Paris Gourtsoyannis: Two tribes effect is polarising politics

Prime Minister Theresa May has lost hope of tidying Brexit off the political agenda quickly.
Prime Minister Theresa May has lost hope of tidying Brexit off the political agenda quickly.
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Just like the divisive US election, Brexit has left Britain hopelessly split in half with neither side understanding the other says Paris Gourtsoyannis

I know quite a few Americans, on the right and the left, but it’s been impossible to find any Trump supporters among my acquaintances. All the Stateside social media chatter points in one direction, but one comment a few weeks ago stood out.

It was from an old school friend whose credentials as a Clinton voter are rock solid: a university-educated woman, well-off, working as a prosecutor in one of the staunchest Democratic districts in New York City.

Her “never Trump” cri de coeur didn’t pick out any single example of his vulgarity, demagoguery, misogyny or bigotry. The plea was simpler than that: “Don’t let Brexit happen in America.”

She probably meant that as an affront to people who voted to leave the EU, but it shouldn’t be. Donald Trump himself described his unlikely – but entirely possible – victory as “Brexit plus”. At Trump rallies and on US media, Nigel Farage has enjoyed his hero-status among the American right.

Whether President Trump is elected tonight or not – it would only take a shock of the same scale as 
Brexit – the forces he has unleashed won’t simply evaporate the morning after election day.

America’s two-party political system has for decades been a proxy conflict for the so-called culture wars over issues like abortion, law and order, race and immigration that divide a vast and diverse country in half.

Until Mr Trump’s successful coup within the Republican Party, the confrontation between America’s two political tribes was a largely cold war whose hostilities were contained by a recognised set of boundaries.

Signs of a breakdown in that understanding have accumulated over the past eight years, particularly in the frequent deadlock between an executive under President Obama and a Congress hog-tied by the Tea Party. But in this election, led by Mr Trump, one tribe has dispensed with the rules and gone to all-out war with the other.

Mr Farage has predicted the rise of a third party that will become the vehicle to carry the momentum of Mr Trump’s insurrection, if he loses. Given the narrowness of Mrs Clinton’s lead, the Republican leadership that tried so hard to stop Mr Trump from being their candidate may decide that the best way forward is to find another populist with more polish and fewer video nasties in the broom cupboard – less Trump and more Farage.

In Brexit, has the UK found the issue that can divide the country as potently as in the United States? As with Trump voters, a widely held assumption has been that the Leave vote was delivered by an alienated white working-class fearful and angry at the change wrought by globalisation. Brexit was driven by poverty, inequality and isolation.

But the coalition that has taken Trump to the steps of the White House is broader and wealthier than most media depictions allow. It brings together everyone from trust-fund libertarians to middle class evangelicals and flag-waving bikers. Research conducted by British Election Study shortly after the referendum result found that while there was a strong correlation between the proportion of white, working-class voters and the strength of the Leave vote in a given area, other factors were even more significant.

One of the most striking was support for the death penalty, which was found to be an accurate predictor of voting for Brexit in 70 per cent of cases. Nothing to do with the EU campaign, of course – instead, the finding speaks to a set of shared values that run deeper than class alone.

Brexit excavated a divide that was not rich and poor, or left and right, but two fundamentally opposed views of society and how it should be run – open or closed, diverse or homogenous, permissive or ordered.

How irreconcilable these opposing views of the world are was reflected last week by the outrage on both sides over the ruling by the High Court in London that parliament, not the government or the people, is sovereign in deciding when Article 50 should be triggered.

Headlines screaming that judges are “Enemies of the people” and calls for a march on the Supreme Court were as unsettling to one side of the divide as they appeared necessary and justified to the other.

Of course, the ruling doesn’t block Brexit at all, it simply means that MPs will have to sign off the PM’s timetable for triggering Article 50. The Labour Party and most Remain-supporting MPs have already conceded as much. The Lib Dems and the SNP may find themselves without much company in the no lobbies when a vote is held on the Article 50 legislation now being drafted.

Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s narrow majority, the confusion of her government’s response to the Brexit challenge, and the fact that she has no personal mandate either from her party or the country. But Mrs May has put herself and her party at the head of the Brexit tribe, and as long as she continues to lead that march, she can call on the mandate of the EU referendum. If she is forced into an early election, it will be over something else entirely – because on Brexit, the courts aren’t accountable to the voters, but MPs are.

Mrs May has ruled out any early election before 2020, but even if she breaks that commitment before triggering Article 50 next spring, or after it in early 2018, any general election would be another EU referendum in all but name, fought along the same front lines. That might work well for the unequivocally pro-EU parties, but it would trap an already divided Labour Party, and would simply underline the Prime Minister’s strength outside parliament, in the country.

What the High Court ruling does do is strip away the illusion that Brexit will be anything but long and complicated. Ministers in Mrs May’s government are reportedly now talking up the prospect of transitional arrangements that could see the UK move into the halfway house of EEA membership while a trade deal with the EU is negotiated. If the Prime Minister harboured any hope of tidying Brexit off the political agenda quickly, it is long abandoned now.

For her, that may not be a problem. But as in the United States, where the divisions have only grown sharper, Britain feels like it is at the start of a confrontation between two tribes that increasingly do not understand or speak to one another. And however Americans make their choice today, however it unspools over the long night ahead, this much is clear: it does not end here.