Advertisement

  1. ITV Report

Divided Kingdom: Brexit and independence polarise politics

By Peter MacMahon, ITV Border Political Editor

"Division!". It's the cry we hear from the Speaker when MPs in the House of Commons are about to vote.

It's a call we have heard a lot over the last couple of days as debates on the United Kingdom Government's Brexit Bill grind towards an unceremonious end.

It refers to the House of Commons dividing with MPs walking through two different lobbies to cast their votes in what some say is an anachonistic system which - as we saw - takes up an inordinate amount of time.

Yet the word division could well be used in a broader sense, to encapsulate the current state of politics in the UK.

In immediate post-War times there was one major difference that divided politics - between those on the Left and those on the Right - represented by the Labour and Conservatives parties respectively.

As party loyalty has gradually broken we now not only have Left-Right divisions but significant divisions within political parties, and also between nationalism and Unionism.

Having reported on politics for...well...a quite a while now, it appears to me that these divisions have become not only deeper but also more bitter. More visceral.

Yesterday's walk-out from the Commons by SNP MPs is a case in point. They were heckled by Tory MPs as they went but the Nationalists didn't exactly hold back in responding.

SNP MPs were angry - really, really angry - at what they say is the democratic outrage of the Westminster government's Brexit Bill 'power grab'.

Tory MPs on the other hand were angry - and they were really, really angry too - that the SNP has not, in their view, respected the outcome of the independence and Brexit referendums.

There have always been tensions between nationalism and unionism, obviously, but the clashes in the Commons over the last couple of days have, to my eye, escalated to a new level of antipathy.

That was also reflected in a Liberal Democrat initiated debate on the SNP's Growth Commission document yesterday in Holyrood which generated a lot of unionist v nationalist heat but little, if any, light.

But constitutional debate is not the only division in politics. We have seen the UK Conservative Cabinet and Tory MPs openly airing their stark differences over the plans to leave the European Union.

Similarly, the UK Labour party is divided on Brexit and little effort is now made to disguise differences. And then there are the continuing divisions, quieter now though still significant, on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

Meanwhile across the Irish Sea, the Northern Ireland Assembly is not meeting and so the system which forced Unionist and Republican to work together in government is in abeyance.

The result appears to be the heightening of rhetoric on both sides, which, so far at least, has resulted in a failure to agree to return to power sharing. All of which adds up to a depressing picture of politics across the United Kingdom.

Now, there is always a danger of being caught up in the moment and of the memory dimming when it comes to recalling political clashes of the past.

Before the birth of 'New Labour' the party was bitterly divided in the late 1970s and early 1980s over the attempt by the Left to win power. Political fights on occasion even brimmed over into physical fights.

During the debates over the Maastricht agreement the Tory party at Westminster was riven by divisions to the frustration of the then Prime Minister John Major who called some of his rebels "bastards".

And in the past the SNP had its moments too with bitter divisions between 'fundamentalists' and 'gradualists' over whether to back devolution as the path to independence. The gradualists eventually won, by the way.

Yet despite that historic perspective, there seems to me to be a heightened atmosphere of division in UK and Scottish politics.

Perhaps this is the inevitable result of the fact that the issues being debated are so fundamental, so important, and so serious.

If you are a passionate Brexiteer, or a passionate Europhile, a passionate Nationalist or a passionate Unionist, you get carried away by that passion.

Of course, bland politics would be worse than passionate politics but there is a fine line to tread between passion and intolerance.