When anti-Brexit hysteria and identity politics collide…
As the question of Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is folded ever more deeply into our ongoing culture war, it continues to be the establishment centre-left – that bipartisan group who broadly support the status quo of the past two decades and viscerally hate the very idea of Brexit – who continue to acquit themselves the worse in public debate.
The country already has very low expectations when it comes to mainstream Brexiteers, both within government and without. Whether it is the increasingly Alex Jones-style populism of Nigel Farage, the polished and carefree ignorance of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the unhinged provocation (and potentially illegal activity) of Leave.EU or the most proudly obnoxious Brexit supporters on social media, few people think of the Brexit movement as one characterised by profound intelligence or abiding statesmanship. That may be unfair on the more earnest, thoughtful Brexiteers – such as those of the Leave Alliance, with whom I stand – but it is undeniably the case, and few of us now waste time trying to challenge the abiding impression given off by our movement, particularly in the face of a fundamentally uncurious media who have no interest in looking beyond their preset narrative.
This is not the case when it comes to the Remain camp, however. From the beginning, EU apologists and campaigners against Brexit have sought to trade on their reputation as cool-headed, fact-based, reason-driven pragmatists who alone are untouched by base motivations such as nationalism or political tribalism. While Brexiteers may be gammon-faced nostalgics or barely concealed racists, goes this narrative, Remainers think with their heads, not their hearts. They take a broader, more strategic view of affairs. They certainly do not need to resort to rhetorical trickery or emotional manipulation in order to win support for their cause.
After a two-year public meltdown on the part of Britain’s political, academic and cultural elite, I think we can finally disabuse ourselves of these unhelpful stereotypes – because it turns out that in their sorrow and rage, Remainers have quickly caught up with the worst traits of the worst Brexiteers, often exceeding them in both passion and delusion. Whether it is intellectual pin-ups such as the eminent Professor A C Grayling peddling risible conspiracy theories or establishment fossils such as Andrew Adonis attempting to save the country from Brexit with their trusty swords of sanctimony and shields of superiority, not only has the Remain camp failed to learn a single lesson from their 2016 referendum defeat; worse, they have decided to double down on all of the political tactics, talking points and personality traits which led them to defeat in the first place.
Since June 2016, Remainers have replaced arrogance with an even more supercharged arrogance that they and only they could have correctly weighed up all the important variables worth considering and found in favour of the EU. They have replaced intellectual and cultural contempt for their opponents with an even deeper, uglier form of largely class-based hatred which they espouse with ever-decreasing shame, particularly the racist and classist term “gammon” which they use to describe white working class Brexit supporters. They have replaced a naive total faith in supranationalism with an even more derisively hostile attitude toward the nation state and any continuing relevance it may have for the good governance of human society.
But worse than all of that, Remainers have become the very caricature which they attempted to make of Brexiteers. It was long claimed that Brexiteers won the referendum by painting a dishonestly simplistic view of the world and proposing glib, simplistically local solutions to global challenges. Now it is Remainers who promote a falsely simplistic worldview where supranationalism solves everything and nations with very different cultures, priorities and national interests hold hands beneath a rainbow and joyfully hand their worries over to a benevolent continental technocracy. No longer do Remainers grudgingly admit that the EU needs reform; now it is a perfect and noble institution with greater claims to democratic legitimacy than the British government itself. Now it is Remainers who peddle simplistic and misleading slogans such as the idea that Brexit means “going it alone” and “trying to resurrect Empire 2.0”, that supporting Brexit means rejecting the very concepts of friendship and cooperation among individuals, groups and nations.
This much became inevitable when Brexit was folded into the larger culture war. At that point, reinforcing the dogmas and credos of one’s own tribe (whichever it may be) became more important than meaningful discussion or attempting to empathise with the other side. Acceptance by and membership of one’s own tribe became contingent on adopting a pure and uncompromising position rather than engaging in introspection or admitting doubt, with dissenters either shamed into silence, bullied into conformity or else simply left out of a prestige media narrative which sought to pitch the good and the right (Remainers) versus the stupid and malevolent (eurosceptics).
