This essay, on the peculiar character of contemporary social polarisation, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the calls for the sacking of reactionary lecturer John Finnis.) It was published in the Observer, 13 January 2019, under the headline ‘A divided Britain is not new. So why do today’s schisms seem intractable?’
A few years ago, we stayed in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. One night, we went for a drink in the local. It was plastered inside and out with union jacks. The moment I saw the flags, the hairs on my neck stood up. Anyone black or Asian who had grown up in 70s and 80s Britain would probably have felt the same. The union jack in those days was a sign, meaning: ‘Beware, fascists around’.
Littondale in the 2010s is, of course, a very different place from east London in the 1980s and the meaning of the union jack very different too. The pub was welcoming and friendly and we returned there more than once. And yet I know that the next time I see a pub plastered with union jacks, the hairs of my neck once more will stand up.
Signs and symbols are essential to our lives, helping us navigate the social world and allowing us to link outward appearance to some inner essence or truth. They provide a means of signalling who we are and what we stand for. It’s why we wear badges and ribbons, why many Jewish men wear the kippa and some Muslim women the hijab.
The way we read signs, and the meanings we attribute to them, is not necessarily rational, as my response to the union jacks expressed. Personal experience has embedded in me a reflexive response to a particular sign.
The distortion in the way people interpret social signs can be profoundly damaging. Racism attributes to surface markers a pernicious deeper meaning. To a racist, a black skin can be a sign of threat or of inferiority, an immigrant, a signal of social degradation.
In a recent essay, the Conservative activist Graeme Archer suggested that we live today in an ‘age of semiotics‘ in which signs have become both all-important and peculiarly distorted. Signs have become ‘tribalised’ and ‘the deconstruction of signs… has become our chief political diagnostic’. There is truth to this. Consider the Brexit debate. The hostility and harassment faced by the Tory Remainer Anna Soubry dominated much discussion over the past week. ‘This is what has happened to our country,’ Soubry observed in the infamous interview on London’s College Green drowned out by chants of ‘Soubry is a Nazi’. She was right, though perhaps not quite in the way she meant.
It’s not, as Soubry seemed to suggest, that the Brexit debate has created a tribalised Britain in which people with whom you disagree become fair game to be harassed and denounced as Nazis. Rather, it is that a more tribalised Britain has meant that the Brexit debate is inevitably now seen in tribal terms.
Abusive views of opponents were stitched into the Brexit debate long before far-right idiots in yellow jackets hijacked College Green. Almost from the beginning, Remainers dismissed Brexiters as ignorant and racist. Brexiters denounced Remainers as traitors and enemies of the people. No doubt, on reading this, both sides will insist: ‘Yes, but we’re right and they’re wrong.’
One way in which people try to make sense of this is in the observation that we are living in a more polarised society. A divided Britain is not, however, anything new. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 created far greater social instability than anything we are witnessing today. In 1926, the General Strike led the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to claim that union leaders were ‘threatening the basis of ordered government, and going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past’.
What is peculiar today is not polarisation itself, but the manner of division. In the past, the distinction between left and right gave people a means of making sense of social divisions. That distinction no longer provides a useful compass for today’s political landscape. In the past, movements for social change helped shape peoples’ ideals and gave meaning to national fault lines. Today’s polarisation is disconnected from any such movements, making divisions appear more arbitrary and more intractable.
Today, British politics seems simultaneously to be chaotic and immovable. The Brexit process has exposed a fragmented political class with few ideas, seemingly unable to govern the nation. Yet public attitudes have barely changed towards Brexit. And, for all the disasters faced by the Tory party, Labour has been unable to take advantage. Britain is socially polarised, yet politically paralysed. As a result, politics skates largely on the surface. It is this degradation of politics that has made signs all-important. They are what’s left and what we polarise around.