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This is the third edition in my series, Polar Opposites, which is looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western democratic world. As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.


I’ve always been proud to be British. Not that I ever consciously decided this. It’s just been that way as long as I can remember. Perhaps I was won over by the many pleasant summer treks through the British countryside as a child. Then again, there’s nothing quite like arriving in some isolated, windswept coastal town to then be welcomed by the homely smell of a Fish & Chip shop with a complementary chorus of raucous seagulls. Additionally, I can’t deny that as a child I enjoyed rubbing in the faces of my American friends that we had a Queen – with all her kindly, regal elegance – and they did not. What’s more, growing up in mainland China where healthcare was rarely cheap, I learned from a young age to be grateful for ‘our’ NHS,[1] undoubtedly the one thing that most British people can agree we should be proud of.[2] Finally, I’ve harboured a strong suspicion for much of my life that there isn’t a flag in the world quite as beautiful and inspiring as a Union Jack. Call me quaint or old-fashioned (and you’d probably be right!), but all these things and more have given me a distinct sense of gratitude, peace and gladness about being British.

Yet, such statements of national enthusiasm these days are often frowned upon, at least in certain circles. In fact, some of you reading this are probably already squirming! Previously, I introduced the political labels ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ as most accurately describing our political divisions today in the West. And I think nationalistic sentiments cause perturbation in some (including myself sometimes!) precisely because such sentiments have 'Closed' associations, leading Open groups to do all the frowning. This association isn’t surprising. Indeed, in the very report where think tank, More in Common, puts forward these new political groupings, it explicitly describes the values of the Closed as ‘nationalistic’. After all, the Closed generally favour maintaining cultural boundaries and so seek to create spaces of belonging with people with a shared heritage (which implies a shared ethnicity, language and worldview). It doesn’t surprise me therefore that innumerable Brits of an Open political persuasion, keen to affirm a variety of people, ideas and cultures, seem to feel awkward if not mildly treasonous expressing any hint of national pride. That the NHS is the one British institution most British people can get behind[3] seems at least to me to be because it appeals equally to both Open and Closed groups because it symbolises so powerfully the two moral foundations they share: Care and Fairness.[4]

However, we are mistaken if we think nationalism only appeals to the Closed. It turns out that in some contexts nationalism appeals more to Open than to Closed groups. And its at least in part due to myths.

The philosopher, John Hick, gives a good definition of ‘myth’ as “a story…that is not literally true but that nevertheless expresses and tends to evoke an appropriate attitude towards the subject of the myth.”[5] The value of a myth then is that it is visualisable and appeals to a person’s imagination, making it much more effective than abstract statements at influencing a person’s ideas and beliefs.[6] For instance, British victories over both the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the German Luftwaffe in 1940 act as important myths for British identity. They both play into the British sense that we are the plucky underdogs able to defy the odds. Of course, rationally-speaking, even if Britain was actually the underdog in both battles, this has no bearing on whether Britain would be successful in any future underdog scenario. But myths don’t work that way. What matters is that winning against the odds and punching above our weight has become wrapped up in what it means to be ‘British’. Myths like this are perhaps why arguments that Britain couldn’t make it on its own without its European partners in a post-Brexit world seemed to add fuel to the fire of Brexiteers. If you associate ‘British-ness’ with optimistic feelings about any situation where Britain must defy expectations, someone telling you Brexit will make things harder will probably not have its intended affect. Myths then play a huge role in predisposing you towards certain subjects, ideas and groups as opposed to others.

Much like the Closed, the Open also have their myths rooted in history. And there is perhaps no historical myth more morally significant than that of WWII and the Nazis. For what clearer example is there of Evil? As Prof. Alec Ryrie observes, “the most potent moral figure in western culture is Adolf Hitler. It is as monstrous to praise him as it would once have been to disparage Jesus.”[7] The Mastermind behind the Jewish ‘Final Solution’ and Exterminator of countless other non-Aryans laid a moral line for the Open so clear in the sand that’s they feel its reverberation with a fiery passion to this day: Evil begins with the exclusion, delegitimization and persecution by a majority of any racial, ethnic or sexual minority. When Pat Buchanan gave his infamous 1992 ‘Culture Wars’ speech slamming such things as ‘radical feminism’ and ‘homosexual rights’, it wasn’t a coincidence that journalist, Molly Ivins, quipped “It probably sounded better in the original German.” [8] The subconscious power of this myth means any hint of Naziism, such as asserting the importance of ‘British’ values, immediately produces a strong moral reaction amongst the Open. Similarly, the Open find it hard to affirm anything virtuous which they think the Nazis would agree with. The traditional family, military heroism, patriotism, a strong leader, group conformity – all these things are tainted with moral suspicion.

