Today’s politicians are too political

BBC Newsnight

On Wednesday 22nd May 2019, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Emily Maitlis for BBC Newsnight where he discussed the state of British politics.

Rabbi Sacks: You don't need to compromise to bring unity, but you do need to recognise the integrity of your opponents and include them in your embrace. The classic example of this was Abraham Lincoln. At the heart of the Civil War, he institutes a national celebration of Thanksgiving to remind everyone that we are part of the same country, part of the same team. And in 1865, he delivers his second inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” and speaks about the task of binding up the nation's wounds. What we're going to need, at the end of all this, is someone who will bind up the nation's wounds, and that doesn't mean compromising your positions, but it does mean caring for and about the people you oppose.

Emily Maitlis: Do you think we've lost that sense of being part of the same team?

Rabbi Sacks: Of course, we've become a nation of individualists. We've forgotten that the team is bigger than the players, and the game is bigger than the team. Instead, we have a culture of prima donnas and very loud and angry, extreme voices because they are the things that get picked up in our culture. Now, an individualistic culture eventually results in chaos.

Emily Maitlis: We were brought up to think you have to stand by what you believe, hold out, be the martyr. I wonder if you think there's actually a moral imperative to compromise now?

Rabbi Sacks: There is a moral imperative to be flexible with people who will meet you halfway, that's how we got the Northern Ireland peace solution, that is how any peace solution works. There has to be a willingness on both sides, but that has to be preceded by the cultivation of respect on both sides. Now, that used to be part of British culture. It used to have a name, it was called “dining with the opposition”. I think we've lost that and today anger and noise prevail.

Emily Maitlis: So the British character that we think of as being pragmatic and rule led and moderate, did we get that wrong or has it fundamentally changed?

Rabbi Sacks: It was so good. Britain wore its sort of teamsmanship and its loyalty with a great deal of grace. That's what saved us from a French revolution and a Russian revolution. We understood that we have responsibilities to one another within society, that there is this broad thing of being British and being loyal to a set of values, and I think that's really what made British politics among the best in the world.

Emily Maitlis: People say you get the politicians you deserve. What have we done?

Rabbi Sacks: [Chuckles] I'm honestly not sure why we have been so slow on the uptake. The world has changed, but our politics hasn't changed. Today instead of broadcasting, which exposes us to views across a range, today through social media, we are exposed to narrowcasting, we've been parcelled into sects of the like-minded, and all of these have damaged British political culture, damaged British culture as a whole.

Emily Maitlis: Do you have faith in our politicians' ability or moral fibre to sort this out?

Rabbi Sacks: I think that real crises, and this is a real crisis, let's face it, do generate the statesmen and women who are one step above, who are capable of seeing the problem steadily and seeing it whole, of seeing the game, and not just the team. So I'm hoping that we will find in the future new politicians emerging. People who maybe never dreamt of going into politics, but who are saying, "Look, this thing is going so wrong. If nobody else is going to do something about it, I will."

Emily Maitlis: It doesn't sound like you think those people are politicians now. You're not seeing them now?

Rabbi Sacks: I'll tell you the problem today. Politicians are too immersed in politics. Don't forget Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature, not for peace. The great statespeople have a hinterland. They care about bigger things than politics, and that makes them great politicians because it makes them able to relate to people of all different kinds, whatever their political views.

Emily Maitlis: Do you believe that democracy should trump everything else, that the delivery of Brexit, even if it's economically and socially damaging, is the most important thing of all?

Rabbi Sacks: Democracy is one of the most profound political ideas ever, because it says every one of us counts, every one of us has a voice. You lose that, you lose everything, because it then becomes a game for the rich and powerful, which is great for them and bad for the poor and the powerless.

Emily Maitlis: So delivering democracy, even if it results in national economic damage, is imperative?

Rabbi Sacks: I think being a parent means trusting your children, even if you're sure they're getting it wrong. Believing in politics means believing in democracy, even if you're sure the electorate is getting it wrong. You have to empower the electorate, that is what democratic faith is about.

Emily Maitlis: Do you believe that delivering Brexit is a way of keeping populism at bay, or do you think that delivering Brexit heralds the beginning of a bigger populous movement?

Rabbi Sacks: I think it all depends on political leadership after Brexit. Is somebody going to raise our sights, or are they going to raise the drawbridge and make this a ‘fortress England’? It will depend totally on the leadership that happens in the years to come, and you simply cannot predict which way it'll go.

Emily Maitlis: And when you look at Europe now, do you think that we use the word Fascism too lightly, too freely or not enough?

Rabbi Sacks: Well, I don't know whether the word Fascism is in and of itself significant, but the rise of the far-right in Europe is a phenomenon whose seriousness cannot be sufficiently emphasised. This is bad politics, this is politics that is looking for a victim, that is looking for a scapegoat. It's the politics of anger.

Emily Maitlis: You've talked about individualism. You've talked about needing to get back to the team. In a practical way now, what do you... We are entrenched, we're on an absolute deadlock. What actually has to move now? What has to change?

Rabbi Sacks: Well, what can't be solved by insight and imagination will be solved by exhaustion. So people will, in the end, resolve to agree to something that nobody's terribly enthusiastic about, and politics begins the day after that. No solution is going to be benign and utopian, it's going to be messy and a little bit sordid, and we're all going to feel a little diminished thereby. But that happens on one day and the next day you wake up and say, "Okay, here we are. Britain, what do we stand for?" And at that moment, a new politics becomes possible.

Emily Maitlis: Lord Sacks, thank you.

Rabbi Sacks: Thank you.