The idea that the Brexit referendum has split Britain into two opposing camps, leading to an ever more divisive politics, is one frequently repeated. Demos’ new report, The Political Division Index, looks to test this idea of a divided nation in order to find a path to a better public debate after Brexit. We define division as a problem not with disagreement as such, but with the quality of the public debate.
This report maps the quality of the political debate as perceived by British voters on ten current political issues. By analysing where the debate is divisive and toxic, and where it is healthy, this report identifies means to achieving and sustaining a healthier public debate.
We find that:
- Beyond Brexit, British citizens have more in common than we might suspect. Compromise, conversation and empathy – each critical requirements of democracy – are still found among the public. Divisive voices are overrepresented and amplified in the public debate, so the image of a deeply divided Britain represents a particular segment of society, rather than the whole population.
- Immigration and Brexit are very divisive topics and the conversations surrounding them are perceived by the public as toxic. But the polarisation on Brexit has not necessarily lead to as much hostility between Leavers and Remainers as often suggested, nor has it created similarly deep divisions on all other topics.
- Most other topics form the basis of a healthy national public debate, with a surprising amount of consensus. The NHS in particular is a source of consensus, perceived as the most important topic, and leading to a healthy debate, with Climate Change proving similarly consensual.
- The continued focus of Westminster and media on topics such as immigration is likely to deepen divisions and is not in line with the public’s perception of what is important. Instead, a focus on topics like the NHS and climate change have the potential to have high quality debate and lead to compromise – something we should pursue not just for the sake of overcoming divisions, but in order to deliver on priorities shared by the whole country.
These results should primarily serve as a call to action, and give us a reason to hope for progress: we should promote the elements of a healthy debate such as empathy and a push for compromise. Converging opinions and increased empathy among those who disagree requires conversations among citizens which cover the full spectre of motivations and values towards a particular issue. Demos intends to take this work forward by using innovative online deliberation tools, as well as many more conversations, to test these means and create a blueprint for a better public debate. We identify the clear need for more research in this field. We further call upon those who have the power to shape the public debate, not to deepen our divisions, but instead show us what compromise and good quality debate looks like.