Now, I think it is fair to point out that the Closed (in the UK at least) as much as the Open mythologise WWII and would share an abhorrence for Naziism. Yet, I do not think it is done in the same way. While WWII provides for the Closed another example of the ‘plucky’ Brit and defeating the Nazis provides a reason for pride in British identity, WWII for the Open instead provides a warning for what could happen if we let ideas of nationhood, racial pride and cultural superiority go to far. The Closed celebrate WWII for representing the best in British spirit and values; the Open turn WWII into a morality lesson and fear the Nazis return. Influenced as they are by this myth, the Open are nearly always emotionally predisposed to diversity, multi-national cooperation, and minorities – whatever the Nazis were against – in a way that the Closed are not. Take immigration. For the Open, immigration highlights our willingness to embrace a variety of people and cultures under a multi-cultural, very un-Nazi-like umbrella. Yet, for the Closed, immigration undermines the British values we fought Two World Wars to defend. It is this difference in mythical lenses which greatly influence perceptions of nationalism in both Open and Closed groups.

Let’s start with England. Nationalism in England is associated with Closed groups in large part because it is about asserting the majority ‘English’ identity over England as a whole. "Why else did we fight off the Catholic Spanish and the Nazi Germans if not to keep this island English?" As such, English nationalism tends to be anti-immigration and emphasise the threat of perceived cultural outsiders who basically always constitute a minority. For instance, fear of Islam is particularly prominent in this group. This is not only due to the perceived threat of Islamic extremism, but also because of the cultural threat seen to be posed by the little understood but greatly feared Sharia Law in areas with large Muslim populations.[9] Bradford, a city with a large Pakistani Muslim population, jokingly gets called ‘Bradistan’,[10] but behind the joke English nationalism feeds of the worry that if we don’t keep our guard, the rest of the country will become like this. Meanwhile, Euroscepticism is also common amongst English nationalists, not only because the EU enables large-scale immigration, but also because it gives control of England’s destiny to foreign, non-English forces in Brussels.

Nationalism in England thus doesn’t appeal particularly to Open groups, particularly the most Open Progressive Activists. While 64% of all English people feel pride in their national identity, only 21% of English Progressive Activists feel proud of being English. Similarly, on the question of ‘British’ identity, just 5% of Progressive Activists are ‘very proud’ to be British compared to 23% of all Britons. Meanwhile, a whopping 59% of Progressive Activists are actively ‘not proud’ of being British compared to an average of 23% of all Britons.[11] Although not as strongly as Progressive Activists, the other Open groups of Civic Pragmatists and Disengaged Battlers also fall below the national average on such as questions as how good do you feel when you see a Union Jack or how proud are you of your English or British identity?[12] It is clear then that nationalism doesn’t vibe well with Open groups in England.

Yet, in Scotland, nationalism has a much more ‘Open’ moral force. This is primarily because nationalism in Scotland isn’t about asserting a majority identity, but rather about freeing the Scottish minority from its larger and more powerful English neighbour. Replace England with 'Nazi Germany' and Scotland with 'oppressed minority', and you instantly see that old WWII myth playing out. That its larger English neighbour is also more conservative and Closed adds further fuel to the fire of Scottish Open nationalism. For instance, despite its (albeit relatively close) defeat in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Scottish nationalism seems to have experienced a resurgence since the 2016 EU referendum. The EU embodies Open values because it affirms unity in diversity, aids multi-national cooperation, and facilitates the easy movement of people. Tellingly then, not a single Scottish constituency voted in favour of Brexit (which was most popular amongst Closed groups), and yet (to phrase it poetically) because the Scottish nation is subject to the imperial, oppressive yoke of English rule, the Scottish people have against their will been forced to leave the EU they never voted to Leave.

Thus, when you look at Scotland, the picture changes enormously on questions of nationalism, particularly again amongst the most Open Progressive Activists. Rather than showing significantly lower levels of national pride like they do in England, Progressive Activists suddenly show above average pride in their national identity (81% vs. 79% of all Scots)! At the same time, pride in their British identity drops even lower from 24% amongst English Progressive Activists to just 12% amongst Scottish ones.[13] This isn’t isolated to just Scotland alone either. For exactly the same reasons, nationalism in Wales also resonates with the progressive values and psychology of Progressive Activists and other Open groups in a way it just doesn’t in England.[14] However, Scottish nationalism is much more potent than Welsh nationalism, primarily because Wales simply has fewer Open people than Scotland. 45% of Scots fall into the three most Open segments compared to 37% of English and 39% of Welsh. Moreover, 17% of Scots are Progressive Activists compared to just 13% of English and 14% of Welsh.[15] Ironically, this means that Scots support a referendum on Welsh independence more than the Welsh themselves (33% of Scots vs. 28% of Welsh)! [16] It is clear then that nationalism’s appeal to different groups greatly depends on the context, particularly whether it is seen as a majority-affirming or minority-empowering philosophy.

