Brexit: The boredom of living through ‘interesting times’ 

At Spectator Coffee House

Robert Tombs, author of the majestic The English and their History, is writing in the latest magazine about how Brexit has become the trigger for a new culture war in Britain. He likens it to the sectarian arguments of the 18th century, pointing out that:

‘When I hear prominent Remainers unquestioningly supporting the demands of the EU Commission, however incoherent and excessive, I cannot but remember the opposition leader Charles James Fox happily admitting during the Napoleonic Wars that ‘The Triumph of the French government over the English does in fact afford me a degree of pleasure which is very difficult to disguise.’

‘Is this just coincidence? There does seem to be a sectarian strand in our political culture whose natural home is in what the French call ‘internal exile’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was associated with religious Dissent — that high-minded elite of Unitarians, Quakers, Wesleyans and so on — who felt both outside and frankly morally superior to the vulgar and immoral masses, to the fox-hunting Tory squirearchy and to the worldly Anglican Establishment (‘immoral, wine-swilling, degraded clergy’). Think Fielding’s ‘Mr Allworthy’ versus ‘Squire Western’. The consciously progressive and enlightened elements in our own society and their great institutions (including the BBC and the Guardian) were born of and still seem to cultivate this Olympian inheritance. It includes a revulsion against British history or, more precisely, against an internalised caricature of British history: imperialism, exploitation, oppression. We rarely know enough to form a more balanced picture: few advanced countries teach their children less history than we do.’


Methodists were prominent in the 19th century Labour movement, Quakers built poverty charities like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation while Unitarians established the Manchester Guardian.

And yet 18th and 19th century Britain was politically stable and unified enough to work around these religious-political divisions, without bloodshed, and for minority religions on both sides to be slowly allowed into the mainstream. I’m less confident about the coming troubled times, which have more in common with the far bloodier culture war of the 16th and 17th centuries, which was also spurred on by new technology, in this case printing rather than the internet. Even the angry hot takes of today’s media resemble the vicious, sectarian pamphlets of the wars of religion, all supposed to exaggerate the stupidity and brutality of the other side and create a community of believers.

Political sectarianism is all the more dangerous because it’s pronounced in the more educated and intelligent, the very people who view their belief system and politics to be rational, rather than filled with motivated reasoning and triggered by sacred subjects and groups.

A new paper points to exactly this, stating that ‘it is not clear whether education reduces other prejudices against groups along different dimensions, including ideological identification. An analysis of American National Election Studies data from 1964 to 2012 shows that education is related to decreases in interethnic/interracial prejudice, but also to increases in ideological (liberal vs. conservative) prejudice.’

If you meet anyone with truly bigoted views about people who think differently to them (rather than against those of another racial group) 99 times out of 100 they will have gone to university. And I’m just as much at fault as anyone; I often wonder if I’d be a much better human being if I had no interest in politics, more humane, more generous, less angry; or perhaps I’d just get annoyed about something else instead.

Likewise many of the worst and most fanatical monsters of the wars of religion, and of the ideological conflicts of the 20th century, were highly-educated people whose anger and hostility span out of control. And yet whereas racial prejudice is considered a sign of moral depravity and religious bigotry is seen as unseemly at best, ideological sectarianism has no taboo attached to it. This must play some part in America’s rapid political polarisation of the past four decades, a political culture in which portraying the other side as somehow less than human is cheered on by otherwise normal, decent people. This is Britain’s future, too, with the two main parties aligning on socially conservative vs socially liberal lines, a rejigging of politics triggered by the referendum.

Perhaps it is inevitable; in a relatively homogenous society with a common culture but with large class differences parties will polarise along economic lines; in a society with increasingly diverse worldviews and lifestyles and online imaginary communities then parties will align along values. We may not be able to avoid this future, but it’s a guaranteed route to intensively divisive and bitter politics in a political system designed for a nation-state, rather than a series of tribes. At some point, maybe, it will become necessarily therefore to make ideological prejudice as taboo as the religious variety, especially as it becomes ever clearer that politics and ideology is heavily under genetic control.

That would make life very dull, but them political polarisation is proving to be pretty dull, too, as the Brexit debate has shown. The Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ really was oversold a little bit.



What do you think?