Opinion

The polarisation of public debate is getting us nowhere

The battle lines in public discourse have become increasingly hardened and divisive. When did we lose our ability to debate – and to listen to the other side?

Women holding a WASPI banner

Campaigners from Women Against State Pension Injustice, WASPI, march through Glasgow, April 2023. Image: Skully/Alamy Live News

For now, the idea of nuance is dead. That’s a definitive take. So to speak. There is little room for knowledge allowing a sliver of empathy or any sense of seeing it from the other side.  To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, you’re either with us or against us. And now, you may think, well look at him, he’s quoting Thatcher, badly, and so that means he’s clearly some kind of freewheelin’ free marketeer who cares not a jot for the lot of the working man, or the man who has less.  And whether that is the case or not, it suddenly trumps the initial point that was being made, badly, and now we’re at the races and the lines are drawn. The polarisation is not just in subjects that by their nature bring difficulty in public debate; it has spread to those discussions that formerly felt straightforward, if not anodyne.   

The need to keep the triple lock on the state pension is a conversation that needs to be had. The British government spends around £112 billion per year on the pension. In 2010/11 this figure sat at just over £87bn. It’s a chunky number and currently runs to around 6% of GDP. Which may seem a lot until you see that France pays out around 14% of GDP.  

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The figure keeps rising and it brings questions. Should it, actually, rise faster and further? Should the state be prepared to meet the needs of older members of society who have paid a lifetime to support pensions for the generation above them? Isn’t that equitable? Or, do we have to admit that as the tax-paying cohort in society diminishes and the pensionable volume increases, we’re going to hit an uncomfortable reality about money in and money out, a reality that extends beyond pension payments. Is this the time that those who baulk at increased immigration have to admit we need more workers, both to fill gaps and also fill the public purse. And what about WASPI, the women campaigning for fair payments for women born in the 1950s who are kept from pension entitlement? Shouldn’t this be part of the conversation too? 

Last week, when the triple lock issue was raised, the debate quickly became a generational battle. Radio phone-ins descended into a polarised fight between pensioners who were angry that younger people didn’t have to go through what they had been through, and younger people angry that pensioners were taking more when young families were being rinsed for all they had.  

This is not new. The idea of holding hard to one side and trying to ostracise the other is endemic now – we’ve come to expect it in public discourse. If you even question Brexit you’re a whining remoaner. If you’re keen to consider a more green-energy future, you’re nothing but a leftie crybaby who doesn’t understand the reality of the cost of living. It’s why many avoid the trans debate, especially women who get slammed if they enter. It’s easy to dismiss an opposing view rather than trying to engage with it. Clearly this will be a race to the bottom until at some point one side has to hold their hands up. Then it becomes a debate about concessions. There is an easy answer. Listen to the other side. This isn’t some trite aphorism that we should print on a mug (though, feel free). It’s reality and common sense. It’s not easy, but then that’s the point. 

Are you with me? Or against… 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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