You may have heard of the experiment carried out in the 1950s by a rogue psychologist called Muzafer Sherif. Sherif and his team put a group of boys together on a camp in the Robbers Cave park and split them into two teams. The psychologist did everything he could to make the teams hate each other. After some serious manipulation on the part of the experimenters the groups became so aggressive towards one another they had to be separated.
I feel like I’m living in a modern version of this experiment, in a country split into two warring tribes. The way we have been divided into two is how we voted in a referendum about Brexit, which boils down now to what we think about a trade deal. Except this hell we’re living in wasn’t devised by a psychologist, but by a couple of guys from Eton; and this hasn’t been for a couple of weeks, but two years.
Writing as someone who has been involved on the fringes of left politics for some time, I’m aware how tribal politics is. But there is something different about the circularity of the Brexit debate. We are told will Brexit will either make or break the economy. I take the unpopular view that the problems in the British economy pre-date Brexit. After the financial crash our economy is just about held together with the sticking plaster of a housing bubble. I think Brexit is a massive distraction from the real issues; a huge trade deficit, rising debt and people scared about their future and livelihoods.
If the divisions caused by Brexit are bad, there is something much worse bubbling under the surface. This is the rise of the far-right. It thrives in these conditions. Where there is economic uncertainty it doesn’t take long for someone to find a group of people who can be villainised and blamed - with migrants and Muslims being the target. We’ve seen the growing popularity of Tommy Robinson, and the continual platform he is given in the media. We’ve seen it in the corridors of Whitehall with the ‘hostile environment’ policy. And of course, we’ve seen it on the street with a rise in hate crime. My friend’s mum, who wears the niqab, was urinated on by three men in the street. When she posted it on Facebook, many people called it fake news.
It’s a tragedy this is happening. And then against this backdrop, Boris has used his platform, not to speak out against this rise in hate and Islamophobia, but to write an article on the burka to fuel it. In the words of Baroness Warsi, he decided to use Muslim women as a ‘political football’ in a ‘convenient battleground for Old Etonians’. We have Nigel Farage (not an old Etonian, but from the elitist Dulwich College) threatening to take a new battle bus around the country. Farage can’t deal with the finer details of Brexit and needs to clarify the line between team Brexit and team Remain. Boris is resorting to directly stoking up divisions based on race and religion.
It’s the oldest trick in the book – divide and rule. It is rooted in the veins of how British elites have always ruled. When the British governed India, during the British Raj, they went to huge efforts not to smooth tensions between different groups, but to categorise and stir them up. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and writer, argues that after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, where Hindus and Muslims fought side by side against the British, there was more emphasis in dividing these two religions. He argues the British carefully contrasted political issues and identities between the two groups. When people like Boris constantly highlight ways in which a group of other humans are different from us, he builds directly on this legacy.
It’s a legacy that contributed to the partition. The border between India and Pakistan was hastily drawn up by British diplomats. Estimates vary on how many people were displaced, but it was up to 17 million, with a death toll of around one million. While there are of course other factors aside from the conduct of the British that caused this bloodshed, most historians agree that the legacy of the British was a major factor. Tensions within India are high to this day with Muslims regularly being lynched on the streets.
What is remarkable about British history in India is that many British people know almost nothing about it, or worse, are nostalgic about it. Our history is constantly retold with a sugar coating to make us feel good. I read about one such gallant attempt by an Eton history teacher (or Master as they like to be called) who organised an exhibition celebrating the links between Eton and India since so many of the most powerful positions in India went to Old Etonians. The exhibition tried to make the point that there was much to be proud of in this history, but this was slightly undermined by some of the things said and done by Old Etonians. For example, one former pupil wrote in his diary about his time in India, “What fun it is to shoot mutineers. It’s almost like shooting partridges.”
It’s not just in India that the divide and rule tactic was used. It was also in Uganda, Kenya, Ireland – the list goes on – and, of course, in Britain itself. Because we were never honest about the atrocities committed under the Empire, no apology or reparations were ever made. This means the institutions at its heart, Eton being one of many, could carry on as before. The only difference being, now there are no jobs governing India for old Etonians like Boris, we are stuck with them stoking up divisions on home turf.
Boris will keep on tossing us issues and scapegoats, to distract us from the fact that his only qualifications to govern are a passion for Latin and a tremendous sense of entitlement. It’s time to stop taking the bait.