Political Tribalism And Brexit

Political tribalism is usually discussed as a pathology afflicting low-information voters and preying upon the working class, but since the EU referendum we have seen many leading pro-EU figures from the political, journalistic and academic elites – people who often make a great show of their education and superior capacity for reason – throw themselves into the culture war with alarming zeal

I have just finished reading the new book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations” by Yale Law professor and author Amy Chua, and what a timely book it is.

Professor Chua uses examples of tribal group manifestations in various other contexts, from Vietnam and Afghanistan to Venezuela, to explain the fundamental human dynamics so often missed by Western countries who have stubbornly viewed geopolitics only through their preferred lenses, often at tremendous cost. But she then goes further, taking these lessons and applying them to the partisan polarisation currently gripping America with the embrace of modern identity politics on the Left and Donald Trump’s reactionary populism on much of the Right.

Chua explains:

When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.

We certainly see this happening today, with many people in the upper economic echelons or who occupy high-status professional jobs, particularly those from the centre of big cities, feeling that their way of life, their entire worldview, is under sudden and sustained assault because the status quo they preferred and personally benefited from has suddenly been overturned.

We in the United Kingdom need to understand that Brexit is now much more than the geopolitical and economic question of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union; Brexit has now become the main proxy for a hundred other divisions and skirmishes in a super-heated culture war being waged by the people who run the country (or who are at least used to having their worldview championed and ideas implemented by those who run the country) and those who feel that the country is being run without their interests in mind at all.

When many Remainers think of the European Union they no longer think of the specific institutions and governance frameworks of Brussels (to the extent that they ever did), and even the various supposed exclusive perks of membership are not always foremost in their minds. Rather, the EU has become such a synonym for the values of peace, progressivism, tolerance and cooperation to the extent that many prominent Remainers genuinely fail to understand how anybody could hold those values in high esteem while also supporting Brexit – an enormously consequential intellectual failure. And conversely, many of the more dogmatic Brexiteers see only Machiavellian plotting and elitist self-interest in establishment support for the European Union, making little allowance for the personal and institutional concern which naturally accompanies such a seismic political change as Brexit.

As Chua notes:

Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution – but such is political tribalism.

Both sides in this debate feel that they are under attack and have everything to lose. Too often, Remainers think that Brexit by its very nature and however it is implemented will inevitably make Britain a meaner, more insular and less tolerant place more hostile to their own interests, failing to even acknowledge the many glaring issues with the EU and valid reasons for wanting to leave. Those in traditionally Remain-supporting demographics and professions may feel that everything from the diverse character of their home cities to their very livelihoods are at stake, while those in strongly Brexit-supporting regions and demographics wonder just how much more they are supposed to sacrifice so that others can continue to live a lifestyle and receive perks and benefits which they themselves are increasingly unlikely to share.

I wrote last year about the “Two Brexits” – the technocratic, largely economic and regulatory matter of legally seceding from the European Union on one hand, and the much wider cultural and constitutional argument on the other. But now it seems that while the former will inevitably still determine the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and Britain’s future relationship with the EU, the latter will shape the wider political discourse for years to come, and is already doing so.

But while the media (itself largely composed of people who are instinctively pro-EU, just as few American political journalists could plausibly claim to truly empathise with Trumpland) is more than happy to pathologise working-class pro-Brexit sentiment, too rarely is the gaze turned back at the demographics who cheer loudest for the EU. Too rarely do we examine their motivations or behaviours. Yet if Brexit was driven partly by tribal politics which energised anti-establishment sentiments among certain demographics, so too the anti-Brexit backlash is being fuelled by a surging new tribal politics of the elite.

This is both fascinating and scary; scary because the capacity of well-connected elites – people with access to power and used to getting their way suddenly finding themselves denied for the first time – to exact vengeance or engage in democratic obstructionism vastly outweighs the ability of most Brexit voters to defend their hard-won achievement.

After the shock referendum result, one might have expected the pro-EU establishment to gradually work through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But much of the elite never made it past anger; indeed, many of the most prominent Remainers are still stuck firmly in denial, believing that they have an almost sacred duty to overrule the electorate when they make so colossal a “mistake” as voting to leave the EU.

As the process of secession grinds onward, many such Remainers are becoming increasingly desperate, and this desperation manifests in increasingly erratic, extreme and bizarre behaviour. Rather than viewing Britain’s departure from the EU as an economic or geopolitical setback to be mitigated, instead they see the outcome as representing an existential threat to their “tribe”.

When examining the way that Brexit has warped the thinking and behaviour of many of those fundamentally opposed to leaving the EU, it is instructive to use representative examples. Here we shall examine four specific cases: young pro-EU activists, academics, journalists and politicians.

 

Brexit And The Youth Vote

Nobody represents the post-referendum pro-EU “youthquake” – or at least the mainstream media’s determination to see and portray the uniform attitude of young people towards Brexit – better than Madeleina Kay, also known as “EU Supergirl”. Kay describes herself as an “artist, writer, musician and social activist from Sheffield”, but the vast bulk of her activism began after the EU referendum and focuses on stopping Brexit.

Kay started out by drawing whimsical cartoons portraying Theresa May and Brexit-supporting politicians as evil, and post-Brexit Britain as some kind of disaster-ravaged, flaming dystopia. She then augmented this artwork by recording protest songs, basically naive little ditties and love songs to the European Union, with titles such as “All I Want for Christmas is EU” and “Stand Up For Them”, a song which treats the plight of EU migrants in the UK as a festering humanitarian outrage akin to genocide:

Stand up for them and you stand up for us
Complacent disapproval just isn’t enough
Actions not words, my friends, deeds not thoughts
This is a fight you will regret not having fought

Because this is the outrage of our times
And this is the time to make it known!
If our values are hijacked by extremes
We will lose much more than just our hopes and dreams

I see people who have given and cared
Let’s treat them with the love they themselves have shared
And show them the respect that they deserve
Appreciation from the country they have served

But Madeleina Kay really hit the big time when she invented and debuted her alter ego, “EU Supergirl”. Inhabiting this character involves donning a superwoman outfit and cape emblazoned with the EU flag, and turning up at various events with her long-suffering dog (also flag-bedecked) to sing protest songs and rub shoulders with various celebrity Remainers including Bob Geldoff and Eddie Izzard.

Having won an EU blogging contest, Kay found herself invited to Brussels to meet the great and the good of the various European Union institutions, after which she invited herself to a joint press conference on the status of the Brexit negotiations being given by Brexit Secretary David Davis and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier. Perhaps because the event followed so soon after the UK’s Conservative Party Conference at which a heckler invaded the stage while prime minister Theresa May was giving her keynote speech, the EU’s security team suspected that a similar stunt was imminent and escorted Madeleina Kay from the auditorium amid a glare of camera flashes. This notoriety then earned Kay vast amounts of coverage in the online and print media, as well as several quite lengthy television appearances on the BBC.

In all of this, Kay is being held up by the media to represent the “voice of youth”, an oppressed generation who are having their country taken from them and their future stolen from them by selfish, bigoted and reactionary older generations. Never mind that 25 percent of young people voted to leave the European Union – they don’t feature at all in the narrative; newspapers like the Guardian will never never devote endless column inches to understanding their motivations and principles.

This is highly unfortunate because while there are many lucid and compelling arguments for remaining in the European Union that young people could potentially hold, the voices elevated to national prominence tend to be highly simplistic with very little evidence of understanding of the European Union and its workings.

This is because to many young people, supporting the European Union is less a rational, historical or evidence-based decision and more a necessary cultural stance to be adopted in order to be part of the “in” group. Over the years, the European Union has done a majestic job of associating itself with the values of peace, progressivism, openness and tolerance, to the extent that supporting the EU has become useful political shorthand for associating oneself with those ideals. Taking the time to learn how the EU’s protectionist trade policies severely harm African countries or how through its behaviour the EU has repeatedly proved itself antithetical to any serious idea of democracy or self-determination takes effort and a willingness to step outside the bubble of bias confirmation. By contrast, staying popular with one’s friends is as easy as rocking up to a protest, painting the EU flag on one’s face or burbling inanities on Twitter about how the EU alone prevented war in Europe.

But even more narrow than that, the young voices making themselves heard in the media are disproportionately middle or upper-middle class. Madeleina Kay was able to drop out of university and return to live with her parents when she felt the calling to become a full-time anti-Brexit activist. And time and again, the young people called upon by the media to speak for their generation fall into this category, if not by upbringing then at least by the fact that they now attend university, bastions of pro-EU groupthink.

Never once have I seen a working class kid from my hometown of Harlow, Essex or anywhere similar called upon to give their thoughts on Brexit. Why? Because they would quite likely offer a stinging rebuke to the European Union and express support for Brexit in one mode or another. University-educated young people are most likely to take advantage of various “perks” associated with the EU such as freedom of movement, and are also most likely to perceive opportunities to work or travel abroad to be gravely limited by Brexit. Working class young people are to some degree less likely to avail themselves of these opportunities, and so weighed their consideration of Britain’s EU membership quite differently.