Moreover, the collapse of political support for the Labour Party in its traditional left-wing heartlands in England and Scotland provides a prefect case study for these two nationalisms. Although in both England and Scotland, the Labour Party is seen as ‘left-wing’, in England it is seen as Open, while in Scotland it is seen as Closed. This is because in England, Labour was against Brexit, is generally pro-immigration, champions perceived minority marginalised groups like refugees and LGBTQ+ individuals, and usually (though not always) defends Muslims groups against criticism often coming from English nationalists. In Scotland though, the Labour Party’s support of the Union has severely damaged its Open credentials amongst left-wing voters there. Even if it isn’t Closed itself in a number of its policies, its support for the Union maintains Scotland’s subservience and ‘oppression’ by England. While Labour’s support in England then comes primarily from the three most open groups, in Scotland these groups now support the left-wing but Open Scottish Nationalist Party for the most part.[17] This switch in support is partly why the 2015 UK election after the 2014 independence referendum saw the Labour Party in Scotland lose 40 of its 41 seats!

Meanwhile, in England, a number of traditionally left-wing voters in the Midlands and the North are Closed rather than Open. For instance, Loyal Nationals identify more than any other segment as being ‘working class’ (65%) and are also above average in believing the system is rigged to serve the rich an influential (76% agree vs. 67% UK average). Yet, they are the least likely to think that immigration has had a positive impact on the UK (19% vs 43% UK average), they overwhelmingly think that society cares more about immigrants’ rights than those of British citizens (79% vs. 43% UK average), and they are the most likely to think Islamic terrorism is a serious problem (95% vs. 83% UK average). It was this segment that came out strongest in support of Brexit (69% voted Leave), and it is apparent this segment is increasingly disillusioned with the Open Labour Party. Between the 2017 and 2019 UK elections, this left-wing sympathetic group’s vote for the Conservative Party went up from 46% to 56%. Considering just over 1 in 6 UK people belong to this group, this 10-percentage point increase represents a significant swing that does much to explain the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ heartlands in England since the Brexit vote.[18]

It is clear then that the myths we hold – whether we realise we hold them or not – can radically alter our perception of political ideas, including nationalism. Nationalism might be a dirty word for many Open individuals in England, but in Scotland and Wales it is embraced with open arms. A slogan like ‘Stronger Together’ might bear one type of emotional pull when the issue is the EU, but quite another when the issue is the United Kingdom. Realising the nuances in our political myths helps us understand why a Progressive Activist or Closed Brexiteer might be a raging nationalist in one country but an ardent Unionist (European or British) in another. There are deeper forces at work in us than just abstract reasoning. So next time you think to describe the Closed as ‘nationalistic’, perhaps think twice before you do.

[1] For non-British readers, the 'NHS' stands for the UK's National Health Service. [2] Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Kimaram, A., Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain, 2020, More in Common, pg. 19 [3] Britain’s Choice, pg. 19 [4] Open groups like Closed groups have a high regard for the moral foundations of Care and Fairness, but, unlike the Closed, they don’t hold the three other moral foundations of Purity, Loyalty and Authority nearly as highly. Other national symbols like the monarchy, countryside, cultural heritage and the armed forces do not necessarily vibe so well or so exclusively with Care and Fairness, making them less appealing to Open groups. [5] Hick, John, The Fifth Dimension, 1999, Oneworld Publications, London, pg. 235 [6] Ibid, pg. 236 [7] Ryrie, Alec, Lecture 6: Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God, ‘The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018. URL: [8]

[9] [10] [11] Britain’s choice, pg. 158 [12] Britain’s choice, pg. 158-160 [13] Britain’s choice, pg. 158 [14] Britain’s Choice, pg. 159 [15] Britain’s Choice, pg. 279 [16] Britain’s Choice, pg. 148 [17] Britain’s Choice, pg. 279 [18] Britain’s Choice, pg. 55

This is the second edition in my series, Polar Opposites, which is looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western democratic world. As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.


How do you guess someone’s political opinions? You might’ve never considered this question, but you most certainly have an answer to it. After all, before you speak in a group about something as potentially controversial as politics, you probably want to know what people around you are thinking. No one wants to risk looking like (at best) a fool or (at worst) a social pariah. So you will quickly scan the room, guess as best you can what people are like, and then decide what you should (or should not) say. Moreover, research shows the more you think you're surrounded by people ‘like you’, the more freely you will feel able to speak.[1] But this invites the question – why do we assume someone is ‘like us’ in the first place?

