AS it is New Year’s Day, I’d like to offer a useful, and achievable, resolution to all those in public life.
It’s to make 2019 the year in which civility and respect are restored to debate with others, both at home and abroad.
Let’s take the insults and aggression out of politics, and from the parties’ relations with the public, and return to the core British value of treating the views of others with tolerance and politeness, even if we disagree with them.
The need for a return to civility was at the core of both the Queen’s Christmas message to the nation, and the sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Only weeks before, the Archbishop of York had called for the same thing.
These wise voices are surely correct. Gradually, the tone of debate in Britain has coarsened and become infected by a viciousness that is not only alienating to the majority of sensible people, but should be a matter of serious concern.
For too many in politics, it is no longer enough to win an argument, or better an opponent in debate. Now they have to be crushed, humiliated or held up to ridicule. If somebody’s credibility can be destroyed into the bargain, so much the better.
This is a poisonous trend that we need to reverse. Whether it is Jeremy Corbyn mouthing “stupid woman” at Theresa May – and however much he denied it, that’s what expert lip-readers concluded he said – or hard-right Tories speaking of European countries as if they were enemies and not neighbours, this nastiness has to stop.
Brexit has, of course, been the catalyst for much of the incivility. Passionately-held views on all sides of the argument were bound to result in forceful debate, but a line has been crossed both within Britain and in our country’s relations with others.
I can’t have been the only one who cringed at the tone of some of what has been said. Friends and trading partners like France and Germany have been spoken of as if they were hostile nations attempting to do Britain down.
It is hardly surprising that the Brexit negotiations have proved so difficult when they have taken place against such a backdrop. Did none of those sounding off loud and long about their enmity towards Europe realise that was never a basis for doing a deal?
Would any of us carrying out a transaction over, say, buying or selling a house or car preface it with expressions of animosity towards those we were hoping to do business with? No, of course we wouldn’t. Nor would any business person approach negotiations in such a manner. To do so would be nonsensical because it would kill any goodwill.
Yet this viciousness has become so ingrained in the tone of debate that such common-sense notions as treating others with respect has been lost. Witness recent exchanges in the Commons over Brexit – and most likely the ones to come later this month.
I never thought I’d see MPs, our lawmakers, those charged with weighing complicated matters and drawing conclusions for the greatest good, with faces contorted by rage, finger-jabbing not just at political opponents but those of their own party.
This should worry us all. In public life, as in personal lives, decisions taken in anger are rarely good ones because it gets in the way of rational thinking.
It’s not just in the Commons where the tone of debate has coarsened. On social media, it has moved into horrifying territory with threats of rape routinely directed at female MPs.
And last year’s upsurge in anti-Semitism within the Labour Party was part of the same trend towards violent language, which is a dangerous path because it starts to normalise extremes of aggression.
There needs to be a cooling-off of tempers in the way debate is conducted, and politicians should lead the way, being unequivocal in their condemnation not only of those who issue threats and seek to foster hatred, but of those who attempt to crush opponents.
Dr John Sentamu was absolutely correct when he pointed out that Britain still needs to have a relationship with the EU based on mutual respect and understanding.
Its countries may no longer be the close partners they have been for more than 40 years, but they should not be thought of as anything other than friends. That means behaving with civility towards them.
Within our own politics, the finger-jabbing and shouting has to stop. Not only is it failing to achieve anything, it undermines worthwhile debate. Voters want to hear proper arguments being made, rationally and sensibly, not insults or abuse.
In this, of all years, when uncertainty looms so large in the coming months, a return to good manners would not only make public life altogether less offensive, but it might also prove productive by fostering proper debate instead of mud-slinging.