The media seemed to acknowledge that the EU referendum divided Britain along lines of class and education, at least when it suited their narrative that Brexit was powered by stupid older low-information voters with broad accents and unskilled labour jobs, but this narrative also (wrongly) carved out an exception for working class young people, whose voices have been entirely erased from the national conversation simply because they fail to support the notion that British youth is united in opposing Brexit. Rather than giving any platform to dissenting voices, the voices of university-educated or university-attending young people possessing only the most childishly naive conception of what the EU is and how it works have been elevated above all others.

This is about tribalism, pure and simple. The middle class pro-EU youth define themselves in opposition to older voters – Daily Mail readers with their supposedly retrograde and often racist beliefs, and their selfish vote to reconstruct the imperial British empire rather than joining in the European Union’s worthy and entirely innocent post-national experiment. And this narrative is gratefully seized upon by a media class which broadly agrees with their perspective and is therefore only too ready to accept it as representative of the entire youth demographic.

 

Brexit And The Ivory Tower

One expects little of politicians, but until the EU referendum it was still just about possible for an objective person to respect the world of academia and those who work within it when they made forays into the political debate. No longer.

Throughout the EU referendum, the term “expert” was abused and appropriated to the point of absolute meaningless by various academics who sought to use their credentials and narrow fields of specific expertise to discredit and warn against a decision so broad and multifaceted as rethinking Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

This was most egregious when economists or those professing expertise in economics and trade matters made bleak and often highly-specific forecasts of the economic ruination which would settle upon Britain not just when we left the European Union but as soon as we voted to do so. This was unhelpful for a number of reasons – firstly because these short term predictions of doom (capital flight, a brain drain, the relocation of large multinational corporations, the need for an “emergency budget” involving drastic cuts to public services imposed by the government) have not taken place, rendering the medium and long-term prognostications equally untrustworthy in the public eye, but secondly because Brexit is not and was never primarily an economic proposition.

Brexit is vast and contains multitudes, but as immediate post-referendum polling clearly showed, it was primarily a vote to repatriate powers and decision-making ability from Brussels, areas of national sovereignty which a majority of voters believed should never have been given away in the first place. Despite the efforts of many Remainers to spin the illusion that Britain only voted to leave the EU because voters were deceived by gaudy and false monetary promises, the Lord Ashcroft poll clearly shows that the primary motivating factor was a desire for a return to the “principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

Yet time and again, academics who appeared on our television screens parading their credentials and expertise acted as though proving that leaving the EU would either cause economic harm or reduce the prospects of future economic growth alone would be sufficient to destroy the case for Brexit. This is not entirely their fault – the media also did an abysmal job of moderating the national debate, failing to pin down both campaigns on the democratic case for Brexit and allowing the discussion to disappear down a rabbit-hole of competing economic claims. But it was highly disingenuous to imply that a strike or cautionary note against Brexit in one sphere automatically invalidates the entire proposition.

A YouGov poll taken in July 2017 showed that a majority of Leave voters believed that even significant economic damage would be a “price worth paying” to secure independence from the EU. One can agree or disagree with the principle being expressed here, but this fact alone shows that the economic case was insufficient to persuade people to vote to remain in the EU. That so many prominent academics failed to appreciate this, or apparently to view the question of Britain’s EU membership in any terms beyond their own area of expertise, speaks very poorly of their intellectual honesty.

Worse still is the fact that rather than face up to these limitations, much of the academic community instead retreated into the comfort blanket of convincing themselves that Brexit came about because of “fake news” and a “post-factual” political climate. The idea that voters might reject rather suspect economic predictions in favour of non-quantifiable facts and narratives never seemed to occur to many of the brightest minds in British academia – or if it did, they certainly made no effort to address the qualitative arguments of Brexit supporters.

As I wrote in 2016:

The facts vs emotion reduction which now colours nearly all of the media coverage of our supposedly “post-truth society” is therefore a bit too simplistic. There are quantitative facts but there are also qualitative facts – truths which are not based on emotion or hunch or prejudice, but which nonetheless cannot be added up in an Excel spreadsheet, slapped on an infographic and shared on social media.

I voted for Brexit because I believe that the EU actively harms and undermines the democracies of its member states, by deliberate design. I marshalled many facts to back up this position during the campaign – from primary and secondary historical sources, the stated positions of current EU leaders and various other proofs. Just because they are not quantifiable and I could not declare (for example) that leaving the EU will make Britain 11.2% more democratic and give the people 8.4% more control over the decision makers does not make the facts on which I argued my case untrue. And reducing those qualitative facts about democratic control, accountability and the known history and trajectory of the EU as mere “emotion” unfairly diminishes those facts.

[..] At present there is far too much self-satisfied criticism of “post-factual politics” in which defeated pro-EU supporters express alarm that people supposedly ignored the only facts available to them and made irrational decisions against their own self interest, and this is not so. There were other, unquantifiable facts which moved people to vote for Brexit. And these pivotal criteria deserve to be acknowledged as legitimate facts, not dismissed as mere emotions.

It is easy and comforting to believe that one’s own side thinks and acts according to reason, logic and evidence while one’s opponents are moved by base emotion, superstition or prejudice. But the divide is very rarely so clear.

How and why did UK academia drop the ball to such an extent, both with their conceptualisation of the EU question and their approach to influencing the debate? Again, the root cause lies in the deep tribalism within the educational sector.

A 2016 survey showed that 9 out of 10 professional and support staff supported remaining in the European Union. There are a number of reasons driving this extreme bias, including the general leftward tilt of those in academia (leftism often though not exclusively being associated with support for the EU), the fact that the EU “funds” various university academic and research initiatives (the fact that this money is simply UK taxpayer money laundered through Brussels apparently eluding our nation’s brightest minds) and a general Utopian belief that the arc of history inevitably bends toward some kind of new post-national accommodation, the EU being the apotheosis of such aims.

As Paul A. Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory from the University of Leeds, notes in The Conversation:

Anti-Brexit academics no longer appear able to differentiate between their own personal investment in the EU and the progressive social values they also claim to uphold.

Thus for reasons involving a shared worldview and perceived professional interest in the EU project rolling along unchecked (combined with a strong and often furiously denied groupthink effect), the opportunity for dissenting thought regarding Brexit within academia is vanishingly slim, just as it is in the arts world. But as with other cases of tribal behaviour, this sense of shared values and being under assault by outside “others” often leads to extreme responses from those within the academic tribe.

The most severe case of post-Brexit derangement in the academic world has to be that of philosopher, author and public intellectual Anthony Clifford Grayling. A decade ago, AC Grayling could be found debating on stage with Christopher Hitchens and other respected thinkers and commentators. Since the EU referendum, however, Grayling’s Twitter feed has been an hysterical, overwrought, 20-month tantrum insisting that Brexit is not merely a strategic geopolitical mistake but an evil and corrupt act which threatens the future of democracy itself (quite how Grayling squares this assertion with the fact that Brexit only came about because the people were permitted a democratic choice regarding Britain’s future EU membership for the first time in four decades is unclear, particularly since he pre-emptively blocked me on Twitter despite there never having been any interaction between the two of us).

Choice excerpts from AC Grayling’s increasingly vicious and conspiratorial Twitter tirade against Brexit include:

And:

 

Just this week, Grayling penned a piece for Prospect Magazine titled “Don’t trust the UK” in which he encouraged other governments, institutions, firms and individuals to avoid any association with his own country:

The EU referendum has exposed deep-lying problems in society, especially English society, relating to xenophobia, introversion, a prevailing sense of historical unreality, a dangerously distorting popular media, and a poor general level of understanding among Britons of Europe and the world.

Our fellow Europeans who have lived, worked, raised families and paid their taxes in the UK for decades have been shocked to find how fragile is the welcome they thought they had, and how selfishly disregarded their contribution to the UK’s economy, culture, health service and education system has proved to be.

If one is to be rigorously honest about today’s UK, one would not advise anyone to come and live or study here, or trade with us. In short, we should be put into purdah until we have sorted ourselves out.

Grayling goes on to encourage readers to watch YouTube videos showing footage from Britain in 1945, 1970 and today, and to look at the growth of British GDP since our accession to the EEC as “proof” that the EU has been the fount of all good things over the past four decades. While making this tenuous argument, Grayling manages to completely overlook the fact that Britain’s economic decline continued well past our 1973 EEC accession with the roots of recovery far more closely coinciding with the 1979 accession of the Conservative Thatcher government, a considerable feat of omission. Disingenuously asserting causation while providing no evidence and actively overlooking other more likely triggers in this way is a total abrogation of the academic approach, one which AC Grayling would be ashamed to make were it not in the service of his tribal beliefs.

The article is full of non sequiturs and baseless assertions which would make an undergraduate blush were they to survive proofreading and make it into submitted coursework, but that is nothing compared to the rabid conspiracy theorising in which AC Grayling now indulges:

AC Grayling - sunk frigate

To be clear, this is AC Grayling insinuating that the UK government actively plotted to distract from negative headlines about Brexit by provoking the sinking of a Royal Navy frigate with the attendant loss of human life and an inevitable state of war with China.

Most objective viewers will likely concede that the government’s approach to Brexit has been deeply flawed, characterised by a lack of strategic direction and political awareness. I myself have regularly criticised Theresa May’s Conservative government for their timidy, lack of vision and perpetual damage-control mode of governance. But never in a million years would I suggest to 50,000 Twitter followers that the British government was orchestrating a military conflict with China to distract from negative headlines at home.