I think it’s fair to say most of us at least unconsciously answer this by assuming political differences can be predicted quite easily. If you know someone’s party membership, gender, income, race, religion or location, surely you can pretty accurately guess their political opinions? Trump voters – oh they’re white, evangelical, male and probably blue-collar. Remain voters – aren’t they all privileged, educated, metropolitan elites? And so it goes on…

Yet, research by Think Tank, More In Common (MIC), shows that political differences might not be so easy to spot. Instead, MIC’s research demonstrates quite convincingly how political opinions stem from deeper ‘core beliefs’,[2] defined as “the system of beliefs, values and identities that reflect each individual’s experience and shape his or her interpretation of the world.”[3] What’s interesting is that by analysing patterns in these core beliefs,[4] MIC is able to divide a country into ‘segments’, and these segments prove to be far more predictive of political opinions than race, gender, class or any other factor. You can see the segments in the UK and USA below:

Image (Left) from pg. 7 of 'Britain's Choice' & Image (Right) is Figure 0.1 in 'Hidden Tribes'

For instance, one of the US segments MIC identifies are the Devoted Conservatives, and while 92% of self-professed ‘Strong Republicans’ in 2018 approved of President Trump, 98% of Devoted Conservatives approved of him.[5] Meanwhile, on the question of race in the USA, roughly 1 in 5 Progressive Activists and 1 in 8 Devoted Conservatives are ethnic minorities. Yet, when ethnic minorities are asked whether they agree that ‘the rights of black and brown people are more protected than the rights of white people in the USA’, virtually no ethnic minorities among Progressive Activists agree, while nearly two-thirds of ethnic minorities among Devoted Conservatives do![6] What this shows is that people’s core beliefs more than any other factor drive people’s politics.

This is vital for understanding polarisation because our polarised politics isn’t ultimately a class, racial, or gender war, but a clash of those with different moral and psychological outlooks on life. For instance, people’s negative or positive perception of immigration correlates strongly with their perceived sense of threat. In the UK, those who agree with the statement ‘the world is becoming a more dangerous place’ are more than twice as likely to have a negative attitude to immigration (33% vs. 15%). Meanwhile, those who think more optimistically about the world’s security are 21 percentage points higher in their approval of immigration (60% vs. 39%).[7] Similarly, in the USA, whether you think people are too sensitive about race or don’t take racism seriously enough strongly correlates with your views on personal agency. If you think individuals are themselves mostly responsible for their life outcomes, then you are over twice as likely (70% vs. 30%) to think that people are too sensitive about race. On the flip side, only 1 in 3 people who think people’s circumstances are largely determined by forces outside their control believe race is treated too sensitively.[8]

Now this isn’t to say that material characteristics like socio-economic background, ethnicity or education level don’t impact people’s core beliefs and psychology at all. For instance, Established Liberals and Progressive Activists in the UK have the most positive views on immigration and this can be tied to them having the lowest threat perception of any segments. Yet, their low sense of threat can’t be separated from the fact that people in these segments are also the most likely to come from the highest socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Meanwhile, Loyal Nationals have the highest levels of perceived threat and so unsurprisingly they have the most negative attitudes towards immigration. Yet, again this can’t be entirely disconnected from the fact that Loyal Nationals are the most likely to come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds and live in more deprived areas.[9] Likewise, on issues of race, 99% of USA Progressive Activists agree that ‘many white people today don’t recognise the real advantages they have’. However, not only are American Progressive Activists the second-most likely to be white (after Devoted Conservatives), they are also the segment with the highest socioeconomic and educational status. So It is clear that white Progressive Activists are likelier to have more advantages than the wider population - both white and non-white.[10] This might be why when you take Progressive Activists out of the data, less than half of all other Americans agree with this statement.[11] On the flip side, though US ethnic minorities in different segments differ on whether they think their rights are more protected than those of white people, within each segment, including the most conservative, ethnic minority members think their rights are less protected than their white counterparts.[12]

So to be clear, this research is not saying that material factors have no effect on people’s political opinions. Your core beliefs and psychology will of course reflect your life circumstances to some extent. Nonetheless, life circumstances alone are insufficient to predict people’s politics because people who otherwise have the same material characteristics can still differ markedly in their core beliefs and thus their political opinions.

Given then that core beliefs ultimately drive our political opinions, where are the core belief fault-lines dividing our politics?

While Western democracies has traditionally seen their political fault-line lying between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, looking at MIC’s research reveals these groupings don’t really nail down the divisions we currently see. For most of the 20th century, the meaning of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ was largely connected to a person’s view on the role of government and markets.[13] This was reinforced by the Cold War, a titanic ideological battle between two economic archetypes: the Socialist East and Capitalist West. Yet, political debates today don’t seem to rage over the economy so much, and this might be why 70% of people in the UK no longer find ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ relevant as labels anymore.[14] So what is a better way to understand today’s political divisions?

