It has become a widely accepted position that Britain is more divided on any number of issues than it has been in the past. That we live in an era of particularly stark disagreement on Brexit, whether we should have a Government of the left or the right and on environmental issues. The future of the countryside and the role of farming in it has been the subject of plenty of discussion in the New Year thanks to vegan campaigners and activists like George Monbiot who has declared that farming must end altogether to secure the future of the planet.
However, there is also undoubtedly a case to be made that it is the way we argue and the means of political debate in our ultra-connected technological world that promotes the perception of division, as well as division itself. I do not believe that people were less committed and passionate about their side of our great historical political debates than we currently are about the issues that divide us. The difference is that the extreme ends of those debates were restricted to the street corner and the public bar, whereas now every man and woman has the opportunity to broadcast their views to the world on social media and campaign online.
This has a number of effects, the most relevant of which to this discussion is the phenomenon of the social media echo chamber. Because it is those at the extremes who are most vocal, and commentators and campaigners react to those who follow and comment, there is a relentless pressure on those commentators and campaigners to become ever more extreme to gratify their audience. Apart from the obvious concerns about driving debate to extremes, this effect also entrenches division as the language and attitudes it generates make collaboration and compromise increasingly difficult.
In very simple terms telling livestock farmers that livestock farming must end is not going to generate engagement and telling gamekeepers that shooting should be banned is not the way to start a dialogue. Extreme environmentalists and militant vegans are therefore not involved in a debate, they close debate down. It is up to the rest of us, the clear majority, to find a sensible way forward for the countryside whilst the extremists play to their fans.