This is the extent to which political tribalism causes the afflicted to view everything through the lens of their own pet issues and interpret any event, however benign or unconnected, as a direct attack on their own interests. These are the depths of crazed stupidity to which public intellectuals can sink when their tribal loyalty outweighs their commitment to reason (or regard for their own reputations).

 

Brexit And The Commentariat

The only comparable case I can think of a public intellectual going off the ideological deep end in this manner is the strange unravelling of American author and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza. Like AC Grayling, only a decade ago D’Souza – while always a staunch advocate of fiscal and social conservatism – could be found debating the likes of Christopher Hitchens and engaging in thoughtful, eloquent Christian apologetics which were intelligently structured and often a pleasure to listen to.

In the Age of Trump, however, Dinesh D’Souza has undergone a complete transformation from conservative stalwart to Trumpian demagogue. He can now be found making the case that the US Democratic Party and the American Left are the true heirs to Hitler, while selling books and DVDs to people who stock up on freeze-dried food rations, survival gear and ammunition in anticipation of a coup by the New World Order.

Why the transformation of both AC Grayling and Dinesh D’Souza from intelligent thinkers with admittedly forthright but reasoned views to paranoid conspiracy theorists convinced that there is a plot against Britain/America? Again, it has everything to do with tribes.

In the United States, as Donald Trump seized control of the Republican Party and dragged the GOP ever further away from their nominal commitment to small government conservatism, those in the conservative punditocracy had a choice: get with the new programme or risk falling permanently out of favour if the changes wrought by President Trump took hold. While some conservative pundits (such as Ben Shapiro) attempt to walk a tightrope, praising Trump when he enacts good policy and openly criticising him for his moral and managerial failures, most felt compelled to “pick a side”.

Picking a side meant choosing a tribe, or at least embracing an existing, previously unacknowledged tribal affiliation – either supporting Donald Trump’s populist campaign to Make America Great Again or throwing one’s lot in with the conservative “Never Trumpers”. Both tribes commit the same sin of furiously blinkered partisanship, in which any failures can be excused or denied, all successes exaggerated and all previous values or policy positions jettisoned without regard to principle or consistency.

Thus we see Republican politicians who spent the entire Obama presidency publicly rending their garments about the national debt now cheering for a president whose tax cuts have blown the annual budget deficit wide open, and Evangelical Christian leaders who fret about declining moral values delude themselves into thinking – and publicly insisting – that their new ally in the White House is a man of faith. Simultaneously, many conservative Never Trumpers have taken to blindly criticising every act of the Trump administration, even those policies which they once enthusiastically supported, because in order to “properly” oppose Trump one can never concede that any of his policies or decisions have merit.

In Britain, the most depressing example of subordinating sincere values for the dogmas of one’s chosen tribe is the strange case of Ian Dunt, a left-wing opinion journalist whose principles once led him to denounce the antidemocratic nature of the European Union and openly advocate for Brexit, but whose overriding need to be accepted by his tribe of London-dwelling metro-leftists forced him to not merely switch sides but become one of the most vocal denouncers of the euroscepticism he once espoused.

 

While Ian Dunt relishes his prominent role among Remainers and studiously ignores his glaring political reversal, the Guido Fawkes blog is less forgiving, writing in December 2016:

Dunt is the go-to Remainer for political TV producers and he has even written a book lobbying MPs to obstruct a proper Brexit. It’s a very clever career move, considering he was until recently a vocal Brexiteer…

As recently as February this year, Dunt wrote: “I despise the EU”. In May this year he bemoaned the “Faceless EU officials running the country”. In 2014 Dunt wrote: “The idea any left winger could support the EU is a constant source of bafflement for me”. And in 2013 he publicly stated his desire to leave the EU, predicting he and his fellow Leavers would lose a referendum.

How does Dunt explain this most audacious of u-turns, an apparently avowed Brexiteer becoming the darling of the Remain cause? You have to salute him for ruthlessly exploiting the dearth of talent on the Remain side and forging a lucrative, high-profile studio talking head role.

And indeed, by the time he penned this outraged column for pro-EU agitprop outlet The New European shortly after the EU referendum, Ian Dunt’s transformation had already been complete for some time:

The oddest thing about Brexit is how utterly un-British it is. The vaguely antagonistic attitude towards the continent is familiar enough, of course, as is the barely-concealed sense of national superiority. But the emotional, even borderline hysterical, manner of debate is not.

We saw left-wing celebrity commentator Owen Jones similarly brought to heel in the run-up to the EU referendum. Jones became increasingly disillusioned with and sceptical about the European Union after witnessing the supranational bloc’s treatment of member state Greece during the Euro crisis, culminating in his open support for Brexit in the summer of 2015:

Look at how the EU has operated. It has driven elected governments – however unsavoury, like Silvio Berlusconi’s – from office. Ireland and Portugal were also blackmailed. The 2011 treaty effectively banned Keynesian economics in the eurozone.

But even outside the eurozone, our democracy is threatened. The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), typically negotiated by the EU in secret with corporate interests, threatens a race to the-bottom in environmental and other standards. Even more ominously, it would give large corporations the ability to sue elected governments to try to stop them introducing policies that supposedly hit their profit margins, whatever their democratic mandate.

Fast-forward to the 2016 referendum and beyond, and such anti-EU views are now held as heresy among the tribe to which Owen Jones belongs, from which he craves approval and on which he depends for continued relevance. Has Owen Jones genuinely changed his mind about the EU? It seems fantastically unlikely that he now supports the EU’s antidemocratic tendencies. No, all that has changed is Owen Jones’ political courage and willingness to stand against the orthodoxy of his left-wing tribe.

And so today, Owen Jones writes stuff like this:

If only Brexit would go away. It sucks the political oxygen away from the issues we should all be discussing: like low wages, insecure jobs and the housing crisis. It is a rallying cry for a noxious alliance of anti-immigrant demagogues and regulation-stripping free marketeers. The bigotry, xenophobia and racism stirred up by the official leave campaigns injected an ugliness into British politics which never dissipated, and left hate crimes surging. And, frankly, Brexit is just mind-numbingly, painfully, excruciatingly dull. So yes, if there was a big red button to make it all just go away, I’d enthusiastically push it.

One can respect 180-degree changes when they are accompanied by thoughtful self-examinations and critiques explaining the reason for the reversal. I myself was an ardent euro-federalist and supporter of the European Union in my student days before learning more and changing my mind in subsequent years, and I have written about my change of heart at length. In fact, some of the most persuasive politicians and commentators tend to be those who once held diametrically opposite opinions, precisely because they know the old arguments inside-out, can deconstruct their shortcomings and reveal their flaws.

The likes of Ian Dunt make no mention of their Damascene conversions, however. They are ashamed of them and would like to forget that they ever held the opinions which they now repudiate. Ian Dunt has not and will never write a lucid think piece explaining his rapid conversion from arch-eurosceptic to Chief Brexit Mourner because there was no authentic process of persuasion underpinning his change of heart. Dunt does not believe that his earlier critiques of (and contempt for) the European Union were wrong; it’s just that they are now highly inconvenient given his need to remain in good standing with a tribe he is loathe to leave and which holds unambiguous opposition to Brexit to be a non-negotiable membership requirement.

In fact, I am inclined to believe that Ian Dunt does now hold his new, permanently outraged and catastrophising stance on Brexit with real sincerity. Such is the power of tribalism that the only way one can live with oneself having betrayed one’s own values and intellect is often to adopt one’s new stance as personal truth. Just as compulsive or practised liars are often plausible precisely because they convince themselves of their own falsehoods, so the likes of Ian Dunt are only able to rail against the self-harming “stupidity” of Brexit because they suppress all memory of the part of themselves which once proudly supported what they now denounce.

People engaged in healthy, spirited political discourse normally appreciate and embrace those who have changed their minds on a key issue – converts to one’s own side are seen as a good thing, the journey they have taken held as more important than their previous, “incorrect” views. But this is not the case when political discourse becomes tribal to its current toxic degree. At such times, it is not enough to hold your tribe’s approved positions today; one must also have held them a year ago, two years ago, a decade ago, or risk being seen as a dangerous (even evil) heretic. That is why the likes of Ian Dunt have to take such a strong stance against Brexit. Only by screaming their new faith loudly and continually can they hope to drown out the inconvenient fact of their prior heresy.

Thus political tribalism infects journalism and political commentary in two ways – first by forcing people into stark, binary opposition on fundamental issues, even when adopting those extreme stances conflicts with their current values or previously espoused views, and secondly by chilling the political discourse and making it impossible for people to express nuance or explain their changing thoughts on an issue without fear of being excommunicated from one’s social, professional and political circles.

 

Brexit And The Corridors Of Power

Perhaps the most galling spectacle in the run-up to the EU referendum was the sight of numerous Conservative MPs and government ministers who had built their careers on a foundation of avowed euroscepticism (and often only won selection as a candidate after professing dislike of the Brussels to their local constituency associations) meekly fall in line with prime minister David Cameron’s campaign to remain in the EU.

