‘Every year the UK is looking to improve, but we can only do that if we work together.’1
On Tuesday 3rd January we launched a debate on whether the UK will become more united in 2017. As the start of the year tends to be an optimistic time, with ambitious resolutions still on track and renewed energy from the Christmas holidays, I expected our students have a positive outlook. I assumed that young people might believe 2017 had the potential to be a year of integration and restoration. Maybe had a naïve bias based on some mix of patriotism and the belief that Britain was a compassionate and tolerant country.
The results were decisive. 79% of our students voted to say that the UK will in fact become more divided this year. I was shocked, believing that young people tended to be more optimistic and might see the chance to create positive change in the future. However, with Indyref2 announced this week, their gloomy forecast might be spot on. The UK will become formally more divided if its constituent nations decide to split off from one another. First Brexit, now Scexit, between now and 2020 my nationality might have changed from British to English to Yorkshire-ish, with Leeds as my capital city and the Yorkshire pudding my national dish.
It is not controversial to suggest that referendums can be divisive. Hate crime leaped up 41% in the month following Brexit2. The pound has depreciated in value by over 15% since the result3. Tabloid headlines have been published that fuel anger and opposition rather than calm debate. Politicians even moved towards sharper, negative messages that left us to choose between what looked like economic destruction or unsustainable immigration troubles.
However, if my work at VotesforSchools has taught me anything, it is that political debate does not have to divide us. In fact, it should be the basis for the exact opposite result – a discussion whereby we can learn to understand each other better and form a closer-knit community. We have had feedback from students saying that they never understood the opposite side of the debate until their lesson on it, that they are thinking about things in a new way and that they have changed their minds on different ideas.
All this comes from a positive and open approach and stems from a single, clear idea that we encourage at VotesforSchools: that you should not assume the reason that someone has a different position to you is because they are ignorant and therefore wrong. We all come from different backgrounds and have had a set of unique experiences which have shaped our political perspectives. We are all human and hold our political positions because we think they are best for our society and our world.
So in every VotesforSchools debate we give the two sides to each argument the attention and respect they deserve. In doing so we encourage students to try and understand one another than simply argue against. We try to encourage them to learn more about different opinions to their own and discuss these in a calm and considerate way. Through this, we have seen students learn far more about politics, about their own opinions and about the ideas of others during our programme.
The opening quote is not from a recent parliamentary speech nor a broadsheet headline, but rather from a secondary student at one of our schools. It is not an implicit argument for Scotland to stay in the UK. It is, rather, the idea that debates and referendums should be an opportunity for us to work together. It sounds counter-intuitive that two sides with different arguments should work with each other, however it is necessary in order to have a political debate which does not split our society like Brexit has done.
So let us open up to indyref2 and see it as an opportunity to hold a referendum which brings out the best in people rather than the worst. Let us encourage the debate and be eager to understand what those around us think on the topic and why. Knock on your neighbour’s door, talk to the lady with the placard in the street, ask your friends and family – not with the intention of convincing them that you hold the correct position, but instead to understand them and grow closer together, whatever the outcome.
- VotesforSchools Database
- The Guardian article, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/13/hate-crimes-eu-referendum-home-office-figures-confirm
- Quora financial analysis, 2016, https://www.quora.com/How-much-did-the-British-Pound-devalue-since-Brexit