The tribes of British political life stare at one another, uncomprehending. These are not the tribes of old, and they have little to do with political parties or the old ideological divides. These tribes have no interest in arguing with their opponents, or in consensus (what an outdated word that now seems.) What we have is a new kind of division.
In a recent piece for the site, Freddie Jordan identified one such divide, that between the metropolitan young, who rarely venture outside the M25, and the rest of Britain. There can be no denying that London is a solipsistic place. Those who live in the capital would be astounded to learn how little the rest of the country cares about them. In answer to the question, “What does he of Britain know, who only Hackney knows?” the answer is almost certainly “much less than he thinks.”
So I agree with my colleague to a certain extent. But the piece goes on to draw a conclusion with which I do not have sympathy and which, perhaps unwittingly, gets to the core of our current tribal moment. These city-dwelling youngsters, the piece states, “are ignorant of their own country, and that has led to a dangerous lack of cultural introspection—and bankrupted any sense of national identity.”
Here we arrive at an example of a new instinct, one that can be identified on both the right and left. It seeks not to argue a point, but instead to provide reasons for which the other person should be dismissed. Young Londoners, for example, are “ignorant of their own country.” And so, we are invited to ask ourselves, how can their political views be of any relevance? Obviously they cannot. They are therefore to be dismissed.
The writer does not do so, but one might also describe such people as “elite,” that great Trumpian-Faragiste dismissal word. In the new tribal lexicon, an elite person is not to be argued with. Their very eliteness means that they are already lost, having committed a sort of political original sin from which there can be no salvation. You don’t answer their questions or engage with their points. You simply sweep them from the board. “Elite!” One might also accuse them of being ignorant of the will of the people, or—at a stretch—enemies of the people. The effect is the same. You hit them with the insult and like that, they are gone.
The progressive liberals are no different. The “privileged white male” in British public life, not someone for whom we necessarily need feel much sympathy, has become a prime candidate for dismissal. Whether or not his dismissal is justified is not the issue—the issue is the very existence of that urge to dismiss. Progressives may think it’s justified to dismiss people for being “privileged” or “regressive”. Well, ok. But they’ll just turn around and dismiss you as “elite”. The question is whether we are happy with this absurd reductionism. (I dismiss you. No you can’t because I dismissed you first.) Does it get us anywhere?
Leaving behind the academic world of identity politics, the urge to dismiss can be found in more sinister territory. In the fetid stew of Labour’s internal row over anti-Semitism, Jewish MPs have been accused of working “hand-in-hand,” with Labour’s opponents in the press. Others have even faced de-selection. In this dark logic, Jewish MPs who complain about anti-Semitism are not to be taken seriously or even argued with. They are to be denounced and removed.
Everywhere you look in British political life you will see this urge to dismiss, and its ubiquity suggests to me that British political life has entered a period of dangerous essentialism, in which eternal truths about the nature of things are available only to a select few. Anyone who does not subscribe to that truth must be excommunicated, cast out for being elite; or regressive; or internationalist; or privileged; or a “centrist dad” (look it up); or even “ignorant of their own country”.
Britain is becoming a more closed society. The reasons why are beyond the scope of this column. But a consequence of this closure is that the non-tribal voter has nowhere to go. I am one of them. In my time, I have voted Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem. I have several family members who have voted Ukip. I lived on the Brixton Road for eighteen years (cosmopolitan). I now live in Somerset (Rees-Mogg territory). I am the son of a Cornish father brought up in France, Germany and Egypt (internationalist) and a mother from Abertillery (traditional working class.)
I am of no fixed political address. I have no ingrained political cast of thought. I am not tribal. I dismiss nobody and I will not be dismissed. Where do I go in our new, rather nasty Britain? Who speaks for me? The answer at the moment, it seems, is no one. No one at all.