The answer suggested by MIC is that our primary political fault-line today lies between the ‘Open’ and the ‘Closed’.[15] In all countries studied, MIC finds that “politics is increasingly dominated by issues of culture, identity and integration.”[16] While the ‘Open’ are receptive to cosmopolitan values, multi-culturalism and pluralistic identities, the ‘Closed’ are (you guessed it) closed to these things, preferring consolidated nationalist values. Yet, the next question must be – why the difference? Why are some people ‘Open’ and other people ‘Closed’? Though MIC doesn’t explicitly look into this, by collating other pieces of its research together I think I can give a promising answer.

Just as older left/right divisions were (and still are) fuelled by a moral conflict over the justice of economic systems, it seems clear that a moral conflict lies beneath this more recent polarisation. When you analyse moral foundations in both the US and UK,[17] two distinct sides start to emerge. While every single segment in both countries holds the foundations of ‘Care/Harm’ and ‘Fairness/Cheating’ relatively highly and equally, the two sides begin to differ significantly in response to the moral foundations of ‘Authority/Subversion’, ‘Purity/Disgust’ and ‘Loyalty/Betrayal’. While the Closed segments continue to hold these moral foundations about equally with Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, the Open segments see a noticeable drop in their importance.

Image (left) is Figure 3.1 in 'Britain's Choice' & Image (right) is Figure 4.11 in 'Hidden Tribes'

This I believe unlocks the key to the polarisation puzzle. It is clear most Open and Closed people in the UK and USA want their societies to protect the vulnerable (Care) and ensure equality and justice (Fairness). However, unlike the Closed, the Open simply do not consider submitting to tradition (Authority), abhorrence for things that evoke disgust (Purity) and standing with one’s family or nation (Loyalty) to be as morally sacred.

This I think creates two areas of friction along our political fault-line. The first layer of friction this causes is the disregard the Open have for parts of life that have significant moral value for the Closed. This can be seen on such topics as standing for the national anthem (which underlines loyalty and respect to the nation), respecting the police (which demonstrates obedience to authority), and submitting to religious morality (which may judge acts as ‘sinful’ even if they do not cause obvious harm). This disregard creates further friction because moral foundations do not exist within isolated bubbles. For instance, athletes in both the USA and UK have been causing controversy because they either kneel rather than stand during the national anthem (USA) or take a knee in support of Black Lives Matter ahead of football games (UK). If moral foundations of Loyalty and Authority do not rank as highly as those of Care and Fairness, then it makes moral sense to use the platform of high-profile sporting events and their nation-celebrating rituals to highlight national injustices. However, if you hold all these foundations equally in importance, then expressing Care and Fairness at the expense of national Loyalty and Authority might understandably spark moral discomfort. To put this example in the language of moral foundations, while Open segments often interpret the actions of those opposing ‘kneelers’ as due to the Closed’s lack of Care and Fairness, in reality it is the Open’s own lack of Authority and Loyalty that makes them unable to appreciate why kneeling during a nation-celebrating ritual should be a problem at all.

This interconnectedness of moral foundations (or lack thereof) leads to a second layer of friction regarding the appropriate direction and limits of Care and Fairness. As much as we might want to make the lives of everyone in the world better, we are constrained by limits of geography and resource. We must therefore prioritise who we will show our Care and Fairness towards. The Closed tend to direct their Care and Fairness towards those they share familial, cultural or national ties. Helping these people expresses their own Loyalty, while also being something that seems quite ‘natural’ (and so Pure). Their Care and Fairness then is characterised by boundaries. Within these boundaries there is a strong imperative to help, but this drops for those on the outside. Unsurprisingly then, foreign aid is often a sore point for the Closed. To paraphrase numerous homeless individuals I’ve spoken to, “why is our government giving money to foreigners when there are still British people like me who are suffering?”

Meanwhile, because the Open reserve their highest moral value for Care and Fairness alone, they see less reason why boundaries should constrain their help. The extent to which you qualify for Open people’s help is not determined by how connected you are to them, but rather how much harm they can prevent in helping you. For this reason, they frequently look beyond boundaries to find the most vulnerable and in need. If preventing the most harm means giving foreign aid to people on the other side of the world, then that’s what they should do. This laser-focus on the most in need often leads the Open to be seemingly very dismissive of those in their own immediate national and cultural vicinities whose suffering is nonetheless judged as less than those of worse-off groups. Unsurprisingly, Closed groups (who do generally come from lower socio-economic and more deprived backgrounds) often feel unfairly neglected and dismissed by Open segments.