But this pathology affects the Continuity Remain side of the debate just as badly, and often worse, since they are able to use their public platforms and reputations to give their tribal anti-Brexit behaviour an undeserved veneer of serious thought and respectability. There was a time when prominent Remainers could be found admitting through clenched teeth that “of COURSE the EU needs reform”, before quickly changing the subject with an impatient wave of the hand. Now, this is increasingly rare. Mention any of the EU’s once commonly accepted and lamented democratic flaws, for example, and Remainers are far more likely to shoot back with an irrelevant wisecrack stating that the existence of the House of Lords or our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system invalidates any criticism of Brussels (thus totally skirting the EU’s glaring lack of a demos coherent enough to justify the institutions established in their name).
In other words, just when Remainers need to show contrition and understanding if they are to have any hope whatsoever of persuading Leave voters to change their minds, many are instead doubling down and insisting on the EU’s relative perfection. Their rage and political tribalism blind them to the politically astute path of action.
The latest sign that Brexit has fused with our ongoing culture war is the risible claim that Brexit is inherently sexist. We have long been lectured that Brexit is inherently racist, because wanting to control immigration from other majority-white European countries is somehow a sign of white nationalism, but now many Remainers are advancing the idea that Brexit is sexist too.
If you were feeling waspish, you might conclude that women’s major contribution to the EU debate so far has been to say that more women should contribute to the EU debate. On 27 January, Caroline Lucas of the Greens called out the abundance of “men in grey suits”. On 1 February, Barbara Judge, chair of the Institute of Directors, asked if “women had been sidelined or have chosen to absent themselves from the debate”. On 1 March, Labour’s Mary Creagh warned we should not leave the decision to the “old boys’ club”.
But ever since the Remain campaign lost the EU referendum, despite enjoying every conceivable advantage, the exculpatory narrative has moved on from women’s voices supposedly not being heard enough in the public debate to Brexit causing real, tangible, gender-targeted harm to women.
Professor Juliet Lodge, writing in that bastion of pro-EU groupthink The New European, recently wrote a masterpiece in which she crowed that it is good that the EU makes Brexit nearly impossible for a departing member state, declares Brexit to be immoral, sexist and doomed to defeat by an army of angry women who will supposedly rise up and stop the “nonsense” of a democratically determined secession from the EU.
Let’s get one thing straight. This self indulgent pratting about over Brexit will be stopped. But not by MPs kowtowing to party whips in rapture to the latest autocratic executive power grab. And not because media silence blanks out the protests of citizens, but by women kicking off.
Let’s face it. Brexit is essentially sexist. Those spitting out their dummies need a good slap as my gran would have said, and she would have been only pleased administer. She’d have probably denied them sweets, treats and pocket money until they came to their senses too. Her view would be behave like brats, and get treated accordingly.
The report was full of the kind of tenuous nonsense and logical overreaches which now sadly characterise the identity politics Left, and thus we learn that clothing and textile industries being vulnerable to potential trade barriers will disproportionately affect women, though the fact that hits to engineering or aerospace industries might disproportionately impact men is of seemingly no relevance at all.
We also learn that a potential fall in GDP may lead to government cuts, which would impact more greatly on women as they are more likely to work in the public sector and consume public services. Never mind that the inevitability or even desirability of this state of affairs being taken as given by the Fawcett Society and others is itself a sign of a condescening, paternalist attitude towards women, assuming that women are perpetually vulnerable wards of the state – no, we are supposed to take this seriously too.
And from there the report delves into all kinds of Remainer fantasyland predictions about what Brexit “could” do – the Fawcett Society’s most gnawing fear that an economic crisis would lead to draconian rollbacks of employment rights – though at best this fear is tied to one potential governmental response to Brexit rather than being inherent in Brexit itself. Nonetheless, we are firmly told that with Brexit “we risk turning the clock back on gender equality”, because women are incapable of articulating or defending their own interests and require the EU and its hagiographers to do so on their behalf.
But relying on potentially faulty forecasts is the least of the report’s crimes. The authors call on the Government to “amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to protect [gender] rights from being weakened”. This is where the report becomes disingenuous. The EU Withdrawal Bill already enshrines all EU rights into UK law. Any alterations made by a future government would have to be approved by Parliament, and so the amendments they propose would be both unnecessary and meaningless.
More broadly, their insistence that, free from the EU, the UK government would choose to scale back gender equality legislation is tenuous. So far, all indicators suggest that the government is moving in the opposite direction, and strengthening these rights. This year, the UK became one of the first countries in the world to require private- and public-sector employers with 250 or more employees to publish their company-wide gender pay gaps.
