UCL Policy Lab


Let's get ready to crumble - combating division over a cup of tea

3 July 2024

Maff Potts, member of the Ordinary Hope core group and Founder and Director of the Association of Camerados, discusses the divisions stoked by culture wars and elections, and Camerados' new campaign on how to disagree well and still enjoy each other's company.

Three older men sitting at a table with mugs of tea outside a pub in England

It may be historically ignorant of me to say this but I genuinely feel that 2024 is the most divisive year in my lifetime…and perhaps we can do something about it. That’s half a century. I want to convince you that this is a moment in history we all need to respond to and that it doesn’t take a lot to do so. In fact, maybe you need to direct your anger towards a Jaffa Cake. Stay with me here. 

I’m old enough to remember Yosser saying “gizza job” while Thatcher’s city boys declared they had “loadsamoney”. I remember the Battle of Orgreave and all those communities divided into scabs and strikers. Then there was 9/11 and Iraq. But this feels different, more widespread and relentless.

I’m not the only one who thinks it either. A report a few years back showed that 51% of Britons think this is the most divisive time they have lived through (the poll kinda proves the point itself!) and that poll was taken before two wars ripped through our side of the world.

We all know the list by now: a rising cost of living for most of us whilst the richer get exponentially richer; the ongoing effects of post-pandemic trauma mostly going unacknowledged; the lasting enmity in the UK over Brexit; potent culture wars on gender, race etc; increasingly desperate protests about climate change and those brutal wars in Europe and the Middle East. I’ve left out a hundred other minor conflicts this year but let’s just say that even Eurovision was divisive, so much so that Switzerland won!

And that’s not the biggest story of division. Did you know that 2024 is the biggest year in history for elections? 

Population-wise more people go to the polls this year than ever before. Over half the world. You may call that a great year for democracy but in the realm of modern political campaigning we all know this means a year of endless screaming at each other about fundamental things we disagree on with political parties most likely doubling down on polarised views to turn out their side of the vote.

Yes, elections, they certainly don’t help bring us together. The starting gun has fired on our own in the UK and my thoughts turned to a report written from the last time we went to the polls in a general election which showed that when people were asked to rate different groups on a “feeling thermometer”, supporters of the two main parties rate each other almost equally negatively: Labour supporters gave Conservatives a 15 out of 100, while Conservatives gave Labour supporters an 18. The same report showed that people also felt more than twice as strongly about their position on Brexit (55%) than their political party (22%) with positions just as strong among remainers as leavers and - a big surprise to me - the strength of feeling in their Brexit position increased as time went on.

The prevailing narrative becomes one of strong feelings against each other. Division sells. It gets your candidate noticed. And there’s no greater master of that in modern times than Donald J Trump. With his triumph over Hilary Clinton, he inspired a political generation to surpass their rival’s superior “media buy” by generating free publicity using controversial and polarising positions. A study by the University of Chicago on elections not long after Trump won in 2016 found that “US senators spend more time on divisive issues when they are up for …(and)…US house members spend more time on divisive issues in response to higher news transparency."

Ah yes. The cameras are watching…or at least the camera phones. And they are showing a lot of angry faces. But are most people taking part in the shouting and the division? I’m not so sure. According to the report on public attitudes by the Electoral Commission last year, the number one problem facing democracy was “bias in 5 the media” (72%) while the second was “low voter turnout” (66%). That tells me that perhaps the media is playing a role in stoking the fires of division here but it also shows that perhaps it’s turning people off.

At least three mornings a week before I go to work I have a cuppa with my retired next door neighbour, Tim, and we play a game of “guess the composer” with a different vinyl treat from his collection - Tim thinks my beloved jazz sounds like the death of a thousand cats but we found common ground in classical recordings. Politically too, he sits on the opposite of the political divide from me and we often joke about the different posters in the windows of our adjoining terraced houses come election time. This year though he says he’s not voting in the election at all because he’s “had enough of the whole lot of them”. Principle among his despair is the constant hate and division they spout. Tim doesn’t like stress in his life, he’s got cancer to worry about. He’d like to hear a voice of healing and hope, or as Marc Stears calls it “Ordinary Hope”.

I’ve been working with Marc and a brilliant group of folk at UCL Policy lab on this idea of “Ordinary Hope” and in the main it centres a world where we focus on practical everyday progress rather than grand sweeping and polarising rhetoric; we put the emphasis on collaboration not division, and build things brick by brick through positive relationships. A relational way of working as a priority not an afterthought. Corny maybe, naive possibly, but this is what voices from across the political spectrum are telling Marc and his lab is the stuff that works.

Which brings me to biscuits. Our movement - Camerados, the public living room people - are running a campaign and you might want to get involved, it’s called Dunk Off: Let’s Get Ready to Crumble.We ask you to find someone you disagree with and see who’s biscuit falls into their brew first. That’s it. Sit with them, play a game of biscuit dunking. Choose your preferred biscuit - we hear Hob Nobs are strong contenders while Rich Tea might let you down (don’t they always?!). It’s not about finding agreement and you don’t talk about the things which you disagree, you might dunk off whilst debating music genres or daft pastimes. The idea is to spend time together without screaming and shouting and just seeing each other a human not a debating point. 

The MP for Argyll & Bute sitting with a member of his constituency
This picture is the MP for Argyll & Bute sitting with Colin, who cannot stand his MP and almost left before he arrived. After their “Dunk Off” they apparently left laughing together, having disagreed about fish on pizza.


I don’t imagine this would instantly resolve vast global tensions but it’s an important start. When you look into any stories of seemingly intractable division - Northern Ireland for instance - you find that the great leaps forward towards peace all came down to a relationship, a connection, between two people - Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in that instance - people who saw the human in the other.  You can try to systemise solutions to hate and conflict, you can try to develop social policy or “theories of change” but when it comes down to it this takes people to decide to put the kettle on.

So find someone you disagree with and do it today. All you Bourbon fundamentalists must go spend time with Custard Cream insurgents! Make your own start on combatting division in 2024. Let’s get ready to crumble!

Maff Potts is Founder and Director of the Association of Camerados. For resources go to camerados.org.

Read more about UCL's Disagreeing Well campaign here.