Understanding this greatly clarifies our most recent polarising issues such as Brexit and Trump. For Closed segments, there is a moral imperative to respect and protect historical culture, maintain traditional understandings of identity, and for these reasons only integrate those into the body politic who agree to conform to the values already present. These imperatives reduce their insecurity, provide stability, and promote connection with those around them. For Open segments though, whenever any of these imperatives is believed to cause harm, such as refusing admittance to refugees from unfamiliar cultures or pressuring individuals to conform to gender norms that make them uncomfortable, they want to overturn these established cultural dynamics.

Yet, there is one final, important missing piece in our jigsaw puzzle. This is because the ‘Open’ are not themselves a fully unified group. In both the UK and USA, while Closed groups are largely similar in their moral foundations with only minor differences, Progressive Activists in both countries have even less regard for the foundations of Authority, Loyalty and Purity compared to other Open segments. This means that Progressive Activists tend to have stronger political views than their Open counterparts and is probably I think why “Progressive Activists are often further away from the average for the population than any other segment.”[1] This becomes significant because Progressive Activists are the most politically active groups on social media[2] and the most likely to live in ‘bubbles’ of like-minded people with shared political views.[3] They are also particularly prominent (though still minorities) in metropolitan cities and within the higher education sphere.[4] All this means that as a group they not only possess a particularly visible cultural platform, but they also have significant power to express it. So although political rants against a ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ are undoubtedly exaggerated, there is nonetheless some basis in the stereotype.

My guess is that most of what I have just outlined will not be revolutionary to you. I mean, gee, who’d have thought in the age of Trump and Brexit that immigration and cultural integration rather than economics would turn out to be a really polarising issue…Yet, I believe what I have outlined here is important for two reasons. Firstly, providing language that more accurately captures reality can only be a good thing. In the UK particularly, political discussion has increasingly tied itself in knots because we lack words outside of the left/right paradigm to explain political behaviour. How do you understand the politics of left-wing, ‘Red Wall’ Labour voters who take a ‘right-wing’ position on Brexit? Or how do you explain a right-wing, Conservative Party government enacting liberal and left-wing policies like legalising gay marriage? Recognising an Open/Closed dimension to contemporary politics that doesn’t necessarily map neatly onto Left/Right identities then can only be helpful.

Lastly, I think understanding the moral foundations lying beneath our political divisions helps us do political conflict better. It is hard to do conflict well when you don’t consider your political adversary a worthy opponent – worthy of respect, fair play, and graciousness. It is easy to dismiss people who are immoral, deplorable, idiotic, disgusting and generally ‘the bad guys’. But research like this suggests people to varying degrees always act from moral foundations – however misguided you might think these are. And if the anti-kneeler does not dismiss themselves as a ‘racist’ and the trans-rights activist doesn’t think they’re just a ‘snowflake’, then perhaps – if we actually want democratic debate – neither should you. Granted, not all opponents prove themselves to be worthy after initial interactions, but when they do, a better democracy becomes possible again.


[1] Hawkins, S., Yudkin, D., Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape, 2018, More in Common, pg. 131 [2] The full list of ‘core beliefs’ analysed are group identity; moral foundations; perception of threat; parenting style & authoritarianism; and agency & personal responsibility. [3] Hidden Tribes, pg. 18 [4] You can take a shortened version of the British or American test yourself both to understand how respondents are categorised into their segments and also to see which segment you yourself fall into.

[5] Hidden Tribes, pg. 9 [6] Hidden Tribes, pg. 98 [7] Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Kimaram, A., Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain, 2020, More in Common, pg. 80 [8] Hidden Tribes, pg. 93 [9] Britain’s Choice, pg. 78 [10] Hidden Tribes, pg. 141-43 [11] Hidden Tribes, pg. 8 (after having removed the actual numbers of Progressive Activists surveyed using the data available on pg. 145, and recalculating the overall percentage) [12] Hidden Tribes, pg. 98 [13] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [14] Britain’s Choice, pg. 138 [15] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [16] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [17] Only Executive Summaries of the German and French MIC studies are available in English meaning it is not possible for me to confirm whether a similar pattern is seen in these two other countries.

[18] Britain’s Choice, pg. 140 [19] Britain’s Choice, pg. 11; Hidden Tribes, pg. 114 [20] Britain’s Choice, pg. 140; Yudkin, D., Hawkins, S., Dixon, T., Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart, 2019, More In Common, pg. 40 [21] Britain’s Choice, pg. 275-76 (Figure 1.1.2. Region, Geography & Figure 1.1.3 Educational attainment) Hidden Tribes, pg. 142 (Figure 1.1.2 Region, Geography; Figure 1.1.3 Educational Attainment)

2,100 Words

This is Part 1 of a new series, Polar Opposites?, a series looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western World. I hope you enjoy!