[..] Historically, the UK, far more than the EU, has led the way when it comes to women’s rights and workplace and family protections. The first Equal Pay Act (championed by the sewing machinists in Dagenham) in 1970, predates our accession to the European Union by several years, as do the Abortion Act (1967), the Divorce Reform Act (1969) and the decision to make the contraceptive pill free on the NHS. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but the EU only passed legislation addressing it in 2012.
The infamous “tampon tax”, which levies a 5 per cent VAT on sanitary products and contraception, is an EU directive which we have been obliged to impose despite the opposition of government and a majority of MPs. Moreover, the UK’s 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave is considerably more generous than the 14 weeks guaranteed by EU law.
In short; suggesting that EU intervention is required to safeguard these rights is to ignore reality, and shows very little faith in British lawmakers.
Others, including Nina Parker of the #WomenAgainstBrexit movement and the Our Future Our Choice campaign have taken up the same self-debasing arguments, writing in Left Foot Forward:
Equality rights have for too long been second to the interests of business. Trade is not the most impending risk posed in Brexit Britain. It is human rights which should be at the forefront of negotiations.
The Brexit path being taken is very male, very right wing, deeply un-progressive, extremely unrepresentative. if we get a chance to vote on the final deal, we owe it to the memory of the suffragettes too, to use it. And we owe it to ourselves to fight to get that vote and reverse the catastrophic path we are on.
One might have thought that the suffragettes strove to win the very right to influence political decision-making in their country which Remainers are now desperate to continue divesting to a more distant, unaccountable supranational body. But today’s EU-supporting progressives, playing their part in the culture war, instead seem to believe that the goal of women’s suffrage is the right to meekly accept or petition for rights underpinned at a supranational level, through fear and mistrust of the domestic electorate. There seems to be little to support this patronising and fundamentally antidemocratic worldview in the historical literature, but nonetheless this is what we are asked to believe.
And what can one say in response? Identity politics and the culture war have firmly taken hold of Brexit, with the progressive Left (minus a Corbynite subset) co-opting the Remain position and fiercely clinging to that stance. And since the modus operandi of identity politics activists is to identify and exploit any angle or facet of an issue which can be shown to affect designated gender or minority groups, it was inevitable that we would eventually be told that Brexit is a specific assault on women, on ethnic minorities, on gay people or transgender individuals. Because the identity politics Left long ago gave up any concept of unifying shared citizenship, many activists are now only able to communicate in terms of how a particular issue or eventuality will impact specific subgroups with competing and often diverging interests.
The downside for progressive Remain campaigners is that in folding Brexit into the wider culture war and making the issue indistinguishable from all their other intersectionality-soaked grievances, they risk speaking only to themselves. Unfortunately for them, many British people do still acknowledge the idea of a unifying bond connecting all British citizens regardless of race, gender or sexuality, even if those bonds are frayed or even inarticulable at times. Few Leave voters went to the polling booth motivated primarily by thoughts of how Britain’s future relationship with the EU would affect them and their country based on their particular gender, and many are suspicious of Remainer entreaties to view basic matters of democracy and self-determination through the ludicrous prism of their genitalia.
After two years of furious denialism and rage against the EU referendum result, Remainers among the identity politics Left have become world experts in talking amongst themselves and telling one another exactly what they already think and want to hear, with arguments perfectly tailored to their own worldview and niche obsessions. As an act of misguided, unhelpful civic engagement this is depressingly predictable. But as a strategy for overturning Brexit and re-establishing the status quo it is incredibly tone-deaf, short-sighted – and ultimately doomed to failure.
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Middle class #FBPE-ers of Britain unite! Talk to your Brexity, working class butchers, builders, plumbers, electricians and gardeners and educate them out of their superstitious dislike of the European Union
There are few things more irritating than being called ignorant and closed-minded by a group of people who are themselves at that very moment being monumentally ignorant and closed-minded.
Sadly, this is the daily fate of eurosceptics and Brexit voters as they endure a daily barrage of insult, invective and condescension from a segment of British society who seem to believe that their naive, childlike faith in (and often equally childlike understanding of) the European Union makes them both intellectually and morally superior.
