In “The Cousin’s Wars”, the American historian Kevin Phillips explores the fascinating thesis that division within Anglo-Saxon civilisation has often been far more pronounced within our nations than between them. The American War of Independence, depicted as a simple struggle of one nation against another, was really the struggle of a rebellious fraction of colonists against the British ruling classes and the Americans who stayed loyal to them. Furthermore, although there was no armed uprising in Britain, the split in public sentiment towards the rights and wrongs of the rebels’ demands was similar to those in America. The war was neither the first nor last time such intra-national splits occurred: two hundred years before the American equivalent, American colonists had actually fought against each other in the English Civil War.
History repeats itself. Astonishingly if rather ominously, we seem to have entered a fourth phase of this cycle: both countries are riven by bitter, sectarian hatreds, whose factions have far more in common with each other than their own countrymen. Brits always tend to vastly over-estimate their influence in the United States, but nonetheless Brexit seems to have genuinely inspired many of Trump’s supporters and the broader alt-rightmovement. Trump, a supporter of Brexit, started to call himself “Mr. Brexit” and invited Nigel Farage to speak at his rallies. British figures such as that “dangerous faggot” Milo Yiannopolis and Paul Joseph Watson of InfoWars are amongst those leading the charge in the American culture wars.
Likewise, the sneering elites in both countries have far more in common with each other than with their own countrymen. Hillary Clinton notoriously labelled Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. In post-Brexit Britain, the vitriol of bitter Remainers needs no further comment. Just like the insurgents, the elites have poked their nose into each country’s politics: Obama notoriously told the Brits to “get to the back of the queue” if they voted for Brexit. In a quite frankly bizarre speech bordering on the deranged, Clinton (mis)quoted both Farage and Yiannopolis and hinted that Farage in particular may be an agent of Vladimir Putin. Not to be outdone, the UK Parliament debated banning Donald Trump from the country.
Very dangerously, a further commonality is the refusal of either side to accept defeat as legitimate. Trump irresponsibly talked about the American election being rigged and refused to say whether he would accept the result – unless he won. Farage darkly hinted at much the same on the night of the Brexit referendum when defeat seemed imminent. In the UK, Remainers mounted a series of demonstrations post Brexit and demanded another referendum. On Thursday, we were treated to the revolting spectacle of a gloating and contemptuous Remainer Gina Miller celebrating her high court victory over the government’s wish to trigger Article 50 by royal prerogative. Many Remainer-inclined MPs – who lest we forget form the vast majority in Parliament – agreed, even though they had previously passed the 2015 Referendum Act by a margin of 6 to 1. Enraged Brexit campaigners talked of unacceptable judicial activism, with many now openly talking of “taking to the streets” if Brexit fails to be enacted.
In both Britain and America, each new turn of the political screw seems to be seeing a hardening of attitudes on both sides. To say that either of our countries is on the verge of civil war would be hyperbole, but it is certainly not too far-fetched to say the seeds of serious conflict are there. Over the past few decades, economic and social forces have split both America and Britain into two cultural groups that not only neither like nor understand each other, but do not even wish to. Those forces show no sign at all in abating. If Hillary Clinton is elected to the Presidency and Parliament rejects Brexit, then this latest pan Anglo-Saxon insurgency against elite rule will only grow and become ever more radical. Politics in both our countries could be about to become get very nasty in indeed.