The most stunning case was that of former Conservative leader William Hague, whose tenure as party leader saw the Tories take a significantly more eurosceptic tack at a time when Tony Blair’s Labour government were gung-ho for deeper integration. A respected thinker and eloquent speaker, Hague would have been a real asset to the broader Leave campaign had he maintained the courage of his convictions when it counted. But of course he did the precise opposite, penning a lengthy Op-Ed for the Telegraph in which he explained in weasel words why Britain should vote to remain in the EU:

Whatever the shortcomings of the European “project” it is manifestly not in our interests for either it or the United Kingdom to fall apart. Such will be the challenges to the western world in the coming years, from a turbulent Middle East and a volatile world economy, that the dismembering of our own country by nationalists or the breaking up of Europe into uncontrolled rivalry would make many dangers more threatening still.

[..] To end up destroying the United Kingdom and gravely weakening the European Union would not be a very clever day’s work. So, even as a long-standing critic of so much of that struggling organisation, I am unlikely in 2016 to vote to leave it.

“Unlikely”. Note how such was Hague’s shame at betraying his espoused principles in so brazen a manner that he couldn’t bring himself to write a more definitive conclusion. And all this after having excoriated the EU for its many shortcomings only a few paragraphs prior:

Close acquaintance with central bodies of the European Union does nothing to create enthusiasm for them. The Commission itself, generally the best-performing of the EU institutions, could benefit from the spending cuts and rigour to which most national governments have been subjected. The European Court of Justice has pushed the boundaries of treaties and is capable of imposing burdens on businesses which suggest a detachment from reality.

As to the European Parliament, it does not remotely provide democratic accountability for the simple reason that most voters across Europe do not take elections to it seriously and are not usually aware of the identity of their MEPs. It is not possible to be accountable and anonymous at the same time.

William Hague is an intelligent man and knew full well that the “concessions” secured from the EU by David Cameron in his pitiful attempt to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms were not worth the non-existent paper they were printed on, but such was his commitment to his true political tribe that the self-evident truth was simply ignored.

Former Business Secretary Sajid Javid gave an equally tortured rationale for supporting the Remain campaign despite having built his name and career on staunch euroscepticism:

It’s clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the European Union. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.

Had we never taken the fateful decision to sign up, the UK would still, of course, be a successful country with a strong economy. We would be an independent trading nation like the US, Japan, or Canada. Over the years, we would have developed trade agreements with the EU and with others, all without surrendering control over immigration or our economic independence.

[..] If this year’s referendum were a vote on whether to join in the first place, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and say Britain would be better off staying out. But the question we’re faced with is not about what we should have done 43 years ago. It’s about what we should do now, in 2016.

That’s why, with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.

In the case of Sajid Javid I must admit that at one point my own tribal instincts got the better of me, and I responded to an olive branch later extended by Javid to the eurosceptics he betrayed with a (hopefully) uncharacteristically vicious response of my own:

Let me say on behalf of all eurosceptics (I’m sure they won’t mind my presumption in this case) – Sajid Javid can take his Brussels bashing and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

The British people have no further need of oleaginous politicians who make eurosceptic noises in pursuit of cheap applause, but who then side time and again with the political establishment to preserve the anti-democratic status quo, with Britain kept as a vassal state of a relentlessly integrating European political union.

Are we supposed to feel comforted and mollified that Sajid Javid has now promised that on 24 June, the day after his own efforts contribute toward a “Remain” vote in the EU referendum, he will once again join our ranks and stand up to criticise the democratic subversion underway in Brussels? Because that would be like a soldier who, on being rotated away from the front lines at the end of his tour of duty, promises his comrades that he will see them again soon, as soon as he is done fighting a stint for the enemy during his R&R break.

My harsh conclusion:

One thing is clear: every last one of those calculating Conservative MPs who made the fateful decision to sit out the fight to extricate Britain from the European Union must be pitilessly cleaved from the eurosceptic herd and never permitted to rejoin it.

They should be made to wear their latent europhilia as a badge of shame and dishonour for the remainder of their sorry political lives.

Yes, I am certainly not immune from political tribalism myself at times.

We see the same tribal effect at work in the United States with regard to Republican Party positions on immigration. Many a conservative Representative or Senator owe their positions to having taken firm, uncompromising and sometimes even extreme positions on immigration, to the point of advocating mass deportations. Such promises rolled off their tongues as they courted a voter base which held similar views, and when their party was stuck firmly in opposition without possibility of enacting the controversial reforms they championed.

Fast-forward to 2018, with a (nominal) Republican in the White House and control of both houses of Congress, and these immigration hardliners should have encountered no problem enacting the draconian reforms they long advocated – or at least ought to have put up a proper fight for them. But of course, in reality we saw just the opposite, with many elected conservatives balking at policies they once claimed to support – building a wall, enacting mass deportations, defunding sanctuary cities and revoking the protected status given by President Obama to young illegal immigrants known as “Dreamers”. This was then promptly (and with some justification) portrayed as a great betrayal by an activist base who took these politicians at their word.

Why? Because while these conservative politicians were more than happy to bash illegal (or even legal) immigration in order to win support from their base, those are not the views of the “tribe” to which they really belong. Their real tribe of course consists of the Republican Party’s corporatist donors and those who benefit economically from continued illegal immigration, together with a Washington elite which is slowly catching up with Europe in its adoption of a laissez-faire, post-national worldview in which borders are increasingly irrelevant.

As Amy Chua notes at the beginning of “Political Tribes”:

Domestically [..] elites in the United States have either not cared about or been remarkably oblivious to the group identities that matter most to large segments of ordinary Americans, including people they are supposedly trying to help”.

In the case of the Republican Party, many of their leaders have actually often paid lip service to these identities and pretended to care about issues of importance to their base – consider George W. Bush’s courting of the Evangelical vote and the Tea Party’s ostentatious fiscal conservatism – but it has mostly been an act. This alone is one of the key reasons for the Trump ascendancy, to the initial horror of most congressional Republicans: the belief by an increasingly betrayed voter base that Donald Trump’s presidency would result in deeds, not words.

Many people – politicians, journalists, academics, even private citizens – often feign to be part of one tribe, but crunch time reveals where their loyalties really lie. In the case of Republican politicians, many were more than happy to court the vote of a base concerned with illegal immigration, but when put on the spot and given a chance to deliver for that particular tribe, instead they balked and kicked the can down the road in order to avoid doing economic damage to (and incurring social pushback from) their real tribe.

Focusing on the elites of which most American politicians are a part, Chua notes:

American elites often like to think of themselves as the exact opposite of tribal, as “citizens of the world” who celebrate universal humanity and embrace global, cosmopolitan values. But what these elites don’t see is how tribal their cosmopolitanism is. For well-educated, well-traveled Americans, cosmopolitanism is its own highly exclusionary clan, with clear out-group members and bogeymen – in this case, the flag-waving bumpkins.

Who can deny that this paragraph could just as easily be describing the centrist political establishment of Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the europhile contingent within the Conservative Party?

In the case of British Conservative MPs, many were happy to give speeches inveighing against Brussels and the antidemocratic European Union when it won them votes, but refused to follow through on those words when the interests of their real tribe asserted themselves.

Chua is quite correct when she writes:

There is nothing more tribal than elite disdain for the provincial, the plebian, the patriotic.

Yet today we find ourselves in a worrying situation where many political leaders in both the United Kingdom and the United States are effectively at war with the citizens they nominally represent, looking upon a democratically made decision with astonished contempt and seeking to undermine or reverse it through any means necessary, from the dubious (holding another referendum in an attempt to get the “correct” answer on the second attempt) to the downright authoritarian (simply ignoring the result of what is now eagerly labelled by Remainers a purely “advisory” referendum).

 

Conclusion — When Two Tribes Go To War

Amy Chua ends her book “Political Tribes” on a hopeful note, writing of the various green shoots of comity and mutual tolerance taking root in a polarised and increasingly Disunited States of America – and to be sure, she offers some compelling examples of individuals organising at the community level to provide forums for Americans to come together as fellow citizens rather than Democrats or Republicans, Trump supporters or members of the #Resistance first and foremost.

At present, I see little such hope for a similar rapprochement in British politics, particularly as far as Brexit is concerned. Partly this is due to the fact that Brexit is more final and harder to overturn once implemented than the usual policy decisions implemented by a US presidential administration. But it is also because the outreach which Chua notes is rooted in a unique sense of civic-mindedness in which American citizenship is used as the “glue” which helps to mend a previously fractured society.

There can and will be no such movement in Britain because the whole idea of the European Union is post-national, with many of the most vociferous anti-Brexit campaigners explicitly repudiating or denigrating their British identity in order to claim the mantle of being European first and foremost. Even more than arguments about immigration or taxation or economic policy, one’s stance on Brexit and the European Union is bound up in one’s conception of self and group identity, and if one group explicitly rejects the only glue which might hold us together then on what other fundamental common ground can we possibly unite?

As Amy Chua observes of the United States:

The Left believes that right-wing tribalism – bigotry, racism – is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism – identity politics, political correctness – is tearing the country apart. They are both right.

This, too, could just as easily describe the current state of affairs in Britain:

Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism.