This manifests in numerous ways, from the political machinations of establishment fossils such as Lord Andrew Adonis or philosopher/conspiracy-theorists such as AC Grayling to the patronising tone in which much of the prestige media covers Brexit, both at home and abroad. But it is perhaps most visible on social media, where attitudes toward Leave voters ranging from smug condescension to bigoted hatred gather under the banner of #FBPE – Follow Back, Pro-European.
While a number of decent, thinking people still use the #FBPE identifier in their Twitter or online biographies, it is increasingly associated with age, race and class hatred-tinged attacks on “gammons” – white, working class, middle aged men who dare to express an opinion supportive of Brexit, particularly if they do not have academic letters following their name. Intentionally or not, #FBPE is becoming a redoubt of middle class, establishment resistance to the supposed horrors of Brexit – a cabal of people who believe that their moral and intellectual superiority entitles them to look down on others (at best) or even thwart their political aspirations by underhand means.
Here we see the Educated Upper Middle Class Saviour phenomenon in full action as Helen Holdsworth proudly boasts about her ability to “rescue” a benighted, intellectually limited tradesman from the clutches of his Brexity superstition.
This modern day Cicero later goes on to claim that “every one of the repair people & tradesmen has come here a Brexiteer and left a Remainer“, thus deftly stereotyping Leave voters and boasting about her immense powers of persuasion at the same time. Naturally this tale was retweeted numerous times by the approving #FBPE army, thus amplifying the dubious tale of an ignorant working class soul saved among the Continuity Remain echo chamber.
We then see this delightful exchange between Holdsworth and David Woodhouse, one of her #FBPE followers:
Take a second to appreciate the rank bigotry in Woodhouse’s tweet, and the unconcealable condescension toward Leave voters evident in Holdsworth’s response.
David Woodhouse is publicly proclaiming that he is in the habit of making fleeting impressions of people and then denying them employment if, on some arbitrary criteria, they fit the mould of what he believes a Brexiteer looks or sounds like. He proudly states that he engages in such discrimination, which while not illegal (and rightly so – the last thing this country needs is more protected classes) is certainly to be condemned.
But worse than this is Holdsworth’s reply, which truly reveals the dark heart of the #FBPE movement. While at face value Holdsworth seems to be conciliatory, she is effectively stating that tradesmen and people who work with their hands possess such a different and inferior skill set that they cannot possibly be expected to “understand the EU” or render an informed, reasoned judgment on whether or not Britain should remain in supranational political union. Furthermore, Holdsworth believes that only when such intellectually limited people have the EU explained to them “with examples” – and quite possibly sock puppets and colourful diagrams to aid their comprehension – can they be trusted to make informed decisions.
At this point, Mr. Woodhouse veers from the bigoted toward the profane:
In other words, it is just about acceptable to not hold the same unquestioningly worshipful opinion of Britain’s European Union membership as David Woodhouse, but acting on one’s scepticism by voting to leave the EU is akin to killing a child while drunk driving.
I would like to be able to say that these attitudes are rare, and that they do not represent the wider #FBPE community or the broader Continuity Remain campaign in either tone or sentiment – but I cannot do so, because these tweets are remarkable only inasmuch as they are particularly frank and unguarded expressions of a very widely-held attitude toward Leave voters. Similar exchanges can be found on social media every day, and similarly arrogant attitudes toward Brexiteers heard from members of the general public to elected politicians or esteemed academics.
What power do I have, with my relatively meagre social media following, to push back against the false narrative peddled by public figures who are taken seriously and unquestioningly quoted in the media? Fortunately in this case, public ridicule and the vast overreach of his argument was sufficient to protect me from any reputational harm, but it could quite easily have been otherwise, had Colquhoun been more tenacious and less sensationalist in his attack.
While Brexiteers have their fair share of trolls, unpleasant and untruthful characters – some of them in government – the Remain camp purport to hold themselves to a higher standard. Their entire self image is one of well-intentioned, educated experts seeking to hold back an uninformed, dangerous populist tide. The entire rationale for casting doubt on the EU referendum result and agitating for a retake is predicated upon a conception of Remainers as sober-minded rationalists making benevolent decisions based on an evidentiary assessment of all pertinent facts. Yet in their rage at being defied by the electorate, many of the #FBPE crowd are taking to ad hominem attacks and conspiracy theories even more enthusiastically than the most unhinged of Brexiteers.
