Why the question of identity is at the centre of all our big political debates

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

A few years ago I wrote a column for the News Letter about what I described as ‘uncomfortable conversations’.

I was making the point that progress in post-conflict societies required former opponents – at societal and political level – to be able to talk to each other, as opposed to simply avoiding the sort of conversations which would expose the old fault lines.

We were, I argued, happy enough to voice our ‘real, unfiltered’ opinions when we felt safe; in other words, believed ourselves to be surrounded by ‘our own side’. But when we believed the company we were in was a ‘mixed’ one we went out of our way to avoid local politics.

My conclusion – pessimistic as ever – was that the continuing avoidance of those difficult, uncomfortable conversations would make it very difficult to build a new-era Northern Ireland.

I was reminded of that earlier column when I saw the latest analysis from the British Election Survey, which asked a representative group of 21,672 adults in England, Scotland and Wales who they talked about politics with.

About 5,000 of them said they never discussed politics with anyone; while 80% of the others ‘only ever talked about the subject with someone from the same social class and another 13% did so with only one person from a different social background’.

The findings by race were even starker; 92% of white British people said they only talked about politics with people from the same ethnic group. The effect was slightly less marked among professional people with higher earnings or a university degree, but the overall pattern was similar. Eighty-two per cent of those aged 56 and older only raised political topics with others from the same class and 92% from the same ethnic group. Among those aged 18 to 25, the proportions fell to 74% and 81% respectively.

Oliver Lee from The Challenge, a social inclusion charity, said: “This is further evidence that we live in a segregated society. We know that when we don’t talk to people who come from different walks of life to ourselves, anxiety and prejudice flourish, whereas when we hear one another’s views, for example by talking about current affairs together, we form more trusting, cohesive communities.”

The rest of the UK now seems to be where we were 50 years ago; and for, or so I think, precisely the same reason. We are increasingly divided on constitutional issues and the future of the Union. A sizeable minority of Scottish and Northern Ireland voters want to leave the UK. An equally sizeable minority of English voters are questioning the value of the UK as it now exists; a slim majority of UK voters voted to leave the EU; and there is now an increasingly heated, polarising debate about what it will mean to be British when/if the UK disengages from the EU. And intermixed in all of this is the key question about identity: who we are, who we think we are and who we want to be.

Those of you who’ve been reading these columns for a long time will know I regard the ‘identity’ issue as the most crucial issue when it comes to voting. It eclipses and predominates all others. For long periods it remains dormant, because the political/electoral status quo seems unbreakable.

But the rise of Sinn Fein in NI from around 2003, the rise of the SNP in Scotland since 1997 and the rise of a new form of English nationalism – particularly in the run-up to the EU referendum – has seen ‘identity’ placed at centre stage of political debate in every corner of the UK.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the SNP would be crushed in the first independence referendum in 2014; Remainers would carry the day in 2016; and the constitutional question in NI would be settled for a couple of generations at least once SF and the DUP signed their deal in 2007 and began to govern together.

Well, that analysis – some of which I endorsed – turned out to be a load of old poop.

The Union, indeed the very United Kingdom as we know it, is now the question: and I don’t think that anyone can call the outcome with confidence.

The dynamics and circumstances have changed. This debate is not simply about the UK anymore; it’s about a UK outside the EU. That raises huge challenges for everyone and, again, no one has concrete answers. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Personally, I think the Union and UK will survive. That said, I remain of the view (and I said this a few days after the Brexit vote – which I supported) that the UK will not leave the EU. I don’t quite know the mechanics involved, but I’m pretty sure there’ll be a second referendum and that it will reverse the 2016 result.

One way or another the UK’s constitutional future has to be decided, inside or outside the EU, and I think that the focus will shift to reforming and consolidating a UK inside the EU. Meanwhile – and I said this in 2015/16 as well – both sides need to abandon the pointless rhetoric and set out hard evidence for their respective positions – before the next vote. That will require uncomfortable conversations.