Life, it seems, has changed considerably since the referendum on leaving Europe. Enter into a conversation on the subject and passions soon start to get the better of people on both sides of the argument. Families are divided, friends start to see each other in a different light, and politics have become more fractious as the months go by.
Some of this is redolent of the US, where for decades the public have been much more “politicised” than their British counterparts. I once went to a supper for ten good friends in the States at a time when a relatively unknown Mr Obama was showing considerable promise in the election campaign. About half way through the evening, someone said something that clearly indicated that they were a democrat, upon which the person beside me stood up, called to his wife, and said that they were leaving and would prefer never again to speak to the “democrat”. They had known each other for well over twenty years and, up to that point, had been very close friends.
That incident shocked me – and after spending some five years in the States I would describe it to friends back here as an example of the sort of things that made one feel pleased to be back home; we Brits would never let politics get in the way to that extent. And yet – it seems we are some way down the road to becoming exactly the same sort of society as America where views are increasingly polarised and expressions of extreme support or opposition to almost anything you care to imagine are replacing quiet and informative discussion.
In a letter sent to a newspaper sometime last year, someone wrote about the “Politics of Anger” which now seems to be so fashionable and which makes debate so difficult because:
“the political sphere has become so personal. Too often in today’s climate emotions have taken over from reason. Victim communities are “weaponised”, their plight hurled at political enemies accused of a failure to care enough. …..”
Other commentators note that the intensely “personal” nature of politics reduces everything to a binary argument: “I am absolutely right therefore you must be absolutely wrong. And you are either with us or not; if you are not, then you are my enemy and I am justified in using almost any language or trick in the book to put you down”.
This sort of approach often emerges in relation to issues that are far too complex for any single person to comprehend properly – such as the pros and cons of leaving Europe. Another example a bit closer to home might be that of major acquisitions such as the new Carriers.
Of all the recent procurement projects, it seems to have attracted the most attention and divided opinions most of all. Apart from the huge costs involved (less than Trident though), perhaps the most contentious issue is the question of what possible use they can be to the UK. Ordered at a time when the RN planned to have some 30 surface vessels in its fleet, they now seem a gratuitous waste of taxpayers’ money, vast floating targets, as a grateful Mr Putin once commented. They have set service against service like no other equipment budget, and even within the Naval Establishment they are being seen as the reason behind cuts to the Royal Marines, amongst others.
How did we ever get to this state? Where was the sense of British compromise when the decision about a future carrier force was being considered? There were some in the early committee stage who tried to get the Navy to consider reconditioned US ships, and re-instate the Harrier fleet. But a desire to maintain a national capability extended to designing and building our own, huge, ships, perhaps aided in part by the fact that the then PM needed some political kudos in his own backyard.
The ships today are technically marvellous – there can be little question about that, and we can be pleased as a nation that we are able to construct such monuments to engineering. But who actually knows how one of them, let alone two, could ever be effectively used? And so, in the absence of reliable technical and military information, the arguments start to revolve around personal opinions and the temperature rises.
Perhaps there is someone out there with a clear understanding of how these two vessels will fit into the scheme of things. But for now, it seems more of a case (to misquote the Duke of Wellington):
“’I don’t know what effect these (ships) will have upon the enemy, but by God, they frighten me.”
…for all sorts of reasons.