While Chua rightly emphasises the importance of face-to-face contact in breaking down barriers to understanding and acceptance, again this proves difficult with Brexit, given that regions and professions are often so polarised. My home for much of the past ten years has been the North London neighbourhood of West Hampstead, one of the most heavily Remain-voting enclaves of the United Kingdom during the EU referendum and a place where EU flags hang from windows and above shop fronts to this day. There are too few people like me for most Remain-supporting inhabitants to meet and get to know in order to overcome the enormous gulf of empathy which exists between the two sides, just as there are too few people like me among the young professional and artistic/creative classes to be effective ambassadors to those redoubts of Remain sentiment.

In the longer term, though, this may well become less of a concern. Brexit will be implemented, however haphazardly, and the absence of provable counterfactuals will make it increasingly difficult for the EU’s loudest cheerleaders to make a compelling case that Britain would have been better off remaining in or rejoining the bloc. This explains so much of the hysteria and vitriol currently emanating from the likes of AC Grayling and other anti-Brexit leaders; deep down they know that Brexit will either be stopped before it takes place, or will go ahead with their objections increasingly drowned out.

There may also be hope in the fact that so much hostility to Brexit is rooted in political tribalism rather than deep knowledge of or affection for the European Union itself. While the true believers like AC Grayling will likely never “cease from mental fight” in their battle to return Britain to the grand projet, there are many others like Ian Dunt and Owen Jones who only maintain their anti-Brexit stance under duress, as the necessary price of membership to their chosen tribe.

As the years go by post-Brexit and new political issues come to the fore, the “social cost” of departing from pro-EU orthodoxy will steadily diminish, allowing those unwilling EU cheerleaders to drift away, leaving a vastly diminished rump of cranks and true believers. And just as the issue fades in importance for Britain’s “thought leaders”, so too the groupthink will fade for many lower-information voters who currently uncritically lift their pro-EU stance from the pages of the Guardian just as some Brexit supporters took theirs from the Daily Mail or Daily Express. In short, a decade or two’s time may well see those still advocating for Britain rejoining the European Union (assuming that it still exists in current form) become the “fruitcakes, loonies” and closet federalists on the fringes of British politics.

But this is some way off yet, and at present such is the viscerally tribal imperative among key demographics to oppose Brexit (and so great the power and prominence of those who do so) that the issue will continue to divide and toxify our politics for a long time to come, at least until we can find it in ourselves to follow Amy Chua’s closing stricture:

If we’re to come together as a nation, we all need to elevate ourselves. We need to find a way to talk to each other if we’re to have any chance of bridging divides. We need to allow ourselves to see our tribal adversaries as fellow Americans, engaged in a common enterprise.

Political Tribes - Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations - Professor Amy Chua

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On Citizenship

Camden Town Hall council chamber doorway - Citizenship ceremony - British UK flags and Queen Elizabeth portrait

The unexpectedly moving experience of watching forty strangers become fellow citizens and compatriots at a UK citizenship ceremony

“Citizenship is more than an individual exchange of freedoms for rights; it is also membership in a body politic, a nation, and a community”
— Melissa Harris-Perry

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”
— Ralph Nader

On Wednesday this week I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony at Camden Town Hall, as my American wife finally took the oaths and became a British citizen.

This journey has been quite the odyssey for us. Jenny first came to this country on a short study abroad programme, staying for only a matter of months. She returned a couple of years later to study for her postgraduate degree, which is when we met, and after marrying we moved back to London (she on a spousal visa) and have been living here together since 2012.

The subsequent steps – applying for indefinite leave to remain, studying for and taking the Life in the UK test, providing biometric data more often than one would think necessary given the unchanging nature of one’s fingerprints and of course forking over large sums of money to the Home Office at regular intervals – were frequently stressful and time consuming, but there was never a question that this was a step we were going to take.

Britain is home for Jenny just as much as is the United States of America. She may have stubbornly refused to learn the 24-hour clock, use Celsius when talking about the weather or guzzle tea ten times a day along with everyone else at her office, but she is indisputably a proud Brit and a Londoner. She understands our cultural quirks, appreciates our history, loves the natural beauty of our countryside and maintains a richer social life and a wider network of British friends than I have ever cobbled together for myself.

Thus, naturalisation was simply a case of formalising on paper a transformation which had already taken place in her heart and mind. Jenny was already British in pectore; we were simply waiting for the legal side of things to catch up with reality. And so it was that I found myself sitting in the gallery of the council chamber at Camden Town Hall in King’s Cross, witnessing my wife and a diverse group of strangers complete the long and arduous process to become something which (through accident of birth) I have been fortunate to take for granted my entire life.

It was a genuine honour to be present as over 40 people from all backgrounds, races, religions and countries of birth solemnly affirmed their commitment to our United Kingdom. Many people are content to live in this country, building lives here, contributing and receiving back, without making this gesture of commitment. But I believe that it is very important, and admire those who do so.

Citizenship is more than a basket of rights, privileges and perks. It is also a binding commitment to the society in which we live. Choosing to naturalise means a willingness to undertake obligations as well as demand one’s due. Becoming a citizen is a declaration that one is bound to one’s fellow citizens by something more than temporary convenience or the accidental byproduct of an overseas work assignment or relationship.

This bond is hard to describe or put down in words, which is perhaps why so many self-declared “citizens of the world” – people who consider themselves to have transcended national alignment and who flit from place to place without ever making a binding commitment to anywhere they set foot – don’t understand why it matters.

But if you have built a life in Britain over the course of years or even decades, why would one not want to formalise that connection? Yes it costs money, and yes the Home Office does its damnedest to make the process as bureaucratic, expensive, frustrating and opaque as possible, often actively throwing barriers in the way of people who desperately want citizenship. But if one has the means and the opportunity, why not take the pledge and acquire the passport? Failing to do so is the civic version of cohabiting with a partner but never marrying, one foot always out the door, one eye always casting around for something better.

If I was a non-citizen living in Britain, I would take citizenship in a heartbeat. In fact, as a natural born citizen of this country I was almost envious that the immigrants who were naturalised today in King’s Cross were able to solemnly mark the event. Those of us born here often take our citizenship for granted, but these immigrants strove and sacrificed to attain their status.

With the ongoing debates around Brexit, I encounter all manner of arguments from people who clearly don’t understand the first thing about what citizenship entails or represents. For example, many are genuinely outraged that EU citizens could not vote in the 2016 referendum. I find it to be astonishing that people who live here but are unwilling to share the bond of citizenship with me seriously believe that they should still have the right to help determine the future of my country.

At this point I inevitably hear outraged spluttering along the lines of “I pay my taxes / serve in Our Blessed NHS / help employ local people, so why shouldn’t I have a say?” But this only highlights the transactional view of citizenship that many now hold, with paying taxes and claiming benefits the only relationship one might possibly have with a country.

And to be fair this transactional view of citizenship is also encouraged by the UK government, which rather than pursuing an immigration policy optimised for economic growth, social stability or national security instead blindly chases an arbitrary and unattainably low net migration number. When the state makes clear its view of immigrants as a problem to be mitigated and prospective citizens as purely a bureaucratic burden to be processed it is difficult to demand greater fealty or civic engagement from immigrants themselves.

Yet citizenship still matters, despite its somewhat tarnished image. Only citizens are able to participate fully in our civic life – voting, running for office, serving on a jury. If one is unwilling to undertake these commitments 99% of the time, as long-term EU residents who choose not to take citizenship are essentially declaring, you can’t object when you are then prohibited for participating in the one very specific event (voting in the EU referendum) in which you have a direct interest. That kind of cafeteria civics would represent a one-way flow of benefits from the state to the individual and undermine the reciprocity needed for society to function.

The Brexit debate has highlighted just how degraded our conception of citizenship has become. With reduced and increasingly ineffectual armed forces, only a very limited opportunity for national service (the National Citizen Service being one of the few entirely positive policies enacted by David Cameron) and our exquisite embarrassment about any display of patriotism, it is really no wonder that we have come to see citizenship as just a bunch of perks.

As I wrote back in September last year:

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

I am sure that some of those who naturalised in the citizenship ceremony today did so for purely practical or transactional reasons. But I hope that even they will look back on today with pride and now feel a deeper connection to the country they call home.

Ultimately there is nothing magical about naturalisation. The certificate does not hold any special magical powers. It is not a measure of personal worth, and of course many UK residents who are non-citizens on paper are far better citizens in practice than many of us who are natural born. Naturalisation is just one indicator, albeit a very important one, of an important responsibility solemnly accepted.

Of course, none of this will be the case in perpetuity. The nation state is not forever, and in a century or two, civics and geopolitics will doubtless look very different. But for now, the nation state remains the best guarantor of freedom and incubator of prosperity that mankind has yet devised, and attachment to the nation state has been the means of securing these blessings for an individual. Wishing for its premature demise is foolish.

To those citizens of the world, outraged by Brexit, who hold their EU citizenship more dear than their British citizenship, I would simply point out that any objective, dispassionate analysis shows us that the European Union is not the only (nor best) vehicle for international cooperation, its status as the natural successor to the nation state is far from certain and it will never possess the essential spirit of democracy until there is a European demos – a body of citizens willing to take the oath that my wife and forty others willingly gave to the United Kingdom.

