In the wake of what has been an intense and strange six months of politics on both sides of the pond, many prominent journalists and politicians are among those asking “how did this happen?”
Britain’s decision to leave the EU and America’s decision to elect Donald Trump are results that were utterly inconceivable to the left, and as such, has left many people floundering, asking how we got here.
It is undeniable that student debate in the UK is dominated by left wing perspectives, and our campus is a prime example. The cause of this is unclear: is it that universities like ours are “breeding grounds” for such political opinion, or is this simply symptomatic of the “type” of person who attends such an establishment? Much more likely, however, is that those holding opposing views simply stay silent. The notion that our universities have become echo chambers of the “standard” left wing view is a dangerous one; as the US election, Brexit, and the 2015 General Election result illustrate, the left-wing view is not “standard” at all.
It’s easy to see how the left have become accustomed to the idea that the whole world shares our views. Essentially, we spend a lot of time talking to ourselves: it is comforting during times of uncertainty to surround yourself with people who think the same way you do. But there is also the worry that what we are doing is actually shouting our opinions at people who already agree. We enjoy the reassurance of having our views corroborated and validated – but too often, this comes at the expense of failing to engage with other ideas.
Universities themselves can be afforded some of the blame here. Whilst I do not want to be mistaken for dismissing intellectualism, or undermining the importance of expert opinion, it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that academia exists in a bubble. Glasgow University, despite a drive towards diversity, is still an intensely middle class environment. Something I have felt for a long time is that there is huge disparity between voters and students in how they approach an election; for many middle-class students, much of the debate is more theoretical than anything else. Conversations on politics are often characterised by electoral analysis and policy comparison. For working class communities, such as my home town, it’s more personal. It’s about people’s lives – and talking about the realities of working class life can never be equivalent to experiencing them.
The utter disbelief from the left in regard to Brexit, Trump and the General Election is tied to utter disconnect – the bubble of university campus life has no idea what is actually going on outside of itself. 58.6% of my home town voted to leave the EU. Once a thriving hub of shipbuilding and steelworks, it is now a ghost of its former self, left behind and neglected. Health care and hospitals are insufficient. Poverty rates are high. Employment opportunities are limited. And people are angry. We foster this disconnect even within our campus by shaming people into silence instead of striving to challenge ideas that we so strongly disagree with. The trend of “no-platforming” offensive ideas instead of challenging them, or with one click, blocking someone whose views we find repugnant, is partly to blame – though blocking is necessary in instances of abusive speech, in other cases this merely limits your chance to debate, and potentially change someone’s mind.
Debate on campuses, and in the wider media, is often hugely polarised, with binary sides that can almost be defined simply by their opposition to each other. Too often, the view is that you take the left wing line or you’re a bad person, with no space for, or even acknowledgement of, what lies in between. But people do lie in between; people who are not part of the university bubble, people who cannot see themselves reflected in the political class, people who think “they’re all the same anyway”, people who are exhausted by campaigns that seem like they’ll never end, people who have been voting for forty years and have never seen an ounce of change. When there is only the space for extremes, yet again, it is about preaching to the converted, talking to “your own”, and ironically pushing those who lie in the middle further and further to the right.
Both the Leave campaign and the Trump campaign were based on unapologetic racism. All too often, the left challenged this by shouting to each other, buoyed by collective condemnation of such rhetoric, whilst failing to look beyond their own walls. Of course it is indisputable that the left must continue to challenge racism, sexism and homophobia at every turn – but now it must do so in a way that reaches those beyond its own crowd. We have, as the past six months have proven, become almost entirely oblivious to what is really going on.
There’s something of an arrogance in the middle class left asking “how this can have happened” when too often, their focus is on their own experiences alone. Indeed, across our own campus, we must address this entrenched habit in which people fail to look beyond their own experience of race, class or gender in debate – or worse, attempt to interpret somebody else’s for them, and project what they think they ought to feel, or know. Jeremy Corbyn described Trump’s win as a wake-up call – and he is right. It is time to take the blinkers off.