Cardiff Bay. Source: Richard Szwejkowski (via Flickr)
Culture and Identity

A Marketplace for Ideas

I fear we are losing the ability to disagree well. Furthermore, that we are losing the confidence in our ability to absorb, comprehend, and where appropriate counter ideas that are not those to which we would usually associate, writes Nicolas Webb.

This is not entirely our own fault, our social setting has become polarised and while some of this falls at our feet for the way we engage in political and cultural discourse we are all slaves to the algorithm. This makes it all the more important that we proactively fight back against the tempting comfort of the echo chamber.

One recent case study illustrates the problem of a narrow perspective. Cardiff University Conservative Society secured Anne Widdecombe as a guest speaker. To most, Widdecombe was a former Minister, a former Shadow Home Secretary and most recently one of Britain’s last MEPs, that is to say nothing of her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing. But to those who sought to ‘cancel’ Widdecombe, she was viewed as no more than her opinions in regard to homosexuality. To them nothing else mattered and it was a disgrace that she had been invited to speak to the society. When challenged on their intolerance to free speech, some chose to delight in being ‘intolerant of intolerance’ but that statement demonstrates once again that because of one issue with which they disagree, they discredit the scope of the individual to have any other merits.

This is a peculiar phenomenon. One of the most interesting theories I have heard links it to the relative decline of faith. Without the presence of a perfect being above us, it can become all too easy to presume that we ourselves can become the moral arbiters of what is good and right, often holding others to standards that we cannot live up to. Social media presents us with a platform from which to pontificate. The truth is we are all a mix of good intentions and short-comings both capable of good and bad behaviour. We should be self-aware of our own flaws before we rush to judge the purity of opinion of others.

The next step beyond that realisation, is to appreciate that we have something to learn from people with which we disagree. I am not suggesting that a Conservative attending a Labour rally is going to learn a great deal or vice versa, but when one moves beyond the partisan and the tribal there is much to be gained. Party politics dumbs down the debate. It is the narrative of repetition of focus-group tested soundbites and attacks on the opposition for the sake of it. However, politics does not lack for people who are intelligent and have a perspective to offer which extends well beyond the colour of their rosette.

I am sceptical of the relevance of the old right/left political spectrum to modern society; but when using it, I would identify as centre-right. Yet, I have attended talks by people from across the mainstream spectrum. I have often disagreed with more than I nod along to, but on every single occasion I have left with a renewed inquisitiveness about their ideas, a better understanding of other perspectives and my own thinking stimulated.

No-one has a monopoly on good ideas, but bad ideas are far more likely to come to the fore if they are not debated robustly. The development of good policy requires multiple perspectives. To this end, I think the Welsh Conservative proposal for an Office of Government Resilience and Efficiency (OGRE) is very interesting. The way to tackle groupthink is to challenge constructively and engage respectfully with those who may disagree. I think it would be interesting to see if the Red Cell model used by the Central Intelligence Agency could have value in shaping how government operates.

Unfortunately, I do not think the last few years at Westminster have been the best for promoting a diversity of thought and opinion. On the Labour benches we saw moderates leave, often feeling they had been pushed out, to be replaced by Corbyn loyalists. For the Conservatives the shift was initially gradual, but them culminated in 21 MPs having the whip withdrawn to a deafening silence from their cowed party colleagues. Both parties were intellectually damaged by these incidents. Furthermore, I think both lost some of their inquisitiveness to debate policy and ideas preferring instead to simply double-down on core issues.

In 2019, the context was Brexit and the bombastic was in fashion. In 2020, Covid-19 is the issue and competence is what voters are looking for. The style of zero-sum populist debate we saw in “Get Brexit Done” versus #FBPE, is not going to cut it in providing solutions to tackle a health emergency, rebuild the economy and restore public finances to a sustainable level. There is no playbook for how to deal with Covid-19, the politicians are learning as they go. What we do know is that there is once again a need for serious policymaking and detailed thought. The thrashing tail might be long, but the populist tribalism of 2016-2019 is fading in relevance. There is an electoral advantage for the parties which respond accordingly.

This brings me to another perspective on the need to be open to ideas. The pre-Covid populism did offer a depressing electoral capital in lumping together supposed vested interests as opponents. Much like the description of cancel culture above, group unity was often defined more by what one was against than by what one stood for. Adopting a position of victimhood was electorally valuable to rally the core vote. I do think there have been instances recently in which the public affairs sector has been used as a punchbag of electoral convenience. Attacked as a virtual extension of Welsh Government.

It is inevitable that after such a long period of one party in power that connections would exist. However, there is scant evidence that this influences how public affairs professionals engage with any political party. In the serious political era of Covid-19, we need a vibrant public affairs sector to be a marketplace of ideas. To achieve this requires open minds on all sides. Just as those who sought to define Anne Widdecombe by one aspect of her views were wilfully choosing to miss out on hearing about her vast experience. So too do those who make sweeping assertions as to the allegiance of an entire sector miss out on the expertise it can bring.

It will be to the benefit of all of us if we make an additional effort to consider different perspectives rather than writing off whole sectors; if we take the time to understand perspectives other than our own; and if we champion diversity of opinion. Of course, it is not just about listening to others. We will all have the policies we feel strongly about. We should not seek to delegitimise those who hold opposite views. In this instance, our aspiration should be to cancel no-one but to outdebate everyone. Ideas will collide, people will debate with passion, we will respect each other for doing so, the best ideas will rise to the top and Wales will be better for it.

Nicolas Webb is a policy and public affairs officer, a Public Affairs Cymru committee member and a former Conservative candidate.