Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
British politics looks more and more like it is sliding into the deeply partisan divide that has come to define how Washington works.
First, consider the role of scrutiny committees.
In Washington, the allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government continue to haunt the White House. Quite properly, it has fallen to scrutiny committees in both the House of Representatives and Senate to investigate the allegations and report their findings back to Congress and the American people.
Whereas House and Senate Committees used to be islands of political cooperation in the spirit of scrutiny on a cross-party basis, they have now fallen into the trap of becoming political tools with which to manipulate minds and beat the opposition.
For example, the House Oversight and Government Report Committee was of course absolutely correct to look further into what happened at the US Embassy in Libya, on the night that four Americans died in Benghazi in 2012. But two years, 7 million dollars, an 800-page report and eight hours of testimony from Hillary Clinton later, it became widely accepted that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) had used his role as committee chair to remind American voters of Clinton’s role in the incident.
Benghazi was a prominent criticism levelled against Secretary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign, and it is without doubt that the committee inquiry had become a prudent method of political attack for her Republican opponents.
A familiar format has been extended in the Trump administration, where the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R), published a memo alleging the FBI omitted key information when it applied to a FISA court to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. The committee should be investigating allegations of Russian collusion, but the inquiry in question has descended into a partisan fight achieving little more than a ‘he said she said’ between Democrats and Republicans.
The picture in the UK is showing signs of similarity. Unsurprisingly, it is Brexit that has thrown regular order out of the window.
On numerous occasions now, the Exiting the EU Select Committee has produced reports under Hilary Benn, its Labour chairman, which have been dismissed by pro-Leave committee members. Last week, the Committee called for a provision in the Withdrawal Agreement to allow the transition period to be extended “if necessary”. Crossing a clear and obvious red line, Brexiteers rebelled.
Conservative and DUP MPs on the Committee not only withheld their approval from the Committee’s report recommendations, but published rival recommendations. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Christopher Chope, Andrea Jenkyns, Craig Mackinlay, John Whittingdale and Sammy Wilson published their minority report, exercising a rarely used parliamentary procedure to have their text published within the main report of the committee.
Second, consider how fanatical fans of once outside candidates have become in the last three years alone. Supporters of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have little to nothing in common when it comes to their policies. But look closer at their politics, and the dividing lines fade away.
Both Trump and Corbyn have fallen into the category of near deification to their most loyal supporters. Nothing that either man does could deter their loudest cheerleaders, who will blame ‘fake news’, the mainstream media, or the deep state before they recognise wrongdoing in their respective fearless leader.
Trump remains largely well supported amongst his base, with 75 per cent of GOP voters either strongly or somewhat approving of his work (Newsweek, January 2018). Meanwhile, the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has only led Theresa May once in the YouGov ‘Best Prime Minister’ tracker since July 2016 has done nothing to dent his support amongst the Labour and Momentum hardcore. In the eyes of the loving loyalists, Corbyn and Trump can seemingly do no wrong.
Third, consider how fake news and disinformation has coloured the political debate to the point of distortion.
The President of the United States dismisses critical articles and claims against him as “fake news” on a routine basis. They are two short words with a long meaning, deliberately deployed to distort what is in fact a perfectly legitimate story. Allegations or leaks that are an inconvenience or political headache become cast aside as deliberately false, with the help of cheerleaders and political surrogates willing to tow the line on national television.
In this country, the left is all too quick to deploy the usual slate of political commentators on the Sunday shows and newspaper reviews, using TV time to launch an unapologetic defence of Corbyn and a brazen attack on the mainstream media for daring to question his record.
‘Hatgate’ alone last week proved the full vortex of ridiculousness that “fake news” can spin Westminster politics into. Dismissed as yet another mainstream media hatched job on Corbyn by Laura Pidcock MP on Twitter and political talking heads on Sky News, it showed how caught up in the daily cycle of allegations and smears politics can be – and over something that was objectively clear to the naked eye, and to all those prepapred to believe what was in front of them.
In all, it feels like British politics is glacially moving towards the brutally partisan divides that have fractured the American political system for years, where the end result is political gridlock. Look to the States and you see what Westminster politics threatens to become: too blinded by party politics and ideological entrenchment to see the bigger picture, and too closed-minded to rise above the daily spin cycle and think or vote in the national interest.
It stands to benefit no one besides those who seek to make mischief or money out of a deeply divided society. Every now and then, we would all be better served if British politics returned to a more measured way of doing business.