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From the moment David Cameron made his pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union back in January 2013, Britain has experienced some of the most destabilising political and social divisions in its modern history. Over the subsequent seven years there have also been three divisive general elections. The sense of national disunity has been exacerbated further by some parts of the UK threatening to break away. Such divisions have been widened to a more extreme degree by an excitable and often toxic social media environment, which has resulted in many politicians being harassed, which at times has spilled over into aggressive face-to-face abuse.

Within this turbulent and divisive context, how can the country be brought back together? How can we reunite with a sense of coherent and sustainable national unity?

Bringing the UK back together

Initiatives such as the ‘Crossing Divides’ season run by the BBC has made some initial attempts to address this social fragmentation, notably so in the immediate aftermath of Britain formally departing form the EU earlier this year.

This timely social experiment has brought together a range of people from differing socio-economic backgrounds and varying political views in order to discuss their opposing outlooks and opinions. Conversations take place within both group and one-to-one environments and cover a range of divisive contemporary divisive issues including Brexit.

Class-based divisions were one of the key elements that became evident during the Brexit debate, and the varied social mix of participants reflects this. Polling evidence since the 2016 referendum has indicated that those of more Eurosceptic views also likely to hold tougher views on immigration, and often disproportionately come from poorer social income groups. This enabled the Conservatives to gain a number of so-called Labour ‘Red Wall’ seats at the 2019 general election, by chipping into this working-class mood of  Euroscepticism. By contrast, many of the more educated middle classes were more likely to have voted remain due to more liberal views on issues such as immigration, amidst fears of rising xenophobia and race hate.

While many such people involved in this process will maintain strongly divergent attitudes and beliefs which they feel very passionately about, this social experiment is conducted in a deliberately more friendly context than is often the case in politics or online. 

Deep listening

On this premise, participants are encouraged to try to control manage their personal views by intently listening to someone else, absorbing what they say and repeating it back to prove they’ve listened. They are also encouraged to temper and regulate their responses when they disagree. This is all part of the process of ‘deep listening’, which is summarised as being able to ‘understand a different perspective and to be heard’.

By encouraging such a listening process to be utilised more widely, especially during an era where people seem to be more intolerant of opposing viewpoints, it is hoped that greater mutual respect will develop, leading to a less tense atmosphere in political debate in post-Brexit Britain. No-one is expected to abandon their long-held views or opinions, but they are perhaps encouraged to moderate them slightly and at the very least, more willingly empathise where the other person’s viewpoint is coming from, and particularly try to understand how it was formulated and socialized. On this basis, such a process can be linked to the ‘nudge’ theory of behavioural insights, which seeks to change people’s instinctive attitudes and actions.

Healing divides

If such practices can subsequently be encouraged to spread more widely, then it could make a contribution to restoring Britain’s liberal and tolerant political traditions, which have evidently been placed under tremendous strain by the polarising Brexit saga. As an active participant in the programme, I concluded that it was certainly a positive and constructive way to address the various tensions bubbling away within British society over recent years, but its effectiveness and impact will only be measured over a much longer period of time.

On this basis, such methods to bridge and address the Brexit divides can be viewed as part of the broader process of national healing. Ideally, they should be practiced by more groups of people going forward. This could then ultimately lead to an improvement in the tone and quality of the UK’s political debate, and the gradual rehabilitation of a more stable civil society.

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