Friday, 13 September 2019

Heading towards a culture war

They both have ridiculous hairstyles, they are both inveterate liars, and they are both adept at riding populist waves. They also, to our immense misfortune, are both, for the time being, leaders of their countries.

Yes, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have much in common. So too do their supporters. After all, just look at the campaign slogans that won them high office: ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control.’ And focus on two words in particular: ‘again’ and ‘back’.

Both words encourage voters to hark back to a supposedly more glorious past. They are an appeal to nostalgia, to the days of voters’ youth when they were healthier and happier and the world, at least when viewed through their favourite rose-tinted glasses, was a much, much better place.

In America, it was a time before they lost the war in Vietnam, before President Richard Nixon had been forced to resign in disgrace, before millions of jobs in heavy industries were lost. In the UK, it was before we lost an empire, before the death of the coal, steel and ship-building industries, before immigrants with different coloured skins arrived on our shores.

And – of course – it was a time before we joined the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community, and then became the European Union. Hence Brexit. Hence a political and constitutional crisis deeper than any since the fierce debates over Irish Home Rule more than a hundred years ago.

Brexit is about so much more than how we organise our international trading relationships. It is about how we think of ourselves, and how we think of our country. I have come to the view that the reason Remainers and Leavers can barely speak to each other any more is that they are talking about the wrong things.

I have been taking another look at the detailed research findings published by the pollster and Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft immediately after the Brexit referendum. He interviewed more than twelve thousand voters, far more than is usual in exercises of this kind, and his findings revealed a vast attitudinal gulf between the two sides of the Brexit divide.

For example: Leave voters were far more pessimistic about their children’s futures than Remainers. They were also far more likely to take the view that life in Britain today is worse than it was thirty years ago. The figures are startling: nearly three quarters of Remainers thought life was better than it used to be; more than half of the Leave voters thought it was worse. Substantial majorities of Leave voters also thought that multi-culturalism, social liberalism, feminism, the green movement, globalisation and immigration were all forces for ill. Remainers thought exactly the opposite.

I grew up in the 1960s. It was a time when abortion and male homosexuality were legalised, capital punishment was abolished, and the feminist movement took off. To some, it was the age of the ‘permissive society’, an age when the ‘old morality’ was replaced by what they called the ‘new immorality’. During my schooldays, there was a far-right movement, a precursor to the National Front, called the League of Empire Loyalists, rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Communist, which campaigned forlornly for the preservation of the British empire. There is nothing new about nostalgia, even if, as the old joke has it, it’s nothing like it used to be.

I bring all this up now because I fear that in the cauldron of the current Brexit melt-down, we are in danger of ignoring the very real divisions in British society that go far beyond Brexit itself. As the political debate becomes increasingly polarised, with each side accusing the other of betrayal, treachery and worse, there is an increasing danger that we are moving ever closer to what in different circumstances would be called a culture war.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, I have discerned some tiny glimmers of hope over the past few days. Whereas fifteen months ago I was writing in fury about what I called the ‘shame of our cowardly MPs’, now I have come to admire at least those who have put conscience before party loyalty, even at the risk of their careers. I also admire our still independent judiciary – even as I watched in horror as the business minister Kwasi Kwarteng told Andrew Neil last Wednesday that although, of course, he himself believes that judges are impartial, ‘many people up and down the country are beginning to question their partiality.’

I have also been encouraged – oh, all right, just a little bit encouraged – by the conclusion of Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform and one of our most respected EU analysts, after two days of talks with EU, member state and UK officials, that a deal is ‘more likely than I had thought.’

For what it’s worth, I still believe Boris Johnson desperately wants a deal, even at the cost of being branded a traitor by the so-called Spartans of his own party. All he needs is a rabbit out of the hat at the EU Council meeting in mid-October, the support of a couple of dozen of pro-Brexit Labour MPs, and he’ll be basking in the glory of an adoring Conservative party.

Which, of course, is what he always wanted. He hates being hated – I have rarely seen him look as miserable as he has done recently – so I suspect he’ll soon be parting company with his sinister adviser, Dominic (Svengali) Cummings, who likes nothing better.

I don’t believe that he’ll break the law over seeking an Article 50 extension, but I do think he’ll resign as prime minister rather than go through with it if he hasn’t got a deal. So if you can’t bear the thought of any more high octane Westminster drama, I suggest you go somewhere far away between 19 and 31 October. My blogpost on 1 November will tell you whether it’s safe to come home.


Tinkersdamn said...

One of the most cutting pieces I saw before the US 2016 election was a near wordless photo essay of Ottumwa, Iowa entitled: 'Why Does This Town Support Trump?' in (yes) The New Yorker. It showed structures in stages of dereliction over two generations from a pro-union, heavily Democratic registered town and county seat, which had seen its home values, prospects for employment with a livable wage, and population erode over the same two generations under Republican and Democratic governance. The initial contempt the establishment of both parties showered upon Trump seemed to be all the endorsement he needed.

We might rightly look Ottumwans in the eye and declare that voting for a fraud like Trump isn't rational. And they might just as rightly look back at us and ask, given their historical reality, "Just exactly what is rational?"

The centre couldn't hold in Ottumwa. Did it deserve to?

Anonymous said...

So Tinkersdamn, are you saying that people voted for Trump more as an Independent than a Republican? If so, it sounds logical. But here we're stuck with FPTP, where only the two main parties are likely to win and Independents can only win one seat at best (and that's where there aren't boundaries shifted to make the seats safer). Neither of the two main parties have done anything much for the towns and cities which resemble Ottumwa in recent years. Both Thatcher and Blair and the rest were too busy sucking up to the US and Johnson is following them.

If we really want to start afresh after Brexit, putting Britain first as they keep telling us, then we need a change to PR because without it we'll keep going the same as before and the benefits won't go to those who need them but keep filling the same pockets as they have done for the past 40 years.

Tinkersdamn said...

President Trump is a Republican -- think Reagan with a comb-over and you're pretty much there.

Candidate Trump knew better than to acknowledge this. In 1980 the Reagan promoted supply-side theory had the support of rank-and-file Republican voters. In 2016 it didn't. Trump relied more overtly and more often on Otherization than Reagan did and his rhetoric took a number of anti-supply-side populist turns to cobble together his popular vote, while President Trump's governance has been supply-side in spades.

I doubt most people in Ottumwa and other hard pressed communities were really true believers when it came to Trump, but they had, with cause, given up on their Party establishments and were encouraged by Trump and virtually all media to believe a vote for Trump was a vote against the establishment that failed them.

By the way, the US is also FPTP, and the Electoral College is like FPTP on roids. I don't know if the answer is PR or if these Parties can be rebuilt from within, maybe both, but continued inequities in representation isn't apt to bring about the stability the Party establishments claim to desire.