All of this might yet be understandable (if not justifiable) if only the #FBPE, Continuity Remain crowd truly were intellectually superior and possessed of a deeper, fuller understanding of the European Union and the necessity of supranational political union. But again, this is simply not the case, as aptly demonstrated once again by Helen Holdsworth:
Here we see that the intellectual and rhetorical wonder who claims to have convinced a whole army of humble Brexit-votin’ tradesmen of the error of their ways has still not moved on from childlike, simplistic tropes about “collaboration” and the need to “work together”, as though such international cooperation were only possible through the European Union.
Remainers have had nearly two years to engage in some introspection, to revisit their old campaign talking points and ask themselves what worked and what failed, and yet the #FBPE collective are still muttering exactly the same basic talking points as ever before. One of their bedrock arguments remains the facile claim that the European Union is the only significant means of international partnership and collaboration. Still they have not produced an effective response to the quite reasonable rebuttal that other countries cooperate deeply on a whole range of issues – and even manage to avoid going to war with one another – despite not dissolving themselves into continental political union.
Remainers have had every opportunity to realise that they lost the referendum because the values and facts on which they built their case were not the values and facts which mattered most to Leave voters; because their hysterically exaggerated warnings of economic catastrophe had tipped over into the realm of absurdist bullying; because one cannot win an argument about democracy and national identity by shrieking about reduced GDP growth or wailing about the supposed lost opportunities of a privileged and increasingly divergent segment of British society. And yet they have not moved on one inch from the “holding hands beneath a rainbow” crayon portrait of European political union which led them to abject and deserved defeat in June 2016. And these are the people to whose intelligence and expertise we are meant to defer?
Is it clear to you yet that Brexit has become part of a much larger, deepening culture war, with the #FBPE crowd viewing themselves as part of the Tolerant, Open and Educated group (whilst ironically behaving in a most intolerant, illiberal manner toward those in the out-group) facing off against what they consider to be the benighted savages of Brexitland? Because the dripping contempt evident in the typical #FBPE Twitter threads shown above should make it abundantly plain.
If you voted to leave the European Union (and increasingly if you deign to hold any political or cultural position not in full accordance with current progressive identity politics dogma) then the #FBPE, Continuity Remain community do not see you as a fellow citizen with differing political views. They see you as a stupid, backward and dangerous force for evil, someone who might potentially be worth educating out of your reactionary views if you seem like a sufficiently reformable soul but otherwise as someone to be ridiculed, sidelined, excommunicated from polite society and quarantined from the political decision-making process by any means necessary.
They consider you stupid, gullible and prone to influence by shadowy villains. They tell one another behind your back that you are borderline evil, and strongly imply the same to your face. They publicly shake their heads in resignation at your lack of education and intellect, whilst having repeatedly failed to deploy their vaunted intellect to address the genuine issues which prompted the Leave vote, or even admit the legitimacy of those issues. They comport themselves as though they are the magnificent, enlightened, moral centre of the universe, basking in their avowed tolerance while shrieking “gammon!” at anybody who disagrees.
Remainers who eschew the #FBPE moniker, attempting genuine dialogue with Brexiteers – and there are many such people, though regrettably they tend to enjoy a far lower profile than their extremist culture warrior brethren – should be given a respectful audience and deserve full respect as fellow citizens diligently acting according to their conscience.
But the #FBPE collective – they whose delusions of moral and intellectual superiority are belied by their rank bigotry, illiberalism and dogmatic regurgitation of basic pro-EU propaganda – fully deserve the crushing defeat they endured in 2016, and which they now beg to relive.
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Champions of intersectional identity politics in academia, culture and government have accrued near-hegemonic societal power for themselves by exploiting both the real and imagined oppression of certain groups on whose behalf they boldly presume to speak
To me, this seems self-evidently true. Try being a black conservative or libertarian politician in America, or a gay politician questioning of current gender theory in Britain and see how far you rise and how welcome you are in the Democratic or Labour parties, or the Op-Ed pages of prestige newspapers. In each case it will not be the color of your skin or your sexual preference which holds you back, stymies your career and invites social and professional ostracization from the most prestigious and influential networks; rather, it will be the “unacceptable” opinions you profess and the supposed harm you are doing to sweepingly designated victim classes.
