedoms and what free speech means and what limitations should exist and how you best balance forum discussion to allow for a non-partisan production.
They are debates around where personal freedoms end and restriction comes into force.
If we look at the 'Fake News' phenomenon where real fake news or click bait advertising is confused, intentionally or otherwise, with just a virulently opposing view we see another example of those issues. We can also see how something that is a truth or a fact, in this case that there is actually fake news out there, can be manipulated even by political leaders to shut down a differing point of view.
But then I started thinking not about the top layer of the arguments but what lay underneath it all. What was it that got people so heated. I came to a conclusion that all the division in this country actually comes from people who feel their rights or freedoms are being threatened. Whether that be by an extreme political, religious or ideological perspective what we are actually getting worked up about is whether our freedoms to live how we please will be eroded. The fears of Islamism, the arguments to not give the far-right a platform, the right for someone to refuse to bake a cake supporting gay marriage or not have someone stay in your B&B all come from a place of fear of having those personal freedoms, that we treasure, taken away.
These fears of social erosion are not limited to personal protections they are the reason the extremes of society have their particular take on things too. Therein lies the reason that the issue of restriction to freedoms comes into play. We both as a nation need to feel that we are protected from the real ideological extremes by the law and also that the law will step in, while being unashamedly understanding, if we ourselves or others drift unintentionally and without malice into the realms of the unacceptable.
Whatever your political perspective we have reached a point in history where we take to the streets, more often in protest of defending our freedoms as opposed to crying out for them. We challenge to keep rather than to be given.
I have said there is much to be done. The permanent work of politics and society is to work out in an ever changing world how we maintain rights and protections while at the same time extending them whenever possible to be more inclusive and more reliable.
But look at where we have come, look at the growth of our society and look at the value we ALL place on personal freedoms, rights and protections and even though we may think differently politically, those freedoms we all share give us the space and right to continue the debate. To argue our point and to grow as a nation. We have a lot to be proud of and at our core we absolutely have far more that should unite us than divide us if our democracy and core freedoms are taken into account.