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The tribes will always be with us  

21 December 2017

The bitter divisions besetting Western democracies are a wake-up call, says Nick Spencer


Angry Remainers: anti-Brexit protesters at a rally London, in March

Angry Remainers: anti-Brexit protesters at a rally London, in March

MY WEEKENDS are dominated by football. I don’t especially like the game, don’t support a team, and can’t play for toffee. But through the seem­ingly random drift of genetic chance that is natural selection, my 11-year-old son has developed a passion, and, even more mysteriously, a talent, for the game. Hence, my weekends are now spent on various touchlines, cheering and shouting and pretending to know what I’m talking about.

It is different when you have skin in the game, as they say. Rarely am I as committed as when cheering on the Colts, and the same, naturally, goes for other parents and other teams. Although I have yet to witness any actual fisticuffs, my touchline morn­ings have occasionally lifted a veil on human nature which is best left down. “Serious sport”, Orwell fam­ously wrote, “is war minus the shoot­ing.”

This is an exaggeration that tells us more about Orwell than about sport, but it is a pardonable one. The tribe, with its passion, loyalties, and obliga­tions, is never far from the surface. No matter how we much we self-medicate with illusions of end­lessly rewritable, unencumbered selves, we remain social, tribal, and exclusionary beings. “I” find my iden­tity in “we”, and every “we” has a “them”.


THIS is why politics is so necessary. Indeed, apropos of Orwell’s famous aph­or­ism, politics is what we do when we stop trying to shoot one another — not when we stop being tribal. Anta­g­o­n­istic, oppositional, ag­­­­gres­­sive, mo­dern democratic politics is, none the less, a moral triumph.

The elec­tion of complete strangers to recog­nise and represent others’ interests; peaceful, reason- and evidence-sensitive negotiation of those interests; and formal acqu­iesc­ence in people, structures, and processes of decision-making which you played no part in choosing: this is an astonishing achievement for a species that has spent most of its time on earth in caves.

And yet anyone who has taken a passing interest in politics over the past year or two might be excused for wondering whether the achievement was unravelling.

In the first instance, there was the chaos, anger, confusion, power-games, vindictiveness, accident, and ambition of the political process itself, as growing shelves of memoirs and diaries reveal in all their gory detail. Then there is the public’s not unrel­ated and apparently inexhaustible scepticism about the political system: its politicians, power-brokers, and pro­­cesses all seemingly corrupt and un­relentingly self-serving.

And, perhaps most worryingly, there is the way in which our politics appears increasingly incapable of tempering our tribalism. As the screeds of commentary and analysis after the Brexit vote demonstrated, Britain didn’t so much vote for different Euro-visions in 2016 as reveal its different tribes. Remaining and leav­ing mapped on to age, socio-econo­mic, regional, national identity, and social-attitudinal categories with a clarity that went way beyond the margin of error.

The tribalism goes beyond Brexit, as anyone who has ever seen a “Never kissed a Tory” T-shirt will know. So vile do I find your political views, the slogan goes, that I can suppress any human sympathy or affection I might otherwise feel towards you. Hatred conquers love. Politics is not some­where we go to exorcise our tribal hatreds so much as somewhere we go to exercise them.


STILL, at least it was worse elsewhere this year. President Trump managed to excavate further the already deep divisions in American society. His press conference following the far-Right rally in Charlottesville, in August, in which he condemned “many sides”, was a particular low point (News, 18 August).

A few months later, Catalan na­­­tionalists declared independence from Spain (News, 3 November), in a political statement that was simul­taneously a statement of political failure: we need to secede because we can no longer negotiate. The unsym­pa­thetic, bordering on brutal, reaction of the Spanish government served to underline further this political failure, and is likely to have won Madrid the battle at the expense of weakening its war.

PABattle: Catalans protest in Brussels, earlier this month

Elsewhere, nationalist movements, fuelled by a loathing of liberalism, multi­­­­culturalism, immigrants, and Islam, made electoral headway in France, Germany, and the Nether­lands.

In one sense, it was ever thus. In 1800, a matter of years after the new nation was founded, the Presidency was established and power was peace­fully handed over to a particular “party”, the United States endured a notoriously bitter, fearful, and duplicitous election campaign that could have been compared with Clinton-Trump 2016.

A few years after British Con­servatives and Labour supporters joined forces, round the Cabinet table and mess table, to defeat a common enemy, they were calling each other names (”Gestapo”, “lower than ver­min”) that would make even today’s hacks raise an eyebrow. Politics has always verged on the savage.

What we have seen in the UK and other mature political democracies of late is not, therefore, new so much as a wake-up call. Settled loyalties, the absence of war, reasonably reliable economic growth, a welfare safety-net (threadbare in places but, by most historical and geographical compar­isons, well-functioning): such factors naturally lull us into believing that this is the way of the world. Politics is a post-tribal endeavour. We naturally get on. Fundamental human good­ness, even altruism, are normal. Wickedness is the result of ignorance, stupidity, or malign social, economic, or religious forces that can, with the right policies, be eradicated.

You don’t need to be committed to any Calvinist doctrine of total human depravity to believe that such ideas are painfully naïve and superficial. You simply need to stand at a football touchline, sensing yourself and watch­ing others skirt the edges of tribal aggression.


DAVID CAMERON called the Brexit referendum in the mistaken belief that he would win it. Among the other mistakes that he made, he under­estimated how hard it would be to achieve pro-European goals after having made very few pro-European noises over the years. Why would people vote for Europe after having heard it run down for so long?

As with Europe, so with politics. Having denigrated it for decades, we still expect its hard-won commitment to representation, negotiation, adju­dication, and compromise to deliver us the peace, prosperity, and stability that we think we deserve.

And it still does. But tribalism, like the poor, is always with us. It isn’t something we have transcended with smartphones and the internet. The principled forbearance that under­lines mature democratic politics will continue to undermine and defuse those tribal instincts — but not automatically and not inevitably.


Nick Spencer is research director of Theos. His latest book, The Political Samaritan: How politics hijacked a parable, is published by Bloomsbury.

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