Watching these people – as diverse as one would imagine forty people randomly plucked from the streets of Camden to be – take the oaths of allegiance was to witness them transform from being strangers and fellow immigrants to being compatriots. It was nearly as emotional for me, sitting perched in the gallery, as it clearly was for many of them.

And if only more of us knew the journey involved and the sacrifices made by these people so that they might share the same rights and responsibilities that we enjoy as British citizens, we would not be so cavalier about our own citizenship and all that it represents.

Camden Town Hall council chamber - view from public gallery - Citizenship ceremony

Oath of allegiance - British UK Citizenship ceremony

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Can Dual Citizens Be Good Citizens?

British citizenship ceremony 2

What does it mean to be a dual citizen in the Age of Brexit?

Following my recent blog post lamenting our society’s devalued and transactional concept of citizenship in the Age of Brexit, I was asked by a reader to write a companion piece on the topic of dual citizenship, a form of recourse which may ultimately be taken up by many EU residents currently living in Britain.

The request was as follows:

Brexit has caused (we are told) applications for passports from people who already hold passports – that is, people who are citizens of one European country seeking to become a citizen of a second country too.

This apparently includes UK citizens applying for Irish passports (without abandoning their UK passports) and people from continental countries who live in Britain applying for a British passport too (presumably this means going through the naturalisation process?). One wonders how many people who announce that they are planning to do it actually do – but it is evidently happening.

It is questionable why people should be able to be dual citizens if they live in democracies and are free to travel and work abroad. The ability to claim benefits in a second country seems to be one impetus. But it can cause people costs, like two tax liabilities. Some countries do not allow their citizens to take another citizenship without renouncing their existing one, but there seem to be many countries which are happy to agree to dual citizenship.

Your article of 12 September explains well how citizenship is becoming a sort of transaction – benefits for taxes, and no longer an allegiance to a nation. The large increase in people obtaining (why not triple?) citizenship could further undermine the significance and value of being a citizen of a country.

My reader seems to build on my assertion that citizenship is increasingly seen (particularly by educated, globally mobile elites) as very much a transactional affair with perks received in exchange for taxes paid, and extrapolates that dual citizenship is necessarily a further dilution of the bond between citizen and nation state.

This is a tricky subject for me to discuss, primarily because I will ultimately be emigrating to the United States with my Texan wife (who is herself currently in the process of applying for British citizenship). Therefore, to rail against the concept of dual citizenship would be hypocritical, while approving too strongly might be seen as merely attempting to justify my own personal circumstances. All I can do when setting out my views, therefore, is to make people aware of this potential bias and lay out my thinking on the matter as it currently stands.

In short, I do not believe that dual citizenship is either inherently good or inherently bad. Though there is undoubtedly a correlation between those who hold dual citizenship and the kind of fleet-footed “Citizens of the World” who feel that they have transcended national identity altogether, it is perfectly possible in my mind for somebody who holds dual citizenship to be a model citizen of both countries, while somebody without an international lifestyle can just as easily be a terrible citizen of the only country they call home.

Therefore, I don’t think it is a question of whether dual citizenship as a concept is right or wrong. The more interesting question to me is what makes somebody a good citizen of their home or adopted country, and what makes somebody a bad or negligent citizen.

One could probably define this a thousand different ways, but for immigrants seeking to naturalise as dual citizens surely it includes a mixture of more tangible qualities (being economically active, law-abiding, involved in the community) and intangible qualities (genuine interest in and acceptance of the country’s culture and values). Immigration authorities typically only look at the tangible aspects – what else could they do? – but while this scrutiny can reveal whether somebody is likely to be an economic burden or a danger to society, it is the intangible (and largely immeasurable) qualities which really determine whether or not somebody will make a good citizen.

From my own experience, I have loved the idea of America since I was an early teenager, and the reality of America just as much, ever since first experiencing the country in my late teens. The architecture, the art, the (classical) music, the landscape and the sheer optimism of America captivated me well before I was politically aware, and the Constitution, federal system and that strange but compelling contradiction between individualism and great community-mindedness equally appealed to me as I came to understand them.

America is a country that I feel I know well. Not just in the sense that frequent holidaymakers might be able to direct somebody to their favourite restaurant in New York City, or the way that US-based foreign correspondents come to know the political and cultural elites with whom they rub shoulders, but at a much deeper level.

I have visited and worked in towns and cities across that great land, from New York to Chicago to Kansas City to Austin to San Antonio to Seattle, and many smaller places in between. I have seen and savoured some of the best of urban and rural living in America, from hearing the New York Philharmonic play John Adams, riding a stranger’s horse in Colorado and experiencing the Catholic Mass with Mariachi music in my wife’s south Texas hometown to eating fried food on sticks at the Illinois State Fair. I have spoken with people from the most left-leaning liberals to the strictest social conservatives and found nearly everyone to be unfailingly polite and welcoming – though a couple of men I once conversed with at a hotel bar in Arkansas were none to happy that America had a black president (they used a different word).

I have seen (some of) the best of America, and glimpsed the darker side, too. And so when the day finally comes that I raise my hand and take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States of America I will be aligning myself with a country that I know and love, for all its greatness and its imperfections.

I will not become an American to join a closed community of fellow British expats, clustered together in one locale and unwilling to integrate with American society. I will not become an American to try to make the United States more like Britain. I will not become an American because the taxes are lower (though they are), or because I think I can get more from the welfare system (I certainly won’t). I will not become an American merely because the United States is a temporary work posting, a brief stopover as part of a transnational career. No, I will become an American because I will one day make that place my home and want to share that bond of citizenship and fraternity with my fellow citizens; because I want to participate in American democracy and every facet of civic life open to citizens.

But even as I do so, I will not lose affection for the United Kingdom, my homeland. I will remain connected to Britain not only through ties of family and friends, but because I am proud to be British and have been an engaged citizen of this country for so long, politically and culturally. When my wife and I have children we may well want them to spend some years growing up in London so that they know the rich culture that is also their inheritance. Far be it from me to brag about myself, but as an abstract ideal for the model dual citizen this would seem like a decent enough template.

But the diluting effect of loyalties mentioned by my reader is undoubtedly a real phenomenon. I would think it highly unlikely that anybody could maintain such strong connections as the number of countries and citizenships involved ticks upward. I have to tread carefully here, because I have a number of dear and longstanding friends who hold multiple citizenships, and uncontestably have strong attachments to and affection for each country in question. One cannot make judgments about individuals from population trends, or infer population trends from observing individuals, but at a macro level I think it is generally the case that deep attachment to a nation state decreases as the number of citizenships in play increases.

The degree to which the cultures in question differ from one another probably also determines whether it is possible to form a deep bond to multiple countries. I would imagine that growing up in a Middle Eastern theocracy would make it at least somewhat harder to form deep bonds of attachment to a country with Western values and culture while maintaining undiminished affection and loyalty to one’s homeland, though there are undoubtedly many such dual citizens who do not experience (or at least overcame) any cognitive dissonance in this regard.

Many residents holding a particularly high number of citizenships are likely to have acquired at least one from birth or through their parents, and may have very little connection to the culture of that country if they grew up without living there. I know several people who hold Spanish citizenship through birth, though the closest connection they have with Spain is having occasionally vacationed there as a child. Does this make them bad citizens? I wouldn’t necessarily say so, since their citizenship is passive – they do not live in Spain or participate in Spain’s democratic process, and so their effect on Spain is neither positive or negative.

And of course there are particularly mobile members of the economic elite who often tend to have more in common with elites from other developed countries than with their less affluent neighbours. Benjamin Schwarz is the latest to pick up on this particular trend, over at The American Conservative:

Reflecting and exacerbating the cultural divide, these cities have increasingly become culturally homogenous echo-chambers. The consumption patterns and cultural and political attitudes of, say, London, central Paris, the westside of Los Angeles, the northside of Chicago, Manhattan, Seattle, Northwest D.C., Toronto, and San Francisco resemble each other more than they do their outlying districts and suburbs.

As befits these engines of global capitalism, these cities and their inhabitants are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures. Untethered from their localities, they are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands.

Again, does this mean that a well-travelled, prosperous knowledge worker with an international career cannot be a good and conscientious member of his or her community and country? Of course not. But it seems highly likely that people who are rooted Somewhere will have a greater sense of belonging and loyalty to their country than people who are rooted Anywhere. This is not intended as a moral judgment, but simply a statement of probability.

This hypothesis was proved in the EU referendum, where the vast majority of the foreign-born Anywheres living in Britain were strongly for remaining in the European Union and dumbfounded to the point of trauma at the vote for Brexit. For example, many Americans living in London simply couldn’t understand why Britain would want to secede from a supranational political union in the name of nation state democracy, even though their own country would never in a million years submit to the same kind of incursions on sovereignty inflicted by the European Union. In this regard at least they clearly have more in common with the transnational elite than the majority of citizens of their own country (or Britain, as it turns out).

In all of this, I feel like something of an outsider. I have enjoyed an international career myself, will one day be a dual citizen and in most ways am very much part of the “elite” that I spend an increasing amount of time thinking and writing about. My wife and I live in West Hampstead, an area of London which voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the referendum, and in which French is probably the second-most common language heard on the high street. We have become snobs about good coffee, visit food trucks on the weekend and (God help us) occasionally shop at Whole Foods.

Yet I am not at one with the hive mind of my demographic, which leans strongly toward the pro-European, trendy Left. I don’t think that this makes me any better or worse than people who hold the prevailing views of my social circle, but whether by the circumstances of my childhood or some quirk of the brain I do seem to be able to empathise with those who fall outside my demographic or otherwise think differently. I see the condescending, insular selfishness of the centre-leftist metropolitan worldview even as I personally benefit from many of the resulting policies.

This is probably why my stance on dual citizenship is nuanced to the point of sounding tortured. But since the ability to empathise with people of all circumstances is to my mind an essential part of being a good citizen, to this extent I do consider myself a better citizen (though by no means a better person) than those who hold the typical pro-EU, metro-leftist worldview.

Personally, I feel rooted emotionally and circumstantially to only two countries – Britain and America. There are other countries which I know well, love and respect. I have enormous affection for France, from the scruffy Pas-de-Calais to the trendy Marais district of Paris. I know and like the French culture and character. But I do not feel French, nor would I, even if I were to take a job in France for a number of years. If I were ever to take French citizenship it would only be the result of a need to formally codify my status there for administrative reasons, or because I wanted to participate in the democracy of my host nation. It would very much be the more transactional approach to citizenship that my reader decries. By contrast, I already feel part-American – the only thing which lags behind is the paperwork.

Others may enjoy the rare ability to feel real, abiding love for multiple countries, to hold six or seven passports and be willing to fight and die for each represented flag, if necessary. I am not one of those people, and as a tenuous member of the so-called elite I can report that very few of them cross my path. Therefore I think it almost self-evident that there is a negative correlation between citizenships held and deep attachment to each – but it is a trend with many many outliers, and one cannot prejudge anybody based on this factor alone.

So is it possible for dual citizens to be good citizens of both countries? Yes, of course – or at least I hope so, for my sake. But the qualities that make a good citizen cannot be measured or screened for during the immigration and naturalisation process (even attempting to do so would veer into draconian thought-policing of the worst kind), and so we are left struggling to promote the concept of citizenship to a group of people many of whom have lost faith in the very concept. But just as one hopes that people take the institution of marriage seriously while simultaneously recognising that many people will not do so, so one must accept that some people will become citizens of a new country thinking only of the benefits and not the obligations.

At present, many of those who oppose Brexit – both British citizens and EU residents – declare themselves “Citizens of the World”, meaningless phrase though it is, as a way of signifying their disdain for what they see as an insular and parochial worldview.

But as I wrote last year:

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute in return. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to have been true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

If the former, more parasitic attitude is what comes to represent dual citizenship then I have no desire to be associated with it. But it need not be like this. Dual citizens can be among the very best citizens of a country, holding a deep appreciation for their new home that many natural born citizens lack or take for granted, while also bringing with them the best values and traditions of their homelands.

And these people we should welcome with wide-open arms.

 

Dual citizenship - US and British passports

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Citizenship And The Nation State Remain Relevant, Despite The Efforts Of Their Detractors

Katy Perry - Treaty of Westphalia - Nation States

There’s life in the humble nation state yet

As the backlash against Brexit grows ever stronger and the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics eats away at our national fabric from within, there are many legitimate reasons to fear for the future of patriotism, citizenship and even the nation state itself.

However, there are also a few reasons for optimism, and Rebecca Lowe Coulson sets some of them out in Conservative Home. But first she paraphrases the question that many people are now asking about the continued relevance of the concept of citizenship:

In an increasingly globalised world, however — in which the Westphalian order of nation states is regularly criticised as inward-looking — citizenship is repeatedly denounced as an outdated representation of division and exclusion. It hardly seems necessary to comment that such denouncements typically come from the privileged, within the most economically and politically secure nations. And that, like those Britons angered at the imminent loss of their EU citizenship after Brexit, few “global citizens” seem keen to give up the privileges of their current national citizenships.

Of course, what many of those citizenship-snubbers truly want (like most of the rest of us) is for their own privileges to be extended to those living in less secure places. It is undeniable that great global imbalances remain, even though living standards continue to rise across the world. But then, the question should not be whether the concept of citizenship precludes opportunities in the sense that being a member of one state can be highly preferable to being a member of another, but whether it is still the case that one’s rights and opportunities are best protected and afforded through membership of an individuated state. In a world in which secure states increasingly offer extensive rights to non-citizen inhabitants, aCitind less secure states need more substantial upheaval and help than an improved understanding of the intricacies of membership rules, is the concept of citizenship relevant?

Coulson Lowe then goes on to explain exactly why the concept of citizenship remains relevant, and will not be undermined despite the best efforts of those who see the nation state as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a crucial guarantor of rights:

We all remember how, in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, Theresa May said that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere”. The comment has become symbolic of an approach for which she has been widely criticised: an approach seen both as arrogant, and as attempting to appeal to those on the further right of her party.

At the time, I felt her tone mistaken, in that I would have preferred a use of language implying greater keenness to heal, or at least address pressing divisions within the country. General criticisms of the comment often overlook the argument May was setting out, however. The words came within a section about the “spirit of citizenship”, and read, in full: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizen’ means”. Surely, it is that forgotten second sentence that is key, here. And that the point May was in the midst of making was about the importance of “respecting the bonds and obligations that make our society work”.

The state, and the society that exists within it, still matters profoundly to those people who aren’t happy with the countries they call home .. Official membership of such societies is conferred in different ways: from the automatic rights of familial lineage to the successful passing of a test. But the standard way of gaining the citizenship of a state is by being born and growing up in it. For those of us fortunate to count somewhere like Britain or Australia as that place, it can be easy to take for granted the relative privileges this affords us.

Yet most of us see that the uncertainties and risks of life make it expedient for us to live together in societies, and that, as social creatures, it is natural for us to want to do so, over and above that expediency. The advancements of the past centuries — in communication, travel, science, military capabilities, commerce, and on — have made it impractical for societies to remain limited to the family groups, villages, or cities they once were. The continuation of that advancement does not mean that our embrace of the nation state must also become outdated, however. For simple reasons of functionality — not to mention the more complex, such as those related to culture or national identity — it is hard to see how bigger blocs or idealist internationalist approaches could work.

This is what many on the Left fail (or are unwilling) to grasp. The Westphalian concept of statehood and sovereignty (combined with 19th century concepts of nationalism) survive the test of time because they work with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Rather than pretending against all available evidence that somebody from country A has as much in common with someone from country Z as their next door neighbour, the system of nation states is a tacit admission that the human instinct to be part of a social communities mean that harmony is best achieved when systems of government are aligned with societal boundaries. And indeed, when there is a mismatch between government and society, nation states have often split and reformed in response.

But the bigger blocs and non-state actors championed by the nation state’s detractors will not become a viable replacement in the foreseeable future, precisely because an entity’s democratic legitimacy and popular support are derived from having a demos which identifies as a cohesive whole and consents to being governed at that level.

The United States works as a country because US citizens see themselves as American first and foremost, and not Californian, Texan, Iowan, Alaskan or North Carolinian. The United Kingdom survived the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum because a majority of Scots (just about) considered themselves British as well as Scottish, if not more so.

Supranational blocs do not command this sense of loyalty or commonality among the people they nominally represent, as the European Union discovered with Brexit and will continue to discover as member states chafe against one-size-fits-all dictation from Brussels. Brexit occurred because the European Union’s drive for ever-closer union and a grander role on the world stage was plain for all to see, and the majority of voters who consider themselves more British than European wanted no part of it.

The “if you build it they will come” approach – where ideological zealots construct all the trappings of a supranational state in the hope or arrogant expectation that a common demos and sense of shared purpose will follow on automatically – has been proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

And this is a good thing, because as Rebecca Lowe Coulson correctly observes, supranational and non-state actors have generally proven themselves far less able to effect change than unilateral, bilateral or multilateral efforts by nation states with common purpose. The very nature of trying to shoehorn the competing national interests and priorities of multiple countries into a “common” foreign, fiscal or defence policy gives rise to resentment, suboptimal outcomes (such as stratospheric youth unemployment in Southern Europe) and inevitable net losers.

And yet the myth persists – amplified by bitter Remainers and much of the corrupted civil liberties lobby – that cooperation between countries is only possible under the umbrella of supranational government, and that these non-state actors are somehow a better guarantor of individual liberties than nation states themselves.

Take this hysterical email recently sent out by “civil liberties” organisation Liberty:

Yesterday we took another huge step towards our withdrawal from the European Union as the Government published the Repeal Bill.

If the Bill passes in its current state, people in the UK will lose rights after we leave the EU. It’s that simple and the stakes are that high.

The vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to abandon our human rights.

Yet the Repeal Bill includes worryingly broad powers for ministers to alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny and contains no guaranteed protections for human rights. Worse, it takes away the protections of the Charter of Fundamental Rights without ensuring that we will continue to protect all of those rights in the UK after Brexit.

Every single right we have now needs to stay on our statute books – from those contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, to equality protections we’ve gained from our membership.

Liberty – and other groups who are content for British citizens to have “rights” imposed on them from above rather than argue for and win them at a domestic level – see supranational organisations as a convenient bypass for national democracy. If the stupid British people are too dumb to vote for more employment protections and other government treats, this line of thinking goes, then advocacy groups who know better should just go over their heads to the EU. This is profoundly undemocratic, but more than that it only affirms the dangerous idea that our rights should be granted by government (at any level) rather than being innate and inalienable.

This is utterly wrong, as I explained back in 2015:

The new, emerging institutions which will replace them are being designed behind closed doors by small groups of mostly unelected people, as well as the most influential agents of all – wealthy corporations and their lobbyists. We have almost no idea, let alone influence, over what they are building together because instead of scrutinising them we spend our time arguing over the mansion tax or the NHS or high speed railways, which are mere distractions in the long run.

The liberties and freedoms we hold dear today can very easily slip away if we do not jealously guard them. By contrast, power is generally won back by the people from elites and powerful interests at a very heavy price – just consider Britain’s own history, or the American fight for independence from our Crown.

The yawning gap in the argument of those who would do away with the nation state is how they intend to preserve democracy in its absence (assuming they even care to do so). Even many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders concede that the current institutions are profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive to popular priorities or concerns – this tends to be expressed through an exasperated “of course the EU needs reform!”, sandwiched between odes of love and loyalty to the very same entity, as we witnessed countless times during the EU referendum.

But what that reform actually looks like, nobody can say. Or at least, those few tangible visions for a future EU which do exist are so unmoored from reality as to be little more than idle curiosities – see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25, which contends both that the European Union can be persuaded to undertake meaningful reforms (ha!), and that this reformed EU should then amplify left-wing priorities to the exclusion of all others (how very democratic).

If you want to do away with the concept of the nation state or actively agitate for its demise then I think you have a responsibility to state clearly and unambiguously what you would have in its place before pushing us all into the undiscovered country. Yet the assorted citizens of the world, so anguished by Brexit, refuse to come up with an answer – at least not one which they are willing to utter in public.

The European Union is not a static entity – it is an explicitly and unapologetically political project moving relentlessly (if erratically) toward the clear goal of ever-closer union. If this is not their preferred outcome for Britain and all other nation states (and few pro-EU types will admit that this is what they want) then it is incumbent on them to offer an alternative goal with a politically viable means of achieving it.

And until they do so, the assorted enemies of the nation state do not really deserve a hearing.

Treaty of Westphalia

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Lack Of Empathy For Opposing Political Views Threatens Social Cohesion

Bob Geldof - EU Referendum - Brexit- Fisherman boat protest

The inability of the political and professional classes to comprehend or respect the political opinions of those from other backgrounds is nearly as grave a threat to our social cohesion as unchecked multiculturalism

There is a whole bucketload of truth in this piece by Michael Merrick, which should make uncomfortable reading not only for metro-leftist, pro-EU types, but even those of us in the so-called professional classes who do not subscribe to majority opinion.

Merrick discusses the differing prevailing cultural and political norms which exist among working class people (generally more conservative) and those in the urban professional classes (much more progressive), and the difficulty of bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the two. This is particularly relevant when it is almost exclusively the professional classes who are charged with setting public policy, despite often having no real empathy with those whom they seek to reform or re-educate.

Merrick writes:

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

This truth tends to sail over the heads of people who currently exist and always remained largely in the same social class and culture in which they were raised – how would they know any different? But Merrick, who gained access to the professional classes after being the first in his family to get a degree, is better placed to notice the gulf of incomprehension and unwillingness to empathise with the other side, having occupied both sides of the divide at various times.

And this can have a real impact in terms of public policy, as Merrick notes:

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of SomewheresPioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

“Anywheres seeking to educate a generation of somewheres” – that phrase resonates, particularly as the self-described Citizens of the World tend to assume that the only thing preventing others from embracing their worldview is their lower level of education.

I actually see a lot of myself in what Merrick writes. I wouldn’t know whether to describe my upbringing as working class or middle class. Income-wise, being in a single parent family on benefits, living in Harlow, we were very much working class. But thanks to other branches of the family that worked in professional or academic circles, I wouldn’t say that my social upbringing was that of the typical working class. I should also note that my accent was never the standard estuary accent typical to Essex, but rather that of my wider family – and in Britain, accent does so much to demarcate one’s class status.

I certainly remember being both aware and very ashamed of being poor when I was young, and keenly noticed the difference in lifestyle between many of my schoolfriends who came from working families – their Sky television versus our black and white television set, for example. To be clear, I wanted for nothing when I was a child and had a great upbringing rich in love and family and culture. But a child notices these things, and it is silly to deny that they influence one’s development.

And so, when I went to university I was probably overly keen to embrace the distinctly more upper middle-class lifestyle and tastes enjoyed by my peers – not that I ever fell properly into the working class mould because of our extended family, but because I was keen to explore new horizons which had previously been somewhat limited. I enjoyed being on the Entertainments Committee of the Union Society and wearing black tie to the weekly debates featuring famous names from British political and cultural life. I admit that I enjoyed having transcended the town, the culture and many of the people with whom I had grown up.

This continued into my professional life. Living with other young professionals starting their careers in London, I was happy to make jokes about chavs, or otherwise look down on those from less educated and less wealthy circumstances. I would sometimes crack jokes about Harlow and the people there (despite the fact that I had, and continue to have, friends living in Harlow to this day). I remember attending one fancy dress party in a chav costume, which I thought to be terribly clever at the time.

In fact, it has probably only been in the past five years, since I started blogging (and consequently reading and thinking a lot more about various issues) that I realise the deliberate nature of what I was doing as an adolescent and a young graduate – and how insufferable I must have been to so many people from my earlier life during that time. And it is only now, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the enormous establishment hissy fit which continues to this day in response to the outcome, that I fully understand what Michael Merrick is saying and identify very much with his experience.

I have always felt that the best people to analyse or give commentary on a situation are those who have held both sides of an argument at one time or another, or been on different sides of an important wedge issue. Why listen to somebody like Owen Jones analyse politics, when he was raised to hate the Tories and simply continued on the same uninterrupted intellectual trajectory his whole life, the only difference being that he can now use longer words and quote academic sources sympathetic to his position? There is no personal growth there, nor any real empathy for the other side (the possession of which is the only real acid test of one’s own political philosophy) and consequently no real attempt to engage with ideological opponents. That’s not being an intellectual, it’s being a partisan shill.

Similarly on Brexit, why listen to some millennial writer who has only grown up knowing life inside the EU and accepting its unquestioned brilliance all the days of her life? What can such a person really add to the national conversation besides a whole heap of confirmation bias and sanctimony?

Now, I would never claim to be better than Owen Jones or Generic Millennial Remainiac Writer. But I can at least plausibly claim to have had my feet on both sides of the political and cultural divide at various times, having grown up holding the typical youthful left-wing opinions and then made a gradual move toward the libertarian or conservatarian Right. And even more so having been a staunch euro-federalist in my university days, to the extent that I hung an EU flag on my dorm room wall and sometimes insufferably wore an EU flag lapel pin, to rediscovering the vital importance of the nation state and becoming an avowed Brexiteer over the past five years.

Generally I find that the most productive exchanges take place with people who have not simply percolated in likeminded groupthink for their entire careers, but who have either personal experience of occupying the other side of the argument or at least made a sincere effort to reach out in good faith to those who disagree.

I was a socialist in my youth, and know many of the old arguments inside and out – but crucially, I also know through personal experience that many of those who still hold socialist views are good and decent people. I was a pro-European in my youth and know the entire case for European political integration backwards and forwards, yet despite having reversed my position 180 degrees I know that many of those who still hold these views are intelligent and honourable people. I hope that this knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and acknowledgement of the decency of those with whom I disagree adds a bit of depth to my better pieces of writing.

Unfortunately, this attempt to bridge the chasm of cultural and political difference is almost nonexistent among the political class – on both sides. Rising star Labour MP Jess Phillips openly admits to being “raised in no uncertain terms to hate Tories“, a fact which shines through in many of her speeches and television appearances. And the inability of many of those in the Conservative Party and the centrist, machine politics wing of the Labour Party to empathise with working class people is self-evident – a particularly shameful indictment of the Labour centrists, who now openly scorn a large swathe of their political base.

And this failure to empathise with different people has real world effects, like when David Cameron went marching off to Brussels to conduct his faux renegotiation with the EU despite never really having stopped to ask what the British people wanted out of it, and today’s Conservative government pursuing an idiotic and damaging approach to Brexit on the assumption that immigration is the overriding factor for most people when post-referendum polls (and a few conversations with actual Brexiteers) reveal concerns about sovereignty and democracy to have been the primary driver of Brexit.

We currently have a political class who at best arrogantly think they can channel working class opinion without ever really stopping to consult the people they think they are ventriloquising, and at worst simply don’t care at all about what a whole swathe of the population thinks and believes.

More worryingly, it takes an immense effort to overcome this gulf of misunderstanding – in my case it took over five years, and that’s despite having occupied both sides of the debate at different times, such is the zealotry of a convert to professional class norms – and the political class generally show zero aptitude for that kind of introspection.

Michael Merrick has done a great job of diagnosing the problem, but right now I fail to see a ready solution. The gulf of incomprehension is likely to get wider before it narrows.

BRITAIN-EU-POLITICS-BREXIT

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