Division is now a major theme of contemporary British politics. People are divided over Brexit, there are splits within the major parties, and we’ve seen a polarisation of political opinion away from the centre and towards the extremes of the political spectrum.
From Tom Watson in the Labour Party, to the Queen’s Speech at Christmas, the response to this division has been a call for unity. By working together, it is claimed, and trying to overcome bitterness and narrow self-interest, we will be able to achieve solutions to our current problems which are beneficial to all. From this, two questions arise: is this unity possible? If it is, will it achieve the desired effect?
One major movement away from the politics of unity in recent years has been the rise of ‘Corbynism.’ Corbynism is significant in that it has reintroduced the dynamic of class more prominently into mainstream politics. Consider the party slogan; ‘for the many, not the few.’ Here the party is not presenting itself as for everyone, the many and the few. It presents itself as ‘for the many,’ to the exclusion of the few. Corbyn’s politics is not supposed to be in the interests of the super-rich, but precisely against their interests. The underlying implication here is that there can be no political position that represents the interests of all people, and that those who claim to represent one are trying to sell the average person a set of policies that are ultimately not designed for them.
The assumptions behind calls to unity seem to be quite different from those of Corbynism. Calls to unity seem to imply that the divisions that we face in the modern world today exist at the level of belief, as opposed to the level of material interest. We all want what’s best for the party, or the country, or the planet, we just have different opinions of what that is, and so we are engaged in conflict about it.
If this is true, then the solution to division is relatively obvious. We can come together and try to work out the best way collaboratively, if only we would give up our fidelity to our party or our side of the debate. Perhaps this is a plausible reading.
It is also plausible, however, that in regard to some divisions, this view is not accurate. As Corbyn’s economic policy would tell us, it may be that, instead of divisions coming from different perspectives on a common goal, divisions may come from differences in the goals themselves. It could be that people are following their own conflicting interests and that these are producing political divisions.
If this is true, it seems like coming together and trying to work towards a common solution is less likely to work. Any unity here would seem to be a kind of false unity; a unity that at least one party has become part of against their own interests. In cases where groups have mutually exclusive interests, this seems like a genuine ground for conflict, and calls to unify the groups will only obfuscate the underlying tensions.
It seems that there are always grounds to be hesitant when faced with a call to unity, as some conflicts can’t be solved without a winner and a loser.