I have watched John McDonnell’s interview on Newsnight and the question of being friends with a member of the Conservative Party. Now it’s important to point out this exists across politics and not just here. Surveys in the United States have shown some people who are Republicans wouldn’t marry a Democrat and vice versa.
In the age of politics becoming more polarised between differing factions it’s disheartening to see such tribalism. Why, I hear you ask? Because in the same breath we hear about the need to “bring us together” which is a complete contradiction if you basically never speak to or have any intention of meaningfully engaging with people who sit outside your political party.
Friendship is a bit like a retweet, it doesn’t mean an endorsement of somebody’s views.
A good friend (to me anyway) is someone who backs you up but also stands up to you, telling you when you’re wrong.
I am fortunate to have friends across the piece, some of whom are socialists, unionists and share futurists who regularly challenge me about my assertions and beliefs. They highlight my bad habits politically and help me improve in a way that nobody who simply repeated my beliefs could. It’s like we cannot separate the politics form the personal.
This is not the way it always was by the way.
In the 1980s, when there were huge divisions of the Miners Strike, economic policy, Europe and social policy, rivals from opposing sides were able to recognise the best in one another. This notion of an honourable person who you disagree with.
Tony Benn, who was at the vanguard of opposing Thatcherism during the 1980s, always actually had a lot of personal regard for her. For him, politicians were divided into two categories “signposts” and the “Weathercocks.” A sign post charted a course and stuck to it, the weathercock simply went with the wind. He always respected a signpost, no matter whether they were a Conservative, Liberal or Labour.
You could say a lot about Benn and his views, but he wasn’t an intellectual lightweight, he wasn’t afraid to expose himself to others and answer criticism.
When Thatcher died in 2013 he wrote this about her legacy;
Although I thought she was wrong, she said what she meant and meant what she said. It was not about style with her; it was substance – I don’t think she listened to spin doctors, she just had a clear idea and followed it through.
I remember her at the funeral of MP Eric Heffer. I was asked to make a speech and as I was waiting, there was someone behind me coughing. It was Mrs Thatcher, and at the end I thanked her for coming and she burst into tears. She had come out of respect for someone whose opinions she disagreed with.”
I could say a lot about the politics of many of people who I am friendly with and they could say something about my views too. But can we please get back to this era of honourable people who you disagree with?
There are limits to this, I get it. Some people who are political can be over the top & it’s hard to do this. This is not the case for everybody
But from my experience these people are a minority. Just because you are friendly with somebody doesn’t mean an endorsement, it can mean you like to debate, you like to hear contrarian point of view or you just get bored easily of hearing endless agreement.
When you hear a voice of dissent, it will always make you think and then maybe realise that perhaps the view you hold isn’t necessarily the best one.
Variety is the spice of life they say, so I am just asking that we don’t check party membership cards before you sit down at the bar with somebody.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs