Political Tribalism, Brexit And The Liberalist Insurgency

Us vs Them - Political Tribalism

Many so-called liberals are great at diagnosing destructive political tribalism when it manifests in other people, but are often blind to the same pathologies within their own ranks

I wrote a long piece earlier this month about deepening political tribalism as it relates to Brexit. After the piece was serialised in Country Squire Magazine, much of the pushback I received from the usual suspects within the Remain camp (university professors and the like) only served to prove my point – that Brexit merely exposed, rather than caused, the increasing depths of partisan tribalism afflicting Britain.

This tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of the under-educated, supposedly simple-minded working classes whose emotions and voting habits are apparently so easily manipulated by Rupert Murdoch, Cambridge Analytica or the dozens of other shadowy figures who now stand accused of ushering in Brexit for their own nefarious ends. Indeed, through their growing obsession with these new scapegoats, many of those opposed to Brexit reveal themselves to be capable of behaving in an equally aggressively tribal manner without even realising that they are doing so.

It never occurs to many of those people who occupy the groups most statistically prone to supporting Britain’s EU membership – students, university professors, artists and arts workers, young urban professionals – that they might be doing something so base, so primal as to be influenced by tribal behaviour. Why? Because many are used to seeing tribalism as a pathology affecting only the poor, the uneducated or others traditionally seen as either victims (like welfare recipients) or potential threats to be mitigated (juvenile criminals or nascent Islamist extremists). To many journalists, academics and politicians, tribalism is seen as something afflicting only society’s losers and outcasts,  not something which might also pull the strings inside AC Grayling’s neocortex.

The idea that political tribalism might just as easily drive the behaviour of an Oxbridge professor, a PR director on a six-figure salary or a young university student often simply fails to compute, but it is a real and frequent occurrence nonetheless. Being educated and even nominally aware of the existence of tribal impulses does not automatically make one immune from being driven by tribalism oneself, particularly when one possesses the intellectual capacity and vocabulary to rationalise one’s behaviour as more noble and high-minded than it necessarily is.

And so time and again we see those who would normally be first to decry tribal behaviour engaging in its most vicious forms, whether it be the American college students or graduates who refuse to visit their Trump-voting parents or public figures who believe they have license to say the most horrible things about Leave voters and Brexiteers from atop their perch on the “right” side of history. More concerning, since these new converts to overtly tribal behaviour supposedly make up much of the cognitive elite, they seem unable to acknowledge the drawbacks of their behaviour or the many ways in which it actively harms their end goal, be it overturning the result of Britain’s EU referendum or prematurely turfing President Donald Trump out of office.

Smart people should be capable of noticing when an existing strategy is not delivering results and adjusting course to deliver better outcomes, but many within the anti-Brexit academic, cultural, commercial and political elite instead seem intent to double down on losing strategies which may feel cathartic but fail to achieve their political ends. Only political tribalism can drive nominally smart people to behave in so counterproductive a way.

Political tribalism causes anti-Brexit members of the elite to act out in a couple of negative ways – firstly by failing to understand or acknowledge the true motivations and drivers for the Leave vote, and secondly by engaging in public statements and actions which actively alienate many of the people whose good opinion they need to court and convince in order to change their minds. In my recent long article about political tribalism and Brexit I covered a number of the ways in which anti-Brexit elites harm their own cause through misbehaviour and bad messaging, but it is also worth focusing on the way in which political tribalism causes Brexit opponents to consistently ignore the full range of valid reasons which drove thinking adults of good character to vote to leave the European Union.

The first is a binary worldview which sees the EU as representing (if not always achieving) the highest ideals of mankind, and euroscepticism as the antithesis of all that is good in the world. This widely held opinion reveals itself in every tweet decrying Brexit as the result of unchecked xenophobia and racism (or a neo-imperial quest for lost glory) while simultaneously ignoring the EU’s manifest flaws. The best one can often get in debate with a pro-EU activist is an exasperated admission that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!” uttered through clenched teeth, though specific proposals for such reform or estimates of their probable implementation are always curiously lacking. Meanwhile, despite post-referendum polling which showed sovereignty and not immigration as the key driver of the Leave vote, heinous racist or xenophobic statements are taken to represent the broad church of pro-Brexit opinion.

The second reason is the exclusionary nature of many of the strongest bastions of pro-EU sentiment. There are people of good conscience in the academic and arts industries who support Brexit, but they rarely make themselves heard for fear of social or professional reprisal. If the prevailing opinion within one’s social or professional circle holds that Brexit is a national calamity with grievous implications for human rights, few people will have the courage (or luxury of courage) to take an openly contrarian view. Unfortunately this only worsens the situation, with those who do most to oppress pro-Brexit sentiment within their respective circles then failing to see that Brexiteers can sometimes be respected colleagues and friends.

Just as increased meaningful exposure to immigrants tends to reduce xenophobia or opposition to immigration, so structured and controlled exposure to Brexiteers might make many of the loudest anti-Brexit advocates realise that their opponents are not the evil masterminds or stupid pawns they have been portrayed as. But ironically, while many anti-Brexit campaigners are eager champions of multiculturalism, they also either encourage or tacitly tolerate a sometimes aggressively ideologically homogeneous pro-EU school of thought to dominate their field – ideological diversity is the one kind which is not celebrated and put on a pedestal.

But the greatest driver (or manifestation) of political tribalism among anti-Brexit activists now is not the deeply ingrained sense of moral superiority or self-imposed isolation from contrarian viewpoints – rather, it is the degree to which many of the afflicted now seem willing to latch onto anything from issues of concern to downright conspiracy theories, promoting them as valid reasons for nullifying or re-running the EU referendum in order to seek the “correct” response from the electorate.

The latest cause du jour is Cambridge Analytica, which seems to have transformed itself in the minds of Remain supporters from the tawdry and morally questionable data huckster outfit into a shadowy, all-powerful corporate behemoth which single-handedly tipped the balance and inflicted Trump and Brexit on a naive and defenceless world. The re-emergence of Cambridge Analytica in the headlines following news of its connection to a Facebook data “breach” and the Trump presidential campaign has only encouraged those already looking for reasons to invalidate (rather than argue against) Brexit to seize upon the scandal and make a lot of tenuous and irresponsible insinuations.

Pro-EU advocacy website InFacts can now be found – contrary to their name – raising “questions” whose entire purpose is to put the murkiest deeds of Cambridge Analytica as close as possible to Brexit on paper or a smartphone screen in the hope that insinuations about the former question the legitimacy of the latter.

Prior to Cambridge Analytica, the figure of Russia loomed largest in the Remainer imagination as the driver of Brexit. While any foreign interference in British electoral processes represents an abhorrent and unacceptable attack on our national security and civic institutions, one which we should probably be taking far more seriously both in terms of reprisals and future safeguarding, the idea that even a large scale attempt at Facebook manipulation had a material impact on the referendum result is both unproven and far from meeting the common sense test.

Are Remainers seriously proposing that the full weight of UK government advocacy, the massed ranks of the artistic and cultural world, a plurality of big business and heavyweight external interventions from the likes of the IMF and even President Barack Obama, all encouraging a Remain vote, were overshadowed by £1 worth of Facebook ads and the addled efforts of a Twitter troll farm in Russia? Apparently so – and yet many of the high profile personalities and Serious Thinkers who make and amplify these assertions are unable to step back and escape the prison of their political tribalism for long enough to appreciate how unhinged their conspiracies are beginning to sound.

In short, a significant strand of anti-Brexit opinion remains obstinately unwilling to consider any failure on the part of the Remain campaign or the European Union itself, instead attributing their every setback and woe to crude dismissals of the electorate or fantastical conspiracy theories of the type embraced by leading Remainer intellectual Professor AC Grayling.

It takes a lot to make intelligent and accomplished people behave in a way which is both counterproductive to their interests (they will never stop Brexit by repeatedly shrieking that Leave voters are stupid automatons who were hoodwinked either by Vladimir Putin or sinister corporate interests) and damaging to their long-term reputations. In fact, one of the only things which can induce such a mania in so-called “respectable” people is the phenomenon of political tribalism, whereby it becomes more important to be seen as strongly aligned with and supporting ones own people than it is to be either pragmatic or empathetic.

And when it comes to Brexit, so strong is the force of political tribalism among certain demographics that even those whose job it is to understand political and constitutional matters find themselves unable to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully engage with, the real issues which prompted millions of decent people to vote for Brexit, instead blaming “fake news”, the Russians or Cambridge Analytica.

Tom Peck makes a reasonable observation in the Independent:

People have almost entirely forgotten that, say, in 2015, when the BBC hosted its first hustings in the Labour leadership contest in a church in Nuneaton, some hitherto unknown man called Jeremy Corbyn was the only one who had anything of any interest to say. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were beyond abysmal, and they remained so throughout the contest.

Is it acceptable to wonder if the fire is only being turned on technology because it hasn’t delivered the results the bulk of the media class wanted? If the Democrats had delivered a candidate better equipped to deal with the shallowness of the media age, and if the Remain campaign had been run as well as the Leave one, this apparently existential crisis would not be occurring.

The comparison with the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest is an instructive one. Then, as now, a cadre of people accustomed to calling the shots and having their worldview acknowledged, respected and advanced at all times – the Labour centrists – suddenly found themselves out of power and influence within the party for the first time since John Smith and Tony Blair ushered in their long period of domination. But rather than engage in any kind of introspection as to why they were so unloved by the Labour base, centrist Labour MPs instead engaged in an unseemly year-long insurrection against new leader Jeremy Corbyn, culminating in the rather disgraceful and ultimately unsuccessful decision to use the shock EU referendum result as a convenient “fog of war” in which to take down their new leader.

Why did the Labour centrists behave in this way? Because they were motivated more by tribal affiliation and beliefs than political principle or even civic decency. They (rightly) sensed that their tribe was under attack from the hard-left Corbynites within the party, and worried that their status would be permanently eroded were Jeremy Corbyn able to cement his grip on power. And thus rather than spending the following years attempting to hold the Conservative government to account, as an Opposition party is supposed to do, we instead saw the biggest names from Labour’s centrist wing engage in a long period of unseemly infighting – because political tribalism trumped their commitment to either party unity or the national interest.

The funny thing about political tribalism is that its most ardent practitioners tend to see themselves as being immune from the phenomenon while ruefully detecting its presence among nearly everyone with whom they disagree. Thus it simply never occurred to many of the Labour MPs who made it their primary mission to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn that they were primarily motivated by tribal interest, just as many of those who howl the loudest about Brexit cannot bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that their behaviour is driven by anything other a rational, fact-based analysis of the common good.

 

The Liberalist Insurgency

The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have been widely painted by many establishment opinion-setters as an assault on liberal democracy and liberalism itself, as progressive or enlightenment values fell prey to reactionary populism spouted by right-wing demagogues. Indeed, it pleases many of those who oppose both Donald Trump and Brexit (for the record, this blog strongly opposes the former and supports the latter) to paint themselves as brave guardians of liberal democracy and sole keepers of the frame of liberalism in these uniquely benighted times.

And yet when many of the great and the good in the anti-Brexit or anti-Trump camps are not fulminating against their respective bêtes noires, they can often be found undermining and attacking the same liberal values which they claim to champion. How often are those who decry Brexit as the first step toward fascism also found supporting draconian hate speech laws, advocating censorship and No Platforming on university campuses, attempting to excommunicate those who merely profess (without seeking to enforce) traditional social values from polite society and aggressively ushering in radical new gender theory and the divisive intersectional identity politics movement which seeks to stigmatise and oppress any questioning of these goals? None of these behaviours are remotely liberal in the true sense of the word, yet all are being enthusiastically adopted by many of those who also seek to paint themselves as guardians of liberalism in their fight against Brexit.

It is therefore important that we deny the anti-Brexit campaigners automatic and exclusive use of the “liberal” label, particularly when their actions and words – wheher expressed through contempt for a democratic referendum result and those who voted for it or other stances taken against science, liberty and free speech – are the antithesis of true liberal behaviour. When prestige journalists, academics and politicians who are complicit in these illiberal behaviours also inveigh against Brexit in a way which denigrates Leave voters and fails to even acknowledge the existence of their legitimate arguments we should not allow them to pretend that they are safeguarding either liberalism or democracy when they do so.

And that’s where the word “liberalist” could be very useful. Just as Islamism refers to a fundamentalist, politicised and perverted strain of Islam and the word Christianist has been memorably coined (by Andrew Sullivan among others) to refer to those Christians who profess a harshly authoritarian, theocratic political worldview, so the word “liberalist” (as distinct from “liberal”) should perhaps be taken to mean a hypocritical self-serving authoritarianism masquerading as genuine concern for democratic stability and outcomes, a cynical perversion of true liberalism.

Post-Brexit (and to some degree since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, though the analogy is imperfect), liberalists have effectively become the “faith militant” of progressive liberals, a combative sect who use their typically high-status positions in electoral politics, journalism, culture and academia to inveigh against any political initiative which threatens to disrupt a stale status quo under which they have largely prospered while other groups have largely stagnated.

In order to shroud their blatant self-interest in the more noble garments of high-minded civic duty, liberalists portray their objection to current political developments as flowing from an overriding commitment to individual rights, the protection of vulnerable minorities and the preservation of democracy. This is quite impressive, since many of them have built entire careers on the back of attacking individual freedoms (particularly core civil liberties like free speech) and signing away our right to democratic self-determination by blindly and naively entrusting sovereignty to a supranational political union which represents a non-existent demos, which has never sought public input and which even now shows no real willingness to change for the better.

Taking on this faux-superhero role serves a dual purpose for the liberalists – firstly it allows them to avoid any real introspection as to why the values, norms and institutions they champion are increasingly rejected by a plurality of voters, and secondly it helps to soothe the cognitive dissonance which inevitably arises when people whose identities are so closely tied to projecting the appearance of social conscience and civic virtue act so shamelessly in their own short-term self-interest.

But whatever their protestations to the contrary, the liberalists are engaged in a performative act, if not a downright fraud. That is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons to oppose or even deplore Brexit – of course such a case can be made. But the liberalists will not engage in reasoned debate because they refuse point-blank to even acknowledge the Brexiteer frame of reference, insisting instead that everything is debated through the lens of short-term economic impact. And on top of this obstinacy they treat us to an increasingly tedious and condescending tale about civilisation teetering on the brink and the only safe option being a return to the EU’s cold embrace, with not so much as a nod to Brexiteer concerns.

Political tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of any one demographic group or end of the political spectrum, but the media focus is nearly always on those deemed to have fallen under the corrupting influence of “populist” rabble-rousers – understandably so, because such people are so poorly represented in the politico-media and cultural elite that they can raise no significant objection when one weepy Guardian article after another frets about rising nativist tendencies among the provincial rabble while ignoring rising insularity and decreasing social solidarity within the London-centric elite.

Therefore, it is time that we turn the focus back on the people who ostentatiously fret about the tribalism and populism they so readily detect in others. It is high time that we stop naively accepting the liberalist narrative that their objections to Brexit are exclusively rooted in high-minded concern for the national interest – at least so far as the word “national” incorporates any regard at all for the importance of democratic self-determination. They are not.

Brexiteers may be equally susceptible to political tribalism, but how much more dangerous is it when members of the political, cultural and media elite, with all their power and influence, throw themselves into the opposing side of the anti-Brexit culture war with such verve and venom?

We are about to find out.

 

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The False Allure Of A Second EU Referendum

Anti Brexit Pro EU protester holding Second Referendum banner

Beguiled by the irresistible prospect of overturning Brexit before it even happens, many Remainers are even more oblivious to the consequences of forcing and winning a second referendum than Brexiteers were to the fallout from victory in the first

What would actually happen in the event that there was a second EU referendum? Unforgiving timescales mean that the prospect of a second vote may be more remote than ever before, despite much salivating on the Left and in the media, but the question is still worth asking because it reveals a pathology within the Remain side which not only mirrors but now exceeds that of the most unlettered Brexit Ultras.

Whether any future second referendum offered voters a choice between accepting the government’s secession deal or remaining in the EU on current terms, or if it posed a choice between the government deal and having to apply for re-entry on likely punitive terms, the argument put forward by establishment Remainers like Chukka Umunna is that “new facts” which “we could not know at the time” would inevitably swing the vote the other way.

Why do they think this? Because the intellectual leaders (though such a term may be too grand) of the Remain movement still refuse – either on principle or through basic incompetence – to empathise with the Brexit case. They live in a world of tenuous economic forecasts and financial charts designed to portray immediate economic ruin but refuse to acknowledge, let alone properly engage with, the democratic or self-deterministic case for leaving the European Union.

Even now, the idea that someone might reasonably vote for a cause which does not personally line their pockets or send perks and opportunities flowing their way is unfathomable to many Remainers (though of course there are Remainers of good conscience who do “get” the democratic argument while disagreeing with it). So on the whole, Remainers are no better equipped to fight any putative Referendum Take Two than they were the first time round.

But it gets worse. At the same time as they failed to update their overall case for Remain (for example by finally producing a forthright and unassailable case for European political union as a valid or exclusive solution to the problems we face), there has also metastasised within the Remain camp a very ugly and shrill Cultural Remain narrative which is openly hostile to Brexiteers as people, not just because of their vote.

This much is evident in that the cultural figureheads of Brexit are people like AC Grayling, Ian Dunt, Gina Miller and other polarising types who make no visible effort to see the argument from the other side (the first rule of persuasion), as to thus engage with “evil” would offend their delicate sensibilities.

Rather than outreach and understanding, there has been a constant hum of outraged, self-entitled contempt emanating from Camp Remain, and a seething hatred of Brexit voters which does not even attempt to mask itself. This is most clearly shown in the way that some Remainers publicly console one another at the prospect of elderly Leave voters dying, while others actively salivate at the prospect:

(The “wall of gammon” is a derogatory reference to white men of middle age and upwards, for whose deaths it is now perfectly acceptable to openly pine on social media and be blessed by the imprimatur of a Twitter verified tick).

So when the starting gun is fired on any second EU referendum, the pent-up cultural anger from this angry subgroup of Remainers will produce a banshee-type wail of fury and hatred toward the 52% that all but guarantees they alienate more swing voters than they are able to win over.

But we must also consider the dynamics of the public backlash. I wrote immediately following the June 2016 referendum how unprepared I was for the extent of the anti-Brexit backlash – partly because I fully expected the Leave side to lose the referendum and so had not mentally prepared for victory, but also because Brexiteers were so used to being the instigators of populist revolt that we neither saw the Remain backlash coming nor had any experience in defending against such a wave.

What should have been obvious to us then is that given the Remain side consists of the vast majority of politicians, academia and the cultural scene, their capacity to generate and sustain a backlash (or huge public tantrum) was always infinitely greater than a disorganised, squabbling band of Brexiteers who had wanting to leave the EU (in one form or another) in common with one another, but little else.

If Nigel Farage and UKIP were able to create a lot of noise and help dictate the UK political agenda in the years leading up to the referendum – and do so on a shoestring budget while riven with factional infighting, dogged by unforced errors and PR disasters – how much louder and more persuasive would the screams of self-entitled outrage be when they emanated from nearly every artist, celebrity, teacher, professor, public sector worker and a phalanx of journalists and commentators? Most Brexiteers, myself included, completely underestimated that part.

But if the establishment’s ongoing howl of outrage about Brexit is deafening, it would be nothing at all compared to the reaction of Brexiteers to having their decision called into question and the vote re-run in the hopes of getting a different answer. Rightly or wrongly, the resulting social and political conflagration would make AC Grayling’s Twitter feed look like a mellifluous, level-headed stream of soothing wisdom.

I say “rightly or wrongly” because I have no personal hostility toward a second referendum on principle, only that we only seem to be having this discussion because the Remain side lost. Ideally, guided by a written constitution rather than machinations behind closed doors, the terms EU referendum and the consequences of each result would have been more carefully considered, and the potential need for public ratification of any secession deal built into the process. But this did not happen.

On the contrary, the expensive pro-EU government propaganda inflicted on every British household made it absolutely plain that the UK government would implement whatever result was decided in the first and only referendum, despite their strong preference for keeping the status quo. And given the uncharitable way with which they would doubtless be dealing with Leave voters had the result gone the other way, their case is not a tremendously strong one, logically or morally.

Remainers should, however, learn from the harsh experience of Leave voters following our unexpected victory in 2016. Back then, Brexiteers were so keen on winning a “Leave” vote that we didn’t think through the extent of cultural opposition we would face between the referendum and secession day. And now many Remainers are so fixated on overturning Brexit they can’t think past the daydream of a “Remain” vote in a Referendum Take Two.

We hear much wailing about how Brexit has supposedly “divided our country”. This is mostly nonsense – the country was always divided over the EU, it’s just that the side who were used to having their way for 40 years suddenly find themselves unable to call all the shots, often for the first time in their living memory. The balance of divisiveness now tilts the other way.

But the divisiveness of a second EU referendum would make the first seem like good-natured banter between best friends – and having forced a replay, the Remain side would emerge neither victorious nor with their reputation intact. They would be responsible, in the worst case, for a rending of our social and democratic fabric which would likely prove impossible to repair. And even in the very best case scenario, the price of overturning the referendum would be millions of British citizens, half the country, effectively giving up on democracy and returning to a state of resigned indifference, a toxic and self-fulfilling belief that they have neither the right nor the ability to influence national events according to their values.

Remainers, who often consider themselves enlightened and progressive, would ordinarily recoil in horror from any course of action which threatened such toxic side-effects. They just can’t think clearly right now because the (unattainable) prize of scrapping Brexit and rendering the past two years little more than a centrist’s bad dream is so desperately shiny and alluring.

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The Big Brexit Guilt Trip By Ageing Political Grandees Will Not Work

John Gummer - Environment Secretary - Brexit - Live horse export - Remainer

Efforts by pro-EU political grandees to guilt the country into feeling bad about Brexit by elevating trivial British victories in ancient, minor trade disputes as proof of our great influence in Brussels only reveal the poverty of their ambition for Britain

Another day, another ageing political grandee is wheeled out to lecture us about how selfish and ungrateful we were to turn our backs on so benevolent and non-threatening an institution as their beloved European Union.

This time it is the turn of former Tory Environment Secretary John Gummer, who takes to the Guardian with a particularly tedious and deceitful lament that “we are unravelling the greatest peacetime project of our lives because Brexiteers insist we’ve lost control. But it’s simply not true”.

The premise of Gummer’s argument is that because he once had a good relationship with his environment and agriculture ministerial counterparts in Europe and ensured that Britain won key trade and regulatory battles when our national interest was at stake, this somehow proves that we had unparalleled and decisive influence in Brussels.

From the Guardian:

In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.

Immediately Gummer frames the question of whether Britain could influence the EU as one of whether we could win individual arguments within the EU institutions rather than whether we could meaningfully influence the course of the EU itself.

Gummer then presents the crown jewel of his argument:

One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.

My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.

We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.

Oh gosh, this riveting act of high-stakes international diplomacy will be recorded in the history books for all time. Schoolchildren two hundred years hence will still be learning about how John Gummer heroically managed to stop the UK from having to export live horses for slaughter in continental Europe, all because he was best pals with the French undersecretary for agriculture. Consequential feats of statecraft like this put one in mind of Yalta.

In fact, it only shows the extreme paucity of Gummer’s thinking and the worldview he represents. These old grandees – and you can throw in the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke here, too – sincerely believe (or have somehow convinced themselves) that British disquiet with membership of the European Union was based on trivialities like how many battles we won over live horse exports. They think that if only they can provide enough examples of the UK having successfully defended the interests of Cheshire cheesemakers or Welsh textile makers then we will have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and beg to be allowed back into the club.

It simply does not occur to these EU-loving grandees that the British problem with the European Union might originate at a deeper level than who is seen to win a plurality of disputes over trade or regulation. Having marinated for so long within a political elite which accepted supranational government and the gradual deconstruction of the nation state as a self-evidently good thing, they are now shocked to discover that not everybody agrees with the basic premise on which their entire worldview rests.

The Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum showed perfectly clearly the key drivers of the Leave vote, and the number one issue was sovereignty (decisions about the UK being taken in the UK, as per the specific poll question). The British people voted to extricate ourselves from the supranational government in Brussels and reclaim our right to make policy and law for ourselves without having to either haggle with 27 other member states or otherwise operate within the narrow tramlines set by a set of remote Brussels institutions towards which many of us feel no love or affinity.

Unfortunately, almost since the beginning of the referendum campaign, most prominent Remainers refused to deal with the big picture. Yes we got a lot of tired old soundbites about the importance of “friendship ‘n cooperation” or overwrought tales about how the EU alone had kept the post-war peace, but the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, desperately shied away from the big picture at every turn.

Why? Because the big picture has always been toxic or concerning to far more Britons than actually voted Leave in the referendum. Most people don’t want the supranational government and its ambition/necessity to transform into a federal Europe, and knowing this, the Remain campaign never dared to try persuading them otherwise. This left Britain Stronger in Europe (and most Remainers) with little option but to drag the fight to a lower level, where it became all about money, economic risk and the kind of low-level goodies that people like John Gummer think dictate our sentiments towards the EU.

Perhaps this is understandable. From Gummer’s very narrow perspective we probably did indeed “win” in Europe a lot. But Gummer is thinking about issues of farm animal exports and agricultural regulations, not matters of geopolitics or statecraft. And the truth is that Britain had almost zero influence on the ultimate direction of the European Union as a political entity. Yes, we could sometimes slow things down or carve out occasional opt-outs for ourselves (at a diplomatic cost). But Britain could never realistically propose that a large supranational government in Brussels with strong federalist ambitions transform itself into a looser federation of closely economically integrated nation states. That simply would never have happened, even if Britain played the long game and aggressively sought support from other countries.

If one was a passenger on a cruise ship it would be nice to be sufficiently influential to sometimes suggest menu ideas to the chef or offshore excursions to the cruise director and have those suggestions adopted. But even then, at no point could that passenger reasonably imagine himself an officer of the ship, let alone the captain. Winning battles within the framework created for us to argue is not the same as having meaningful influence over the design of the framework itself. So no, we did not “win” in Europe, because we could not persuade those on the bridge to set a course which we were willing to follow.

Once again, this debate has proven that the British people have always had a more expansive view of the EU question – and higher ambitions for our country – than the majority of our political class. Many Remainer grandees still see things in terms of petty fights won and lost in the Brussels crèche where they were allowed to play, and simply can’t understand that our problem was not that they failed to smack the other kids around to our satisfaction but rather that they were content to play the role of children in the first place.

By voting to leave the European Union, the British people are demanding that our politicians and leaders become adults again, not rambunctious toddlers and surly teens supervised by their parents in Brussels. We want government without training wheels again, even if this means that we wobble a bit or even fall and scrape our knees.

This was never about petty little trade disputes here and there. Brexit was far more fundamental than that, but even now many EU apologists fail to see it.

 

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Centrism Is The New Extremism

Owen Jones - Brexit - Hardline Remainers - Extremism

For many years, the most angry and bitter invective in our political discourse hailed from the far Left and Right. But now it is the supposedly rational and pragmatic centrists who are becoming unhinged and increasingly uncivilised.

Like the stopped clock which still tells the correct time twice a day, once in awhile Owen Jones has a passing moment of clarity and perception and utters a statement with which a normal person can actually agree.

Today is one of those days. Noting that he is taking increasing amounts of flak not from hard Brexiteers but from hardcore ideological Remainers, Owen Jones noted on Twitter that “centrism – online at least – is at risk of becoming an angry, bitter, intolerant cult. Does that concern its proponents at all?”

Jones follows up by noting that “a certain type of Hard Remainer online have become angry, bitter, intolerant, and determined to root out the impure on their own side”:

Slow hand clap.

Jones isn’t wrong, and while one might legitimately question whether he is the best person to be accusing others of being angry and bitter, he makes a fair point – there is a very real and growing rage building among the pro-EU centre-left, a rage which is spilling over and causing people to say all manner of outlandish things.

In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum there was a sort of stunned silence from the Remain camp. Many arch-Remainers were also the same establishment centre-left figures who found themselves banished to the margins of the Labour Party by the Jeremy Corbyn ascendancy back in 2015. To be cast from power and influence within their own party and then to feel Britain’s EU membership – which has become emblematic of their perception of themselves and the country as enlightened, progressive internationalists – slip through their fingers only a year later was more than many centrists could bear. At first.

But it did not take long for shock to turn into anger and defiant resolve. Harnessing huge amounts of denial (“the referendum was only advisory”, “the Leave campaign had a monopoly on lies and so the result should be invalidated”) many centre-leftists, realising that their entire worldview was not only under attack but on the verge of defeat, stirred themselves into action.

We saw this with the court case brought by Gina Miller, in which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Parliament must have a say on the final Brexit deal negotiate by the government. We saw it too in the flourishing of groups and social media accounts dedicated not to making the best of Brexit now that the country had voted for it, but rather trying to overrule that vote and remain in the EU at all costs.

I noted this phenomenon myself a few weeks ago, admitting that we Brexiteers had underestimated the ability of the pro-EU, centrist establishment to launch a reactionary hissy fit several orders of magnitude bigger than the anti-establishment backlashes which led to Brexit in Britain and President Trump in America:

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Effectively overruling the establishment’s carefully laid out plan for our lives was always going to generate a huge backlash, from powerful and well-connected people with the ability to make traditional grassroots anti-establishment backlashes look like a cake sale at the Women’s Institute.

Perhaps we forgot this fact because we Brexiteers and defenders of nation state democracy were so used to being part of a backlash ourselves – the backlash against the establishment – that we didn’t give enough credence to the fact that globalists, disinterested “citizens of the world” and other assorted types are equally as invested in their worldview as we are in ours, and in a far stronger position to defend it from attack.

And now that they have experienced repudiation at the ballot box, the establishment’s ability to turn howls of outrage into a full-on filibuster of democratically-made decisions is stronger than many of us planned for.

We are definitely witnessing an ossifying or hardening of positions among many Remainers. Before the EU referendum last year, some of these people could occasionally be found admitting that the European Union was not perfect and urgently needed reform, and even that membership had some downsides (even if outweighed by the positives).

You won’t find arch-Remainers talking like this in the press or on social media any more. Now that the prospect of Brexit looms, the EU is perfect and irreproachable, and Brexiteers aren’t just misguided but actively evil for casting Britain into the abyss. (Well, to be fair, many hardcore Remainers always asserted that Brexiteers were evil racists, but they now do so with increased frequency and venom).

The Guardian recently published a piece by Will Hutton, who declared that Brexit is “our generation’s Dunkirk”, as though tactical retreat in the midst of an existential world war is in any way comparable to the peaceful, diplomatically negotiated departure from a supranational political union.

In a spittle-flecked fury, Hutton wails:

Last week, Labour peer Lord Adonis compared leaving the EU as a mistake analogous to appeasement. He is right. Brexiters Davis, Fox and Johnson are from the same anti-modern, delusional world view that produced the strategic foreign policy mistakes of the 1930s and the emasculation of the mixed-economy, state-led approach that underpinned the economic success of 1931-50.

Then, at least, we had underlying strengths, representing the opposite of their philosophy, upon which to fall back on. Brexit is our generation’s Dunkirk, but with no flotilla of small boats and no underlying economic strength to come to the rescue. It’s just defeat.

Now this blog has no time for Liam Fox or Boris Johnson, but even if Theresa May’s government drops the ball completely on Brexit the economic ramifications (bad though they may be) will still fall several degrees short of colossal military failure and impending invasion. To compare Brexit to Dunkirk or to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement is wild hyperbole of the first order.

But this is what you now have to look and sound like to be accepted into the Remainer / centrist tribe – at least on social media, where nuance and restraint have never been in great supply. Just as the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics doles out “victimhood points” and social status depending on the number of ways that a person can describe themselves as oppressed, the Cult of the EU demands ever more flamboyant declarations of love for the European, furious denunciations of those who disagree and pledges of extreme measures to be taken to stop Brexit at all costs. Because being pro-EU is bound up so tightly in the centrist psyche, Brexit is making many establishment centrists behave like any other identity group that feels under attack, blindly lashing out and playing the role of the victim.

And so in many ways it was inevitable that arch-Remainers would be suspicious of the likes of Owen Jones, and seek to publicly denounce him. Back in 2015, when the EU was turning the screws on Greece and effectively subverting Greek democracy, Jones came close to openly advocating for Brexit. Of course, like many others (most notably Ian Dunt, who had virtually nothing good to say about the European Union until he realised that the EU referendum could boost his profile if only he switched sides) Jones eventually returned to the fold, taking the wishful thinking Varoufakis position that we should remain in the EU in order to reform it.

But like all extremist movements, the hardcore ideological Remainers have long memories and no statute of limitations when it comes to heresy. Owen Jones once expressed doubts about Our Beloved EU, Fount of All Good Things. And he compounded this thoughtcrime by accepting the reality of Brexit rather than raging against it, even penning a lengthy account entitled “Why I’m a remainer who accepts the EU referendum result”. Therefore he must be punished and cast out. As Jones notes, “the Hard Remainers want to overturn the EU referendum and regard the likes of me as traitors and impure for wanting a soft Brexit instead.”

The centrists of old – back when they were free and easy, on the ascendancy, certain that their basic worldview was coming to fruition and would perpetuate itself forever – had a reasonable degree of tolerance for differing opinions. That’s why the likes of Ken Clarke could fit (ideologically at least) under the same political umbrella as someone like Tony Blair, Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna. A few honest differences on a few political points were expected and allowed, since everybody was pulling in the same basic direction. But no longer. Cast out of power, hardcore centrists increasingly use a person’s attitude toward Brexit as an acid test to determine whether they are Good or Bad.

Where will this end? Well, certain excitable centrist MPs and their media cheerleaders seem to be itching to set up a new political party, first with the sole objective of stopping Brexit and remaining in the European Union, and once that deed is accomplished to turn into some kind of new centrist party, a shelter from Theresa May’s authoritarianism and Jeremy Corbyn’s unabashed socialism.

I wrote an entire blog post yesterday about why this idea is idiotic and will never come to fruition. But what would such a party look like, if the normal constraints of British electoral politics were magically removed and a new “centrist” party formed?

By definition it would be full of extremists – the kind of people whose fanatical devotion to the European Union is such that it overrides their previous party loyalties and makes them willing to jump into bed with other people who might have quite different ideas about the optimal size and function of the state, spending priorities, social issues or a million and one other policies.

Such a party would be full of EU-worshipping zealots who would pay any price and bear any burden to thwart Brexit – ironic, since many of them complain about so-called Brexit extremism. But more than that, it would be full of deluded souls who think that if only Brexit can be stopped, everything would just go back to how it was before David Cameron called the referendum; that the anti-establishment backlash which helped to deliver Brexit would simply melt away as people shrugged their shoulders and accepted being overruled by their social betters.

This is delusional. The reason that Blairite and Cameronite centrism lies discarded in the gutter right now is because its most ardent practitioners were content with a system which rewarded people like themselves while leaving millions of others in dead-end jobs or left on the welfare trash heap with little realistic prospect for self-betterment – and because they were openly, snarlingly contemptuous of anybody who dared point this out or raise an objection. Centrism is discredited because it inspired successive British governments to effectively outsource whole swathes of governance and policymaking to the European Union, with MPs and ministers enjoying the trappings of power despite having vested many of their responsibilities in a supranational government even less accountable or responsive to the popular will than Westminster.

A new political party (or government) full of centrist extremists, bitter and vengeful at having been temporarily dethroned, would immediately seek to roll Britain back to 2015 (or 2010, depending on whether they are centre-left or centre-right extremists). But the British people have moved on. A majority want to get on with Brexit even if they voted to Remain in the referendum. They want to move forward, not backward.

But despite being totally impractical and doomed to failure, expect to hear more talk of a new, dedicated anti-Brexit party. Expect to hear more overwrought headlines and tweets comparing Brexit to such and such atrocity or genocide. The rage continues to grow among the dispossessed centrists, and they have a vastly bigger platform to air their grievances than those on the ideological Left or Right.

You see, these people have never lost before. They are accustomed to winning, and do not know how to behave in the face of defeat. Since 1997, whichever party was in power, Labour or Conservative, the centrists’ worldview inched ever closer to fruition. And if that consensus failed to deliver for millions of Britons – those at the sharp end of globalisation or those who simply care a lot about democracy and constitutional matters – then so be it. They got theirs, and that’s all that mattered.

Thank goodness that this cosy centrist consensus has finally been broken, and that these arrogant, selfish and overrated people will have to take their failed and discredited ideology to battle in the political arena along with the rest of us, rather than continuing to win by default.

 

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Bitter Remainers Dream Of A Single Issue Anti-Brexit Political Party

EU Referendum - Brexit - Despair

Still firmly stuck in the “denial” stage of the grieving process, some bitter Remainers are now pinning their hopes on a new political party with the sole aim of thwarting Brexit

A number of overexcitable Remainers seem to be getting carried away with the idea that a brand new political party, dedicated solely to the purpose of thwarting Brexit, might be the answer to their prayers.

We first saw this idea floated in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh, who did a masterful job of suppressing everything he knows about the British political system to convince himself that the idea might actually have merit:

A new political grouping has been in fitful gestation since Britain voted to leave the EU. Uncomfortable in their own parties, a few Conservative and Labour politicians have probed the idea in discreet settings. Donors are primed with start-up capital. Tony Blair has improvised a role as a curator of these forces, and at times as their frontman. An electorate that has withheld a decisive win from any party since his own days as prime minister is plainly open to some disruptive entrant to the market. If it shows promise, Liberal Democrat MPs might subsume themselves into it rather than stagger on as a futile dozen.

For all this, the breakthrough never comes — and not because Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system stymies the new. The project never gets that far. The trouble begins earlier. To avoid caricature as pro-European monomaniacs, and to let their restless energies roam, the people involved aspire to stand for something broad: political moderation in an age of extremes. This requires them to have policies, or at least first principles, across the full spectrum of government business. But each time a putative party settles its view on, say, fiscal policy or healthcare, it will alienate some of its original and potential supporters. It also loses definition. Before the project has a single achievement to its name, it is bogged down in matters of internal theology. It becomes a paradox: a fissiparous political party with no MPs.

Ganesh concludes with a well-rehearsed yet tone-deaf paean to the kind of bland, managerialist centrism which sparked this anti-establishment backlash in the first place:

A wider manifesto for moderate government might emerge, but only over time and as a consequence, not a cause, of the movement’s success. To design an entire worldview upfront is to wallow in detail before any political momentum has been established. And to lose friends in the process.

And yet the foolish idea is now gaining traction, with journalist (and ex-Chief of Staff to Brexit Secretary David Davis) James Chapman promoting the idea, as the Guardian excitedly reports:

A former chief of staff to David Davis has said Brexit is a catastrophe that must be stopped and called on centrist MPs to form a new party.

James Chapman, who worked for the Brexit secretary for a year as the Department for Exiting the European Union was set up, suggested the new party should be called the Democrats and claimed some “very interesting people” wanted to be involved.

[..] Chapman, who previously worked for George Osborne, said anti-Brexit MPs such as Anna Soubry, Grant Shapps and Mark Harper had more in common with party opponents such as Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable than “Owen Paterson et al”.

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the delicious irony of a political party explicitly founded to overturn the results of a democratic referendum – and all in order to ensure that Britain remains a part of a supranational political union whose very purpose is to undermine nation state democracy – calling themselves the Democrats. This utterly shameless tactic is taken straight from the Karl Rove playbook, with Remainers projecting their own flaws onto their opponents while claiming the virtues of Brexiteers (commitment to democracy) as their own.

Nevertheless, Janan Ganesh and James Chapman both seemingly believe that the best way to overturn the result of the EU referendum and thwart Brexit is for pro-Europeans to band together and campaign only on that single issue, in the name of moderation and to avoid deadly infighting by introducing other ideological squabbles to the debate. But the problem with this thinking is that by definition, only those disaffected MPs who feel most strongly about stopping Brexit would join such a party, and they tend to be the swivel-eyed euro-federalists or dim but enthusiastic EU cheerleaders.

What the Remainers forget is that while the Leave campaign may only have won the referendum 52% to 48%, many of the 48% also have no real love for the EU. Even in my own North London constituency of Hampstead & Kilburn, one of the most defiantly Remain-voting constituencies in the entire country, I have spoken to numerous people who voted Remain either grudgingly or out of alarm at the apocalyptic stories spun by Britain Stronger in Europe.

Arch-Remainers have tended to assume – wrongly – that the full 48% who voted to Remain in the EU did so because they share the same fanatical devotion to the European Union as themselves, but this is not the case. Many people strongly bought into the Leave campaign’s argument about sovereignty and self-determination, but voted Remain because they prioritised short-term economic security over long-term democratic security. And one cannot entirely blame them for doing so – I fully admit that I am something of an outlier with my unfashionable, somewhat fanatical obsession with constitutional issues.

So how would a British public which was probably much more than 52% hostile to the EU at the time of the referendum react to the formation of a new political party created with the expressed intention of overturning the referendum result? Janan Ganesh clearly thinks that such a party would be greeted like liberators, come to rescue benighted Britain from the evil clutches of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. I’m not so sure.

While as a country we may be increasingly confused about what “British values” really mean, most of us would still point to the importance we attach to “fair play” being a defining national trait. And I think that the British people would take one look at a bunch of establishment arch-Remainers (led by Tony Blair, no less) attempting to undo the referendum result as a grave insult and a brazen power grab.

The New Party campaigners also totally overlook the dynamics of individual constituency races in favour of national polling. Even assuming that a new political party got off the ground (I’m not holding my breath) it would face exactly the same challenges as the SDP back in the 1980s, squeezed between a rock and a hard place as Labour and the Conservatives refused to stand aside.

Even Owen Jones sees through the scam:

And what then would be the point of such a party with (at best) only a handful of fanatical europhile MPs in Parliament? Even if Theresa May’s government falls before the next scheduled general election, the chances are that Brexit will either be concluded by this point or more likely that negotiations will be so far advanced (perhaps with a negotiation extended) that it is no longer possible to undo without accepting revised membership on harsh new terms (no budget rebate, mandatory joining of both Schengen and the Euro) that an overwhelming number of Britons would find unacceptable.

The whole idea is a complete non-starter, the futile fantasy of an establishment class which still believes that it can simply circumvent or nullify democratic outcomes rather than doing the hard work of convincing people and winning them over to their side. A year on from the referendum and the tantrum continues with no sign of abatement.

Having said that, by all means let them try. Lord knows that the Conservative Party would be an immeasurably better entity without the likes of Anna Soubry and Grant Shapps.

 

The Electoral Commission - EU Referendum Ballot Paper - Brexit - Biased Voting Guide

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