‘Two-tiers good, four-tiers bad’ — how we prevent a Brexit culture war

The crisis over Brexit has seen a cranking up of the public anger that’s been building over the past decade. The intimidation of Anna Soubry, Owen Jones and Remain campaigner Femi Oluwole in Westminster last week increased the sense of dangerous forces being unleashed, prompting Brendan Cox to remind us of the terrible consequences this can have.

The issue isn’t confined to one side. Those on the Leave-leaning right point to accusations of racism from Remainers, and to the public treatment of figures like Farage or Rees-Mogg. Likewise, they cite John McDonnell’s call for no Tory to be able to “show their face anywhere in public.”

Rising populism is creating this phenomenon everywhere. In Germany a hard-right politician was beaten unconscious last week. Even within political traditions, the language of traitors and frauds is now dominant, as any ‘Blairite’ or Tory ‘saboteur’ will testify.

Most populists claim to welcome differences of opinion, of course, and condemn violence in principle. Yet the reality is that tolerance of the views of opponents is getting lower — and the willingness to excuse the antics of our own sects is increasing.

The source of this toxicity is the idea that those with different politics are less personally decent and more self-serving; that the political spectrum is a moral spectrum. This is the justification for aggression, abuse, double-standards and, ultimately, violence. It’s the route by which differences about policy become questions of character and motive — a transgression which, Hannah Arendt wrote, presents the entry-point for totalitarianism.

So, with Brexit reaching its worst crisis yet, how do we prevent this fragmentation from becoming an all-out culture war? How do we achieve the Jo Cox ‘more in common’ ideal, without losing the ability to tell right from wrong? To properly advocate pluralism we need ground rules.

Below are two ways of conceiving the relationship between politics and morals: the two-tier model favoured by populists, and the four-tier pluralist one.

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Both models acknowledge the difference between deeper principles and surface-level questions of image or electability. But the populist model sees everything below image as the same thing — from your views about university funding or the Euro to your levels of selfishness and cruelty. All policy views are judged by their worst possible outcomes and implications, according to this logic. Every criticism shoots to the core of who a person is.

We saw this approach applied to Liz Kendall in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, when the ‘Tory scum’ epithet gained common currency. Kendall’s policy platform was based on fiscal responsibility, leading to the accusation that she was a right-winger — despite her argument being (rightly or wrongly) that “There’s nothing progressive about spending more on debt than on our children’s education.” The idea that she was a Conservative then led to the claim that she was immoral — hence the ‘scum’ adage. Debt-cutter=right-winger=scum.

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As the diagram above indicates, the consequence of this two-tier framework is two monolithic groups opposing each other — a binary which fragments or polarises once narrower differences occur. The populist right, for example, suggests that pro-EU Tories don’t subscribe merely to a flawed conception of what it is to be conservative, but that they are closet left-wingers and (therefore) enemies of the people.

The pluralist model, visualised below, has more room for manoeuvre. It differentiates between the policies you support and the values you hold — and then distinguishes further, separating questions of values from those of personal morality.

This four-tier framework acknowledges that there are broad families of values — left-of-centre and right-of-centre — which are shared in roughly equal degree by those on the respective sides. (As George Lakoff writes, “There are moderates, but there is no ideology of the moderate”). But it doesn’t see these values differences as moral distinctions.

Hence, your views about student fees or liberal intervention don’t stop you having egalitarian ideals: there are different ways to achieve the same values and pursue the same motivations. And if your values are different — i.e. more focused on competition, authority or tradition — this doesn’t stop you from being personally decent: there are alternate, valid conceptions of what a good society looks like.

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The claims which the four-tier framework makes aren’t plucked from thin air. Anthony Crosland, for instance, argued in 1956 that values and policies must be disentangled. He said equality was the socialist ‘end’, with methods like nationalisation just the ‘means’ (which could, under certain circumstances, be at odds with the ‘end’). Crosland’s frustration was with those who conflated the two, and caused the left to lose sight of progressive goals.

When it comes to morals and values, meanwhile, psychologists find that personally decent people can have very different ideals. One example is Jonathan Haidt’s work, identifying six moral ‘taste-buds’. Haidt suggests, among other things, that conservatives access the ‘loyalty/betrayal’ and ‘authority/subversion’ taste-buds more, whereas progressives rely on the ‘liberty/oppression’ and ‘care/harm’ taste-buds.

Other research frames this in different ways — be it ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’ or the British Values Survey tribes. But the key point, whichever of these you subscribe to, is that distinctions stem from differences in perspective, lived experience and emotional needs — not in the levels of basic human goodness. Which way you vote holds little sway over whether you’d steal from the charity bucket or help someone who’d dropped their shopping.

Those on the left like myself may be uncomfortable with the implications of right-wing values, when it comes to policies on immigration or tax, and oppose them strongly. But this doesn’t mean that the intentions driving these values — i.e. the quest for familiarity, or ideas about personal freedom — are themselves immoral (even if I think their consequences are potentially harmful).

Both sides must recognise this about the other.

Ultimately, this four-tier approach shouldn’t have to be spelt out with tables and diagrams. It’s a basic willingness to respect and see the good in others. It’s practised in the average pub or café every day.

Yet it’s nemesis, the two-tier model, seems to be in ascendency at the moment. It is applied by Labour populists within the commentariat, who denounce civility and split apart narrow policy distinctions, turning every question into a rallying cry of “which side are you on?” And it’s applied by right populists too, who blow the dog whistles of the extreme right, with their suggestion that anyone opposing them is un-British and unprincipled.

The really dangerous figures here are not those with particular values or policy preferences, but those who adhere to and promote the two-tier approach itself.

I don’t doubt that the individuals who do this themselves think they’re the good guys — be they Aaron Bastani or Arron Banks. But this very belief is far more likely to create immoral outcomes than any single policy prescription. The view that the political spectrum as a moral spectrum — and that every superficial difference is rooted in a battle of good and evil — is the surest route to violence, hatred and totalitarianism.

The approach taken by these two-tier disciples is as lazy as it’s dangerous. The human mind’s cognitive biases lead it to slide through the tiers. Like an arrowhead pushing from skin to muscle to bone, humans instinctively turn judgements about policy into questions of values, and turn those of values into those of morals.

Populists are sometimes held up as maestros for choosing to push the blade in. But the truth is that they do something depressingly easy.

As the Brexit debate drags us ever-further from the ‘more in common’ ideal, upholding the four-tier standard gets harder. But the truth — when we look back at who’s been on the ‘right side of history’ during this horrendous period of populism — is that it won’t be those who made the right judgements on Iraq, Brexit or even Venezuela. It will be those who’ve tried to follow the pluralist, four-tier model at the expense of the divisive and de-humanising two-tier one.

This is based on an extract from Warring Fictions, a book-length essay about left populism by Chris Clarke. You can see the full excerpt here and buy the e-book here. Tweets: @WarringFictions.

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