Heathens and heretics

‘Virtually everyone I know is engaged in arguments about whether it is worth staying with either main party’

Nick Cohen

Fanatical religious and political movements reserve a special hatred for heretics. Heathens have never seen the light. They know no better. But heretics once knew the way and the truth and the life, and wilfully rejected it. They must be punished: not only for their own sins, but also as a warning to others of the cost of stepping out of line.

The explosion of interest in groupthink, which the crisis of the early 21st century has provoked, misses the rationality of the tactics of irrational movements. However absurd their ideologies may be, it is logical for a sectarian group to make heretical men and women who question them suffer.

The British Right has done so by sinking so deeply into the language of civil war it has whipped up death threats against pro-European Conservative MPs. Pick their denunciations apart and you can see that the cries of “mutineer”, “quisling” and “enemy of the people” condemn two distinct types of treason. In a hyperbolic moment, a proponent of a hard Brexit could regard supporters of continued membership of the EU or a compromise with Brussels as traitors in the conventional sense: they wish to limit British sovereignty by an alliance with foreign states.

But the type of treachery that spurs them to fury is the treason fellow conservatives commit when they break with the groupthink of conventional right-wing wisdom. The heretic has inside knowledge and is thus the most dangerous of opponents. He or she (and in the case of Brexit it tends to be a she because the bravest Conservative politicians are women) knows the Right’s faults and can expose them with far more authority than a leftist. Outsiders’ attacks can be discounted. Often they are welcomed, for everyone enjoys baiting their enemies. Rebellious insiders, however, can turn the accusation of treason against the group and say that its leaders are the true betrayers of the Conservative cause as their Brexit harms business and wreck attempts to control the national debt.

Just as Brexit is destroying the Conservatives’ reputation for being the party of practical politicians, so Corbynism is destroying Labour’s reputation as being the party for the well-meaning. The wildness of the online hatred, the emergence of the British Left as a racist force, appears paradoxical because its members think of themselves as virtuous. Corbyn himself adopts a saint-like pose and maintains that he is against “personal abuse, name calling, calling into question the character of other people”. His saintliness ought to be a warning that the paradox is no paradox at all. The Left’s quasi-religious belief in its own virtue gives it the right to treat all who reject it as the secular equivalents of Satan and all his works.

Dissenters are “Tories,” “Zionists,” “Blairites”. These words have long ago lost their meanings. They are curses that place the damned beyond the bounds of the virtuous congregation. A Blairite is not a supporter of Tony Blair from the last decade but anyone who doubts the Labour leadership up to and including men and women who opposed Blair when he was in power. “Zionist” and “Zio” are now synonyms for “Jew”, and applied to all opponents of Corbyn, Jewish or not. Just as traditional anti-Semitism cast the Jews as Christ killers, so modern anti-Semitism casts the Jews as Corbyn killers, motivated by their greed for money and Palestinian land.

The embrace of medieval notions of treason and Jewish guilt provides a necessary cover. The Right did not even attempt to produce a workable Brexit policy that could have met the Leave campaign’s promise to wrench Britain out of the EU without inflicting economic damage, for the simple reason that the task was impossible. Better to shout “enemy of the people” at those who expose the mendacity of the enterprise than admit to deceiving the public. In terms of worked through policies, the far Left is as empty a space. Better to shout “Zionist” and “Blairite” than ask why serious left-wing economists offered their services to the Corbyn project and then walked away shaking their heads at the vacuity of it all.

As Donald Trump shows, the punishments meted out to dissident conservatives have helped keep his core vote together and extinguished any serious challenge to him from the American Right. Britain’s experience is little different. The silent majority of Conservative MPs, who would accept a Brexit compromise, keeps quiet for fear of alienating constituency associations. The equally silent majority of Labour MPs will go to any lengths to avoid giving an answer to the question: “Do you believe the shadow cabinet is morally and intellectually fit to lead Britain?”

Virtually everyone I know is engaged in arguments about whether it is worth staying with either party. There is always a good case for fighting your corner rather than flouncing out. But fighting only makes sense if you have a chance of victory. Battling on appeals to the Protestant belief in the supremacy of individual conscience, which is so deeply ingrained in British and American culture. In Catholicism, if the Pope and all his cardinals say that an idea is Catholic doctrine, then there is no point arguing that true Catholicism means its opposite. The Protestant, however, can be in a minority of one, and convince himself that he alone possesses the true faith. Politics is Catholic, not Protestant: a sport where the majority always wins. If a majority of English leftists can stomach Corbyn, then there is as little point in arguing that true leftists should oppose him as there is in dissident Republicans arguing that they, rather than Trump, represent the true voice of conservative America.

When established parties are no longer coalitions but are controlled by their extremes, new parties must be  established. It is a standard of British political commentary to say a new party will never get off the ground. Look at the electoral system, pundits say; look at the fate of the SDP in the 1980s. However, strong these points may be, they miss that the dominant factions on Right and Left do not want to accommodate wavering supporters. In the end, dissidents can waste only so much of their time protesting in the hope that their parties will change: that the Conservatives will return to being a traditional centre-Right party once the Brexit mania has passed, or Labour will flip back into being a morally decent movement when Corbyn retires. Like heretics down the ages, they must eventually give up trying to reform the unreformable and found new churches of their own.

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