I ticked off another “thing to do before I die” last month when I attended the annual wine-tasting day in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which was the very image of la belle vie of rural France, apart from the four soldiers with machine guns (plus three policemen with handguns). France is swarming with heavily armed guys looking effortlessly cool as they defend us from the country’s endless supply of Islamist crazies, but the national emergency hasn’t affected the spirit of most Frenchmen, who seem as miserable as normal.
Being a political junkie, I was looking forward to switching off from politics, having found the Brexit referendum especially dire. But just as temporary periods without booze are apparently no use if one continues to abuse the stuff, I’m not sure news detox does me any good. Political partisanship is addictive, and like most addictions not just personally destructive, but also socially corrosive; in this case it inflames the same sense of moral outrage and righteousness that once inspired sectarian conflict in Europe.
Indeed, just as print triggered two centuries of ideological conflict on our continent, so digital is doing the same, and Brexit is just a taste of things to come. The vote exposed huge fault lines between social classes, regions, generations and most of all worldviews, in particular the division between globalists and nationalists. Those choosing to leave were not the economically “left behind”, but were motivated by social values; as the LSE’s Eric Kaufmann noted, the referendum was about “order versus openness”, with strong correlations between support for Leave and core socially conservative beliefs such as capital punishment.
For all the civility and twee of the subsequent handover of power, Theresa May has inherited a country more divided than at any time since the 19th century. It’s been deeply unpleasant, and made me finally understand why the English like to talk about the weather so much – we don’t handle contentious political subjects well.
But it is hardly surprising that Britain is so split, having in the past few decades gone through a social revolution as dramatic as the Reformation. In the 16th century, England had two competing worldviews at loggerheads: the old conservative religion, which was still firmly established in rural areas and led by a few aristocrats; and the radical new creed, concentrated among the middle class with strongholds in cities like London and Cambridge, the universities and legal profession.
The old faith provided the security and social cohesion most people craved; the new offered radical ideas about salvation and a war on sin, although for today’s Godly (as the Puritans called themselves) it’s the sins of racism, sexism and homophobia that must be driven out. Instead of pamphlets, blogs and social media now do the job of polarising debate, whipping up anger against the other side. As the clickbait of the Reformation might have put it, “Watch John Calvin deſtroy ye papiſts in one utterance”.
Social media is especially dangerous because it provides people with the news they want to read, giving them that little dopamine hit one receives from having a prejudice confirmed. Research by groups like the Brookings Institute has shown how Facebook is helping to drive political polarisation by creating bubbles of people who almost never engage with anyone from the other side. All their news whips up anger and outrage about their opponents, while in a desperate search for hits the English-speaking world’s most prestigious newspapers, such as the New York Times, have abandoned all pretence of impartiality.
We’ve seen real signs of the bubble effect with the Labour Party’s swerve to the Left, and there is evidence of the problem in academia, teaching and to some extent medicine. If many of the Remainers seem so shrill it’s partly because they probably know few intelligent people their age with a different point of view; it’s also because social liberals have been on the winning side in every debate for 40 years, and don’t take losing well.
The Reformation lead to bloodshed across Europe, but less so in England because of a woman who chose a middle course between the two religions. Elizabeth I developed an Anglican Church that was neither entirely Protestant nor Catholic, an English compromise that did not satisfy the faithful on either side but in the long term probably reduced conflict. Of course it was not a real compromise – the much-mythologised Virgin Queen ramped up the persecution of Catholics – but it disempowered the more extreme Protestant sects, who subsequently crossed the ocean and became the ancestors of today’s Democrat-voting social justice warriors.
Compromise is a much undervalued English quality, especially now when so much of politics is about self-actualisation. Personally I’ve had enough of “passion” in politics, and want middle-of-the-road caution once again – then we can go back to talking about the weather.