The divisive dynamic in British life is not Left/Right, which seems quite benign these days, but much more insidious. It has been caused, inevitably, by Brexit and if we look at the opinions of those who voted “Leave” and those who voted “Remain” we can see how polarised it is. There are two tribes with little or no overlap between them.
The table above is, of course, indicative and incomplete. I am not arguing that it is definitive. But broadly there is a consistency of opinion within the tribes which is remarkable. As is the absence of compromise and unwillingness to engage.
The principal characteristic of modern British political opinion is dogmatism. This is, I think, because Brexit was binary. It required us to make a Yes/No choice. This has spilled over into a raft of other issues in public life. The “If you’re not with us you’re against us” meme is everywhere. It is utterly un-nuanced. The gospel of St Matthew is the originator of the “for or against” idea: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.” it says in the King James bible.
In the bible translation I don’t think “abroad” actually meant in a different country – just away from where I am. Here we are very much into tribes. The hostile tribe is distanced from my tribe – geographically, socially, intellectually, racially and (especially) generationally. My Baby Boomer generation is broadly in the “Leave” tribe. The older you get the more conservative and often reactionary you get in all respects.
For the avoidance of doubt let me re-emphasise that I am generalising here. I know Conservative voters who are strong “Remainers” and young people who voted “Leave” and/or who are members of the Boris fan club. But broadly what I describe here is valid for the majority.
Most modern issues are complex and do not lend themselves to simple or populist conclusions. So when you have a contest between the informed and cerebral on the one hand and the populist and gut feel on the other the two tribes are both ill-equipped for constructive debate. As Disraeli put it in “Sybil” “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Disraeli was writing about the Rich and the Poor in Victorian England. But the quote is no less applicable to the “Leave” and “Remain” tribes today.
When the debates were mainly Left/Right not only was there room for movement but compromise was almost inevitable. So though the Conservatives opposed state control over many aspects of our lives in the late 1940s they actually left most of Attlee’s nationalisations in place when they regained power 1951-1964. Similarly the Blair/Brown governments of 1997-2010 unravelled few of Thatcher’s changes of the 1980s. Arguably from 1945-2015 there was a broad commonality of goal and purpose, even method, wholly absent today.
As I have said it was Brexit that drove us apart and the warring Brexit tribes which still divide us. There is no intercourse and no sympathy between them. In the 300+ years since the English Civil War we have never known a situation where one half of the population has such open contempt for the other half.