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Brexit tribalism is a virus, and it’s driving the right mad

2 December 2017

10:03 AM

2 December 2017

10:03 AM

It’s remarkable how quickly tribalism can capture people. Three years ago, only a small number of politicians and commentators advocated leaving the European Union. Reform it, yes; complain about it, always. But actually quit? That was a Ukip cause. But now a lot of people, having drunk the Brexit brew, are quite heady. It’s not just that they have been converted to the Brexit cause, it’s that they can’t see how anyone sensible could disagree with it – or them. They belong to a new tribe: the Brexiteers. And any problems in their project are immediately blamed on the others.

Listen to the arguments now. The Brexiteers are not to blame for an EU divorce bill many times their estimates — the Europeans are. The Brexiteers are not to blame for risking a hard border with Ireland or an economic border with Northern Ireland — the Irish are. The Brexiteers are not to blame for the miserable come-down from an artificial high — the Remainers are.

The problem is that Remainers are half the country, or a significant chunk even once you factor in those who have supposedly made their peace with Brexit. Brexiteers are ushering us into a Brave New World, too defensive to care that they are leaving behind a great many who prefer the world they have just now. These Remoaners just want Britain to fail. 

To Scots, this displacement tribalism taking hold in Westminster sounds wearily familiar. Not so long ago, an independence referendum converted a great many people to a new cause: people who had been ambivalent about the union suddenly saw it as a defining issue. Since it lost that referendum in September 2014, the SNP’s tune has grown darker. The Nationalists convinced themselves that their opponents were lesser Scots, their rejection of independence a rejection of the country itself. They were ‘a parcel of rogues’ to Alex Salmond, ‘talking down Scotland’ to Nicola Sturgeon.

Now the Nationalists find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, stubbornly unswung by Brexit, and they confront a country they can’t read as readily as they once did. The SNP rails against the Tories, Labour, troublesome journalists, off-message academics, and unpatriotic businesses because they cannot rail against the voters, who have shown themselves to be lesser Scots. The SNP can neither fathom nor forgive them for it.

The tragicomedy of a national movement at odds with its own nation should give Brexiteers pause. When Ruth Davidson made opposition to a ‘divisive second referendum on independence’ the centrepiece of her General Election campaign, all but the smartest Scottish Nationalists scoffed. What histrionics! The referendum was a joyous spring in the life of our democracy! The nation was awakened by it! Half the nation was but the other half was horrified by the rancour and polarisation and was prepared to do anything to avoid a repeat — even lending their votes to the Tories.

Those who do not feel invested in Brexit will feel little loyalty to it in the long term. Could this see a rearguard action to take us back into the EU? Perhaps, if things go catastrophically, but that is a secondary point. A sizeable slice of the country feels alienated from the biggest policy change in decades. This matters because it goes to the heart of identity.

Just as independence was never really about the Union but about how Scots viewed themselves and Scotland, Brexit is less about Europe than about Britain. Many Remainers do not have a strong European identity but they have a strong sense of what kind of country Britain is — or at least they thought they did.

They thought Britain was open, compassionate, reliable — not exceptional but one of the good guys. Now they see (or at least think that they see) a country driving away immigrants and celebrating it; a country apparently hellbent on insulting, offending, and exasperating our neighbours in Ireland; a country retreating into mean provincialism. You might say such fears are misplaced, but listen to the tone adopted by so many Brexiteers. The scorn with which they refer to the vanquished ‘Remoaners’, how they talk about them as enemies, not opponents. And yes, not all Brexiteers do this – but rather a lot of them do. Wittingly or not.

When they bark at Remainers to ‘get over it’, you suspect it’s because they know they have screwed up and are seeking safety in numbers. Remainers have more or less got over it and (polls show) accept that we are leaving the EU. But the acrimonious behaviour of the Leavers has entrenched Brexit as a cultural wedge issue that may well endure long after we have left. It’s as if the Brexiteers, insurgents who stormed the establishment, still want some barricades to rush.

Scotland’s nationalists lost their referendum but won the culture war; today Scotland is more distinctive and independent-minded than ever before. England’s nationalists won their referendum but they are losing the culture war. The risk for them is that Brexit becomes a shorthand for whatever displeases or distresses in the coming years. Still-sluggish growth? Blame Brexit. A staffing crisis in the NHS? Blame Brexit. No money for public services? Blame Brexit.

After the publication of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Margaret Thatcher asked of its author: ‘Whatever happened to John Gray? He used to be one of us.’ Some on the right might ask the same. What happened to Tim Montgomerie? There are two men in all of England who truly understand conservatism and Roger Scruton is the other one. But Montgomerie, always a Eurosceptic, has been radicalised and now spruiks the benefits of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, an acutely unconservative outcome he once warned against.

Behold tribalism at full strength. Tribalism tells you to swallow your doubts, stick up for your side, and give no quarter to the enemy. It told the Scottish Nationalists all these things and they believed them and they lost. The Brexiteers may have won on referendum day, but tribalism can still make them losers.

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