Forming a political opinion

I have been mulling over the events that lead to me write yesterday’s post. On hearing that Margaret Thatcher had died, a number of friends have been making known their views on her tenure as Prime Minister; the media and blogosphere are overflowing with comments posted on her life and legacy. I have been surprised that so many feel so strongly about someone who last wielded any sort of power over twenty years ago. The friend who I was referring to yesterday wrote an interesting piece setting out why he feels such animosity towards her, and I will continue to consider all of the views expressed. For today I am still deliberating over why we see things so differently; on what causes us to form our disparate opinions.

My friend and I were both born and raised in Belfast during what is known as The Troubles. Both of us come from families with a strong, working class background; debt averse, hard working and family oriented. We were educated at single sex grammar schools having attained our places by passing a selective test, and were amongst the first generation of our families to attend university. From there our paths diverge.

My friend spent many years in academia before moving on to a career in the arts and media. To my knowledge, he has spent all of his life living in cities and now divides his time between properties he owns in the capitals of England and Germany. He has around ten times as many friends on Facebook as I do; an apparently eclectic mix from a wide variety of backgrounds.

I left university when I acquired my primary degree and spent ten years working in technology for the financial services industry. I left this to raise my children and, at the same time, my husband and I set up our own company which we still run. Since leaving Belfast I have lived in the gloriously peaceful and beautiful county of Wiltshire; for over twenty years now I have lived in the same quiet, rural village. With just a few exceptions,  my small group of friends are living a life similar to my own.

Margaret Thatcher first came to power while my friend and I were both still living in Belfast. At that time I had few political views, and those I had related to the problems in Ireland rather than England or further afield. We did not have the opportunity to vote for candidates representing the main, British political parties; those representing us in parliament gave their allegiance to the small parties of Northern Ireland. Life in Belfast was, I believe, much more insular than would be the case now.

I remember the strikes of the nineteen seventies, the three day week and the pictures on television of the clashes between police and the miners. It was a turbulent time but, coming from Belfast, I was also used to seeing pictures of the aftermath of the bombings and shootings that were still regular occurrences and were happening just a few miles from my own front door. I did not start to form opinions on the politics of mainland Britain until I moved to England during Margaret Thatcher’s third and final term as Prime Minister. My friend went up to an English university so may have been starting to form his opinions a little earlier.

Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was Prime Minister during my early years in England. After him came Tony Blair. Whereas my friend would blame Margaret Thatcher for destroying much of the social fabric of working class England, I would blame Tony Blair for introducing sound bite, shallow politics. He wasn’t the first leader to lie and deceive but I saw his politics as hugely destructive to trust and democracy in this country, and despise the man. By the time he left office I was developing my own political ideas.

I wonder why the views that I have formed are so at odds with the strongly held views that my friend holds. Given that we had such similar upbringings I can only conclude that it is the experiences and influences that we have encountered since leaving our parental homes that have shaped us. His metropolitan, arty, media influenced lifestyle coupled with his exposure to others who have chosen urban living will have been very different to my much quieter lifestyle amongst  private sector professionals and those raising young families in a rural idyll. Can these differing influences have affected our thinking so radically?

I would hazard a guess that we both like to think that we have considered the arguments and formed our opinions independently, but I wonder how true this is. I am fascinated by his view that there is no longer a a mainstream party with ideologies to the Left (socialist) in British politics as I have friends from the other side of the political spectrum who would claim that there is no longer a mainstream party with ideologies to the Right (capitalist). I will not get into a debate about these views here, although both polarised opinions can be well argued with carefully selected premises and hand picked facts. Personally I do not see the terms as particularly useful and am more depressed by the fact that none of the current crop of politician seems to offer what anyone really wants or to be different enough from each other to even offer a choice.

So, what is it that has influenced our political opinions? From reading the various blogs that argue each case and talking to those who feel passionately enough about their cause to have properly researched their recent history, I can only conclude that political views bear a remarkable similarity to religious conviction. Those who truly believe one way or the other are not going to be swayed by mere argument; they will always find a way to discount opposing views and be able to hold up a slew of carefully selected, salient facts to support their convictions and do down the opposition.

My friend has faith in his ideals; I do not. My political leanings are not aligned to one party or policy and I can and am still be swayed by new knowledge; my voting preferences are rarely decided too far in advance. I do not believe that I have been duped or that my views are extreme; neither do I consider that I am in full possession of the facts nor truly understand the potential consequences of some of the policies that I may be inclined to support. This is why I continue to try to partake in political discussions.

The exchange with my friend knocked my complacency but I now see this as a good thing. I have much to learn and will be happy to do so from him, but not solely from him; I still wish to understand the alternative view. I can see a dark side to a statist government and resent being compelled to contribute financially to so many national projects of negligible benefit to any other than the already powerful elite; I resent being told how to live my life, even if this is supposedly for my own good. Corruption and waste are rife in the public sector; whether the private sector can offer anything better is debatable so I have no easy answers. This will not stop me continuing to ask questions.

In politics, as in religion, we can agree to differ and move on. However little I may agree with my friend’s way of thinking, I absolutely respect his right to hold whatever views he chooses, so long as he does not try to force them on anyone else.

World cup England

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