Fear, Hope and our New Politics

Philosopher, Tony Milligan, on the connection between emotion and politics post-referendum
Fear, Hope and our New Politics
July 10, 2016   |    Tony Milligan

Politics has a dynamic that can lead people to unexpected places. The UK, for example, has always prided itself on moderation, on its ability to resist dangerous political extremes. Yet this moderation and (borrowing from the Scandinavian TV show, Borgen) sense of ‘decency in the middle’ no longer seems quite so invulnerable as it did prior to the Brexit vote.

Anecdotal reports and video footage shows that ordinary citizens now feel free to abuse strangers in the street. And none of us has a convincing explanation of how this has come about, and so quickly, too.

This begs the question of whether a referendum, in essence a decision by crowd acclamation, gives the public the false perception they can voice their opinion at any cost. The great fear that many people in cities like London, and in Scotland, have is that a legitimate anger, across the most deprived parts of England, is being channelled in ways that are dangerous and intolerant; that drift us towards xenophobia.


It would be wrong to say that politics ought always to be dispassionate, and lacking in the kind of motivational force that only emotion, and a felt sense of what is right and wrong, can give. Even anger has its place.

It is noteworthy that Gandhi, who did so much to stress the importance of a peaceful politics, did not argue that anger should simply be extinguished, but that it must be channelled and transformed into something more constructive. Ideally, it was to be transformed into a politicised form of love for opponents. And while we may wonder about how practical this may be, the image of channelling anger is strikingly relevant.

If, for example, a general election were to be held tomorrow, it is conceivable that a coalition government, including UKIP ministers, might emerge. Not exactly a ‘tanks upon the lawn’ situation, an almost-but-not-quite bloodless coup by the political right. But it is a far cry from ‘decency in the middle’.

Yet, paradoxically, fear and hope always go together in politics. Times of fear are also days of hope, of aspiration for social change and for a better future. Today, there are many places where the populist wave has been breaking to the left rather than the right. Across Europe new political forces for social change such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have challenged the inertia of older social democratic parties. And the fact that a social democrat like Bernie Sanders would come within a hair’s-width of securing the Democratic Party nomination for US President was unthinkable only a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, under-performing Labour has been replaced by a left-of-centre party whose commitment to a cooperative European ideal is now well beyond question.

Admittedly, hopeful events elsewhere are not much consolation in the face of a dangerously rightward drift of English politics, away from the more moderately right-of-centre local norm. Hope of this sort seems small, or at least far away. There are things, in our present predicament that are worth being afraid of.

And to say this is to accept, again, that emotions have their place in political life. Fear is not always bad. But if there is only fear and no sense of social hope, that is perhaps the most dangerous circumstance of all. The Referendum campaign was fought precisely along these lines on both sides, especially by the Leave camp, whose case revolved around instilling fear about immigrants, refugees, and Europeans, who were somehow to blame for Britain’s waning greatness.

What both sides of the campaign lacked was any viable way to combine hope and fear. Hope seemed to drop out of the picture. Neither felt confident about what was to come. Instead, the Remain camp learned the wrong lessons from the Scottish referendum, a belief in the invincibility of scaring the electorate. Team Leave, on the other hand, lacked any long-term plan or rationale. A different but related kind of hope may be drawn from an understanding that, for all its faults, the referendum was not an interruption in the regular order of political affairs. The political norm across the West is increasingly hybrid. Forms of direct democracy (of which the set-piece referendum is only one example and not, I would argue, the best) are becoming an indispensable feature of political life, alongside more traditional systems of parliamentary representation. Democracy is starting to look very different and less remote from daily life.


But is this something we should actually feel hopeful about? When it comes to direct democracy, we are dangerously inexperienced. We imagine that referenda cannot or should not be constrained in any way by super-majorities, geographical minimums or cooling-off periods. We imagine that their significance cannot or should not be re-evaluated and revisited in the light of subsequent events. In short, we have no idea of how best to combine direct and representative political decision-making and, so, we confuse the norms for one with those for the other. As a result, we treat referenda as if they were general elections with a fixed result, beyond reasonable challenge.

But the case still stands that Parliament holds the ultimate responsibility on whether or not to pass Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So, the question remains: aren’t MPs meant to be tasked with conducting enquiries, debating and deciding matters for their constituents, rather than relying on the heightened, misinformed sentiments of the public taken in a snapshot of time? And if that is not their job, then what are they elected for?

Perhaps fear about our shared inexperience when it comes to direct democracy, as opposed to fear induced through contrived projects of intimidation, may turn out to be a pre-condition for social hope, and a sense of our ability to sort out whatever mess we get ourselves into.

What is apparent is that during times of uncertainty, pressing pause, educating oneself fully on the facts and continuing to re-evaluate our primitive emotional responses is not only sensible, but wise.

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