As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.


A couple years ago, I had the great joy of going with my brother to my first English Premier League football match. Having supported West Ham United FC since I was a young boy, I was finally getting the chance to see them play! Game-day arrived and my brother and I trekked from his house to the stadium. As we approached the stadium, we were joined by a steady stream of fans as we all slowly converged on the lighted stadium in the distance. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement as crowds of fans began singing and the pre-game buzz rose outside the stands. Eventually, and not before we’d bought ourselves some over-priced chips, we went through the ticket stalls and found our seats. Everything was set for an exhilarating evening of football! There was just one catch. We weren’t sitting with the West Ham fans.

You see, neither my brother nor I live in east London where West Ham have their home stadium. So instead, we were in my brother’s city watching West Ham play away from home against that city’s own premier league club. It turns out that unless you’re a committed, season-ticket carrying football fan, it’s very difficult to buy Away game tickets. So instead, we had been forced to buy tickets sitting with the home fans. So there I was, a lonely West Ham fan sitting amidst a sea of opposing supporters – what could go wrong?

Suffice it to say I was just a little bit apprehensive about being accidentally ‘discovered’ by the sea of people around me. Football fans are not known for their – how shall I put it – reasonableness when it comes to dealing with opposing fans. Thankfully, it was a bitterly cold evening. This meant I could safely hide my claret and blue West Ham kit underneath a couple layers of thick clothing. In this way, I maintained my personal integrity whilst minimising the chance I might provoke any conflict. Yet, what you wear on the outside is only half the story of being a fan; the other half is how you behave in the stands. And my brother was under strict orders to help restrain me in case West Ham scored. It simply wouldn’t do to be the only person jumping up and cheering in a stand surrounded by the other team (a top tip for societal peace and harmony, don’t rub it in people’s faces when you have won and they have lost). As it happens, I was in no danger of any of this as West Ham managed an impressive zero shots on target all game and comfortably lost 3-0. Despite the loss, I did enjoy the game and I was also in some ways glad that I didn’t have to deal with any awkwardness (or worse) had West Ham ended up scoring.

Yet, there was one thing I did find utterly nauseating about the game. That was the clear-as-daylight bias of the fans surrounding me. It felt like every time the referee made a decision that went against their team, tens of them would be up on their feet shouting and yelling various expletives at the referee. Meanwhile, I’d be biting my lips and whispering under my breath things like, “your player literally booted the ball out to the side-lines – of course it’s a West Ham throw-in!?!” It was no less infuriating when if at the next incident the referee made a decision against West Ham, it was all clapping and “good decision ref!” from those same supporters exclaiming abuse just minutes earlier!

But though the blatant bias of the fans around me was irksome enough, what I found even more galling was their behaviour towards the West Ham players. The amount of abuse and insults hurled at the other team – my team! – was ridiculous. When at one point a West Ham player was tackled in pretty nasty fashion near our stand, rather than sympathy, the player received nothing but taunts from the crowd around me. I was inwardly fuming that people couldn’t put their team differences aside to show some compassion and sympathy to a fellow human just because he played for a different team. Unfortunately, even as I was silently lecturing the opposition fans on the merits of good sportsmanship in my head, the most frustrating thing of all happened. Over on the other side of the stadium by the Away stand filled with West Ham supporters, a similar nasty tackle was made, but this time to one of the Home team’s players. And now it was the West Ham fans who I could see taunting and jibing the player on the ground. I sighed.

One of the most significant moments of my political consciousness came in the days immediately following the 2015 UK election. After two years volunteering at a Food Bank and another year volunteering with a homelessness campaign and outreach group, I was not happy with the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat ‘austerity’ Coalition that had been elected in 2010. This government essentially decided that due to the 2008 financial crash, Britain needed to slash government spending, particularly it seemed on welfare for the poorest and most vulnerable. The effect of this has been complicated, but one statistic that says a lot is that between 2008 and 2018, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s primary food bank charity, went from distributing 26,000 food parcels a year to distributing 1.3 million![1] The 2015 election fell in the middle of all this, and I was hopeful we would now reverse the mistakes of our past and put right the wrongs done by the cold-hearted Tory politicians. Suffice it to say the 2015 election did not go as planned. Not only did my beloved left-wing Labour Party lose seats, but the hated, right-wing Conservative Party gained enough seats to form a majority government without the centrist Liberal Democrats.