Partly depending on how one defines being marginalized – and there are different perspectives here, one being the ability to speak up for one’s personal interests and meaningfully control one’s own destiny, the other being the ability to wield influence to shape wider society in one’s preferred direction – a powerful case can be made that race, gender and sexuality are now far less a determining factor than whether or not one possesses the education, social justice lexicon and properly conforming social viewpoints to avoid scrutiny and censure by other “gatekeepers”. In other words, we have returned to an almost class-based form of societal hierarchy where the new underclass do not necessarily work with their hands or sit on the dole queue but generally hold opinions and values now considered unfashionable or harmful, while the new upper class do not necessarily own mansions or penthouses but are uniformly fluent in the lore and language of intersectionality.
Note that this is very different to making the tedious, self-pitying Alt-Right claim that straight white Christian males are now a terribly downtrodden group while reverse discrimination-benefiting racial minorities or perpetually unsatisfied “feminazis” are on the ascendance and have the best of everything – far from it. In fact, a straight white male is still likely to do extraordinarily well, to the extent that he also holds a narrow range of opinions deemed acceptable by current elites, while a black lesbian woman who blasphemes against one of the identity politics movement’s main articles of faith is likely to find herself every bit as limited in opportunity and outcome as a straight white male who commits the same sin.
Thus we need to think about power in a more nuanced, multilayered way. There are differences in power between various individuals in society, resulting from numerous factors including (but certainly not limited to or even predominantly caused by) race, gender and sexuality. But there are also differences in power between various voices in the public square, and these differences depend even less on immutable personal characteristics and more on the particular political opinions which people hold and either choose to voice or suppress. The former may well often be overwhelmingly important to the individual, whose personal happiness or fulfilment is likely closely tied to getting through life unstymied by various forms of discrimination. But the other power differential – the ongoing interplay of voices in the public square, which slowly shapes society through rules, customs and laws – is far more consequential to us all. And it is here where the social justice left insult our intelligence by continually playing the overwhelmed underdog when in reality they enjoy every conceivable advantage and inch closer to victory with every passing day.
Referencing the UN Special Rapporteur’s report, Cobley writes:
For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.
Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”
Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.
However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.
The power to hand down a statement or opinion of any kind – from a UN report accusing Britain of becoming a land of racist oppression following the Brexit vote to a university professor redesigning a curriculum or writing a grievance-soaked Op-Ed – and receive unsceptical, unquestioning newspaper coverage or approving cable news commentary is immense indeed. They who control the universities, cultural outlets serving mass markets and the media outlets consumed by political elites can be reasonably said to control the basic narrative of society. Sure, dissenting voices are still permitted to appear (though less frequently in prestige outlets, and often with various disqualifying provisos attached) from time to time, but as a general rule they who control the narrative determine the future.
Those in opposition to the social justice and identity politics movements simply do not possess this media or cultural reach. Their arguments are not given the same weight by opinion-makers and their messages are not amplified to nearly the same extent by media gatekeepers. Bad individuals on this side of the societal divide remain intermittently capable of causing physical or emotional harm to others through their private actions, which is always reprehensible, but the conservative movement as a whole is firmly in retreat on a societal level. Even many of those most concerned about the rise to power of Donald Trump concede that this historical aberration is very much a “last gasp” from a segment of society they openly write off as unimportant and “deplorable”.
Cobley continues to explore:
[..] how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ [..] and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.
As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky News, The Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.
This agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.
The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.
It takes a strong person to resist all of these pressures to conform. Only the very brave, generally reckless or those with little to lose will readily voice dissent against the identity politics left’s stark design for society, which is why such dissent is concentrated among a handful of brave and exceptional academics or journalists, opportunistic politicians or disenfranchised and often under-occupied young men online.
Unfortunately, despite the ability to generate the occasional flashpoint of resistance, these groups count for little against the great mass of middle class opinion which is either actively supports the identity politics message saturating the culture or (perhaps more often) is too fearful of negative personal consequences to question or object to the present direction of travel.
And all the while opposing voices are silenced, careers ended and lives ruined for failing to move in fast-enough lockstep with evolving identity politics orthodoxy, those powerful figures doing the silencing, ending and ruining have the temerity to portray themselves as the underdogs in this culture war. We must not fall for their charade.
Update – 30 May 2018
Ben Cobley has a new book on this very subject coming out on 1st July, entitled “The Tribe: The Liberal Left And The System Of Diversity“. I will be getting a copy and encourage my interested readers to do the same, as it promises to delve into these issues in more depth and certainly with a more scholarly eye than I currently possess.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 pathologiseworking-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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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