Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
We learned at the end of last week that West Yorkshire Police had arrested 44 people as part of a probe into organised sexual abuse. Not that you’ll have seen much about it on TV or in the weekend newspapers, which were instead obsessed first with the eco-protesters who had invaded the Lord Mayor’s banquet, and then with fact that Boris Johnson’s girlfriend had reportedly shouted at him.
Some columnists worked themselves into a lather about how shocking it was for an MP to manhandle a female protester. Others – and this was trickier since, in the Johnson case, the police confirmed that nothing untoward had happened – sounded off about domestic abuse in general, and how public-spirited the snooping neighbours had been. Almost no-one thought it worth talking about grooming.
It’s true, of course, that we don’t know the details of what happened in Kirklees. The presumption of innocence must apply in this as in any other case. Still, given what we know about similar cases in Yorkshire, and given the gravity of the accusations, isn’t there a pretty strong public interest in the arrests? The investigation, after all, concerns the systematic rape of underage girls. I know there is a growing list of Subjects On Which Male Columnists Are Not Allowed An Opinion, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that all of us, men and women, can recognise that prolonged exploitation and sexual abuse is worse than being frogmarched out of a room or having wine spilled on your sofa.
Why, then, the imbalance in column inches? Google “West Yorkshire grooming” and you’ll mainly find advertisements for dog and cat parlours. The arrests were reported in local newspapers and on regional television, but made barely a dent in the national media.
Is it, as some will allege, a liberal conspiracy to cover up crimes committed by Muslims? Hardly. Yes, there are journalists who are squeamish about cases of this kind, and hyper-sensitivity about imagined racism was an exacerbating factor in the Rotherham abominations. But that doesn’t explain why there was so little coverage in conservative, as well as Leftist, media.
Something else – and something every bit as ugly – is going on. The reason that there was such a disproportionate focus on the Field and Johnson stories is that they could be dragged into the horrible culture war which defines our politics. In both cases, people could (and did) take sides according to their existing affiliations. In both cases, people began with their conclusions and fitted the facts to their prejudices. Depending on their politics, they saw either an MP reacting instinctively to someone who had barged in and might be armed, or a nasty Tory bullying a woman. Depending on their politics, they saw either some vaguely wrong behaviour from Johnson (no one could quite put their finger on what) or a snooping Leftie neighbour fabricating a story.
The point is, in either version, there are villains. That is what makes the culture war at once so arresting and so revolting. People can enjoy fulminating against (delete as appropriate) evil Tory MPs or awful Leftist protesters and sneaks. They can revel in their righteous indignation. In the Kirklees case, by contrast, there is no alternative interpretation. No one, however uncomfortable they might feel about stories like this coming out, is seriously going to defend rapists and abusers.
Culture wars are primarily defined by what and whom we dislike. For example, I am broadly pro-immigration, but I don’t think of people who oppose immigration as morally flawed, so fellow supporters of immigration tend to see me as being ranged against them. Similarly, I was a supporter of equality for gay people long before most Cameroons. But, again, I refuse to dismiss people who disagree with me as numbskulls and homophobes. This puts me on the other side from those for whom the rights of gay people are secondary to the delight in inveighing against imagined bigots.
The tendency to misunderstand, caricature and define yourself against others is encoded deep in our DNA. Studies show that misrepresentation of political opponents is more common among educated people, and especially among the politically active. This might seem counter-intuitive: you’d think that those who followed politics would have a clearer sense of what the other party stood for.
But no, those of us who are politicos (and that includes you, reader) tend to define “our” tribe in ideological terms rather than through, say, sports teams. We are then prompted by our Palaeolithic genes to dislike and disbelieve representatives from rival tribes. It affects, not just how we would like to see the world, but how we actually see it. Conservatives genuinely saw an MP public-spiritedly dealing with a potential terrorist; Leftists genuinely saw a man bullying a woman. (Had it been, say, a female Brexit campaigner being manhandled after shouting at Chuka Umunna, the line-up would have been different.)
This tendency is not new. But it is getting worse, here as in most developed democracies. “Yeah, because of Brexit”, some readers will say, inadvertently revealing their own confirmation bias. Actually – and you might think this a confirmation bias of mine – the polarisation came after the campaign, and has deepened with every passing day as the issue of Brexit has dominated the news. Look at how many people who, before 2016, were not especially fussed one way or the other, are now prepared to go to any lengths to hurt the other side. Witness, for example, the way the Guardian, which campaigned high-mindedly for years against tabloid intrusion, thought nothing of publishing remarks recorded from inside a private house.
What changed? In a word, the division became tribal. Brexit is no longer about trade, budgets or sovereignty. It is now about whom we dislike, caricatured respectively as elderly bigots who fell for lying demagogues or as sneering snobs who despise their own country.
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Neither did I. But plenty of people have withdrawn friendships since the referendum – one of many reasons that stirring it all up again with a second poll would be catastrophic.
Settling the Brexit issue – ideally by leaving the EU and becoming its closest friend and partner – will not, in itself, end this ghastly partisanship. The tribalism will transfer to something else unless we rediscover our sense of common purpose, our understanding that fellow citizens with whom we disagree are opponents rather than enemies.
“Let me now warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” said George Washington in his farewell address. “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”
Amen, General. Amen.