The morning after the election, myself and everyone around me at university was stunned. I had arranged that morning to see my brother and when I arrived, he too shared in my shock. We commiserated together for a bit, but then he mentioned in passing that a couple of our mutual friends had voted Conservative (or at least not Labour). While before my emotions had been a haze of disbelief, confusion and sorrow, as soon as he said this, I felt the anger boil up within me. Up until this point, Conservative voters had been a strange, amorphous blob – people out there somewhere, probably with nothing better to do with their lives than hate poor people. Now, I was being told that some of my friends – people I had liked and even thought highly of – had voted for…them! I was furious. What were they thinking?!? They must be either stupid, ignorant or just cold-hearted pure and simple – why else would someone vote for the Conservatives! My mind was made up and I proceeded to rant to my brother for goodness knows how long about how I was going to give them a piece of my mind when I next saw them. Suffice it to say that I’m glad I didn’t chance upon these friends or any other Conservative voters while I was in this mood.

Whether it was the emotional exhaustion from ranting or my own shock at seeing myself so angry, I finally began to calm down. Slowly but surely I began to come to my senses. Of the two mutual friends my brother had mentioned, one was one of the most genuine and thoughtful people I’d met at university and also a key figure in our homeless outreach group, while the other friend was one of the most hospitable, kind and considerate friends I’d made since arriving at university. Why was I not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt? I wanted to believe their political opinions were because of some major fault and suspicious trait they must have – surely they must hate poor people? But if anything my reaction evidenced clearly my own unwillingness to accept that I might be jumping to conclusions. Was it possible that someone else might think differently from me on one or several important and sensitive issues and it might not be because they were stupid, ignorant or cold-hearted?

In many ways, the comparatively mild friction in the aftermath of the 2015 UK election was just a precursor to the far more polarising and divisive votes in 2016. Brexit and Trump came like a wrecking ball through Anglo-Western democratic politics, overturning pretty much everyone’s expectations. In their aftermath, politics and public debate certainly feel like a football match. Debate looks like a shouting match between ‘fans’ rather than a reasonable discussion between citizens. What’s more, as football matches take place in stadiums where seating patterns reinforce fan identities, the news media, print media, and social media we consume for our political awareness take on a similar function for the politically engaged. It might be possible to interact ‘safely’ with fans of opposing teams outside the confines of the stadium, but woe to those who find themselves supporting their team in a stand where everyone else supports the other team. Much like I did at the West Ham game, if you find yourself in this position, it’s probably best to keep quiet and just try and enjoy the game.

Although I expect and perhaps even want a level of ‘banterous’ divisiveness and petty point-scoring (pun very much intended) in football, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with those same social dynamics becoming the norm in politics. It’s not that I think divides and political conflict are incompatible with democracy – quite the opposite! Particularly in British culture, we frequently seem to live under this misguided assumption that the sign of a healthy family, church, company or nation is the absence of conflict. However, in my experience, the absence of conflict is usually either the result of overbearing domination or a lack of meaningful differences. Under the former, conflict transforms into cynicism and passive aggression, while the latter usually means you are slowly sleepwalking into trouble! I earnestly believe a healthy society is not one without conflict but one which does conflict well.

This is why polarisation worries me – it’s a very poor way of managing conflict. Conflict is healthy when it gives meaningful voice to the different groups or people involved, and then establishes a status quo that is acceptable to as many of those voices as possible. Note that something can be acceptable without making people particularly happy; to quote the fictional Tyrion Lannister, “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise.” Even when political issues appear binary and one side ‘has to lose’, this doesn’t mean the concerns and hopes of those on the ‘losing’ side can’t be addressed. For instance, though Remainers ‘lost’ the Brexit referendum, this doesn’t mean the UK government can’t address their real concerns about economic fragility and inter-ethnic harmony in post-Brexit Britain. Remainers will still probably be annoyed about leaving the EU, but at least they’ll have some assurance they’ve been listened to.

Polarisation, however, increasingly takes compromise off the table and makes ‘victory’ the sole end of political conflict. When this happens, unity is only ever forged through destruction of the other side leaving one side very happy and the other side distraught. And I was distraught after the 2015 election because politics for me, like football, had become all about winning. There were no redeeming features in the other side, and as far as I was concerned they were all stupid, ignorant, and/or brainwashed, perhaps even evil. And who wants to build a future that includes stupid, ignorant, brainwashed and evil people? Either they must change or some way to remove them from the public realm must be found.

It was in response to this worrying post-2016 trend that More in Common (MIC), an international think tank aiming “to strengthen democratic societies by countering social division and polarization,”[2] was established in 2017. MIC’s research teams in the USA, UK, France and Germany have published a range of studies on political polarisation, national identity, and perceptions within society. Their reports shed significant light on many contemporary political themes in Western democracies and are all well-worth a read. However, if you don’t have time to read 100+ page reports, then you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve done some of the reading for you! Throughout this series – Polar Opposites? – I will be exploring the main theme of MIC’s studies: polarisation – what it looks like, why it happens and what are we to do about it? I hope you enjoy.

References [1] [2]

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