I have just started listening to Sapiens, the book by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m finding it engrossing and thought-provoking in the best traditions of popular science writing. Harari argues that the key factor in giving our species, homo sapiens, an advantage over the other human species was the ‘cognitive revolution’, the evolutionary leap that allowed us to conceptualise fiction. This in turn allowed homo sapiens to build more complex societies bound together by shared fictions: mythology, religion, values, laws. Without rehashing his whole argument, in essence we are able to share a bond with other people in our social group, despite not having an intimate relationship with them, because we share in collective fictions: the nation state, our legal system, human rights, Christendom, etc.
This in turn got me to thinking about – of course – Brexit. Here is a short exchange I just had on Twitter with Gawain Towler. (Gawain is Director of Communications for the Brexit Party, and before that for UKIP, and he is one of my few Twitter follows outside my political bubble, because – although I disagree with him on pretty much everything – I do find him an engaging person who debates respectfully.)
Which is fine until that complexity is permitted only in one direction. In the case of identity, for example. Our complex European identities have been deemed impermissible and so stripped from us because another group can only see identity in monochrome.
— Chris Kendall (@ottocrat) January 16, 2020
Identity has been at the heart of Brexit. Anti-Europeans who could not bear the notion of sharing sovereignty at the European level fought a campaign of attrition over four decades to engineer and then win the 2016 referendum. They could not live with the fact that their society – the political entity with which they identified – had a European element to it. They found that they best way to articulate this discomfort was by claiming that the EU was undemocratic, or anti-democratic. The more the EU sought to address these claims, for example by setting up a European Parliament, giving it real powers, drafting a European Constitution, and so on, the more they resented it. This is because the perceived lack of European democracy was not the real issue. The real issue was that they could not tolerate the very concept of European democracy, or in other words, a European identity. (I wrote about this in my post ‘that demos thing‘.)
And so here we are. But, while these anglo-identitarians have won their battle, the problem hasn’t gone away. Now, instead of a group of anti-Europeans who could not live with what they saw as an unacceptable dilution of their identity, we have a group of pro-Europeans who cannot live with what we see as an unacceptable amputation of our identity. Because the enormous and highly energised Remain movement was not mobilised by the dry utilitarian arguments of David Cameron’s Remain campaign; it came about as an emotional response to Leavers’ assault on our European identities, as should be evident from the way in which the movement chose to identify itself.
So what happens to a society where a significant section of that society no longer shares the fiction that binds that society together? There will always be outliers, people on the fringes who dispute or reject these fictions (freemen-on-the-land types). But when half the country no longer believes in the divine right of kings, or in the union of southern Slavs, etc, well then you have a problem. The thing is, those anti-Europeans who fought that long campaign to leave the EU, they were on the fringe. Having a European tier of government simply wasn’t an issue for the vast majority of people in Britain, until fringe Leavers made it an issue. But Remainers are not on the fringe. 48% of voters in the 2016 referendum do not represent a marginal fringe that can be safely ignored.
Having won, Leavers now preach unity and reconciliation, but they won’t acknowledge Remainers’ grievance because they can’t acknowledge it – they cannot acknowledge our right to our European identities because it is incompatible with the fiction that they see as the indispensible secret sauce binding their society – an exceptionalist UK – together. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” When half the nation is denied its identity, when the fiction that binds at least half of us is simply edited out of existence, then our society is divided against itself.
Why should the burden be on the Leavers to revise their fiction of an exceptional and sovereign United Kingdom in order to accommodate us Remainers (or whichever label we give ourselves after 1 February)? Surely, as the losing party, we Remainers should revisit the fiction that gives us our identities? Except that’s not how this works. Our fiction, as Europeans, is the complex and multi-tiered one where we enjoy multiple identities and celebrate diversity. Our fiction accommodated theirs; there was nothing stopping them enjoying their British identity within the EU except their refusal to let us enjoy ours. Theirs is the narrow and exclusive one that tolerates no divergence. Our multicolour world includes black and white; their monochrome one is limited to black and white.