The politics of identity revisited

There is a new identity politics by which we define ourselves and we must find a language to articulate this, argues Sir Vince Cable MP.

The politics of identity has moved to the centre of British life. Europe, immigration, Scotland: these are the issues which now dominate political discourse from parliament to the pub. They are issues that fit uncomfortably into the traditional British party system, which reflects the interests and class differences of the early 20th Century. They are disorientating to those who still think of dividing lines based on tax, spending priorities, public service reform or privatisation.

The politics of identity is, of course, nothing new. Modern history has been shaped by the toxic consequences of what Isaiah Berlin called the “politics of the soil”: nationalism, ethnicity and anti-Semitism in Europe; racism and the legacy of colonialism and slavery; confessional politics from the Middle East and the sub-continent to Ireland, and ‘born again’ evangelism in the USA. But at least until very recently, and specifically in the UK, these were largely the preoccupations of the past or somewhere else. No longer.

Over two decades ago I wrote a pamphlet for Demos (The World’s New Fissures, 1994) which described an emerging “organising principle” competing with, and in some cases supplanting, the familiar alignments based on ‘left’ and ‘right’. The 1990s were a period when the twin forces of globalisation and liberalisation were in the ascendant and seemingly irresistible. But these same forces were eating away at the authority of the nation state, the cohesion of communities and traditional party, and class loyalties – more obvious today in the aftermath of the havoc caused by a global financial crisis.

I updated the arguments in a second Demos pamphlet (Multiple Identities, 2005) in the wake of a General Election in the UK fought, unsuccessfully by the Conservatives, largely around the issue of immigration (‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’); after our first experience of Islamic terrorism on the streets of London; and with growing evidence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-EU movements in France, Holland and elsewhere. Plus ça change? What has changed is that the politics of identity has become a whole lot more consequential with Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen and powerful political figures in India, Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere, making strong appeals to nationalism, ethnic and religious identity.

I justify this journey down memory lane since mainstream politics seems to be in a collective panic, torn between appeasement and despair and looking for simple explanations for an inability to connect with the public mood. The position is, of course, not the same everywhere: Canada has elected a Liberal (and liberal) government and its linguistic politics have receded; the Dutch and the Austrians have, so far, withstood an offensive from politicians trading on a particularly toxic breed of identity politics. But elsewhere the search for someone to blame has led to arrogant ‘elites’, discredited ‘experts’, ‘people who live anywhere rather than somewhere’ and, in Mrs May’s uncomfortable ‘citizens of the world’ quote, an echo of the ’rootless cosmopolitans’ slur of the 1930s.

It is possible that, in the past, elites were less arrogant, experts more expert and the rich and educated more rooted; but I doubt it. Rather, we have a new, or reinvented, politics which appears to be gaining ground even in countries which are well governed and relatively egalitarian.

This new politics is sometimes described as ‘populist’, appealing to voters on an emotional level with ideas and policies far removed from the practicalities of government, or which lie outside conventional opinion. But this increasingly over-used term doesn’t tell us much. All politicians try to be popular and, to use the old saying, campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The‘right’ has long gone beyond an appeal to property owners and businesses to stir up patriotic feelings and the fear of disorder. And the populism of today has echoes on the ‘left’ with Podemos in Spain, Mélenchon in France and Sanders in the US.

What is special about this current iteration of identity politics is the exploitation of racial, religious and linguistic differences:
dividing society into exclusive groups, ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. In some countries, the politics of identity has been institutionalised and operates in a largely peaceful manner. India’s remarkable democracy functions through complex alignments based on caste, religion, language, and region. Belgium, Canada and Switzerland have linguistic politics. Religion pervades the politics of democratic countries with large Muslim populations: Turkey, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

What is also striking about today is the way similar dividing lines are opening up in countries where politics has traditionally been better understood in left-right terms: the UK, France, Scandinavia, the USA and, to a lesser degree, Germany.

Identity politics requires a new language. It makes little sense to describe the politics of the French National Front as ‘right-wing’ when its economic policy is indistinguishable from the Communist Party. Or to speak of ex-Socialist minister and now-President Macron, as being in any meaningful way ‘left-wing’ when he won the election on an unapologetic defence of the liberal, open market, international order. Centrist? But at the centre of what? France is a particularly good place to start re-examining taxonomy, since ‘left’ and ‘right’ were labels which first emerged from the French revolution.

We can usefully distinguish the ‘libertarian right’ from ‘cultural conservatives’. The tension between the libertarian, small state, conservatives in the American Congress and the cultural conservatives of the religious right and Trump’s nationalist supporters is already creating a schism (or several). And on the left we can usefully distinguish between the ‘communitarian’ tradition of social democrats and socialists, who are outward looking and inclusive cheerleaders for the European project, for example – and those, particularly among former Communist parties, who are best described as ‘national socialist’. Expanding the categories from two to four still leaves some loose ends: the Greens for example, or the libertarian but broadly left-wing 5 Star movement in Italy.

Analysis is fine. But what do we do about the politics of identity? I described the central challenge in the 1994 pamphlet:
to close the ‘major gap in understanding … between large sections of the administrative elite and those over whom they preside’. The former are usually cosmopolitan in taste, mobile and finely tuned to the needs of the global economy and rapid change. The latter often lack mobility, education, skills and languages, and are understandably resentful when painful changes are imposed upon them’.

The starting point is not to reject identity. On the contrary, it is good to be rooted, to have a sense of place and history. Most of us have multiple identities: as, for example, Scottish, British and European or, for many inhabitants of West London, Sikh, Punjabi, Indian and British. Identity is real but not exclusive. It is part of a society in which individuals feel secure and at ease with the different aspects of their heritage. The enemies of that society are not just the Trumps and Le Pens who seek to divide, but the well-intentioned advocates of multiculturalism who reinforce stereotypes and segregated silos, or opportunistic politicians like the Clinton Democrats who built a power base around ethnic target groups.

In the UK, what we must defend is the treatment of people as individuals, not as part of an ethnic group, protecting them from discrimination on the basis of race, religion – or, for that matter, gender or disability – but requiring of all adherence to the law of the land and a common British loyalty buttressed by strong and reliable state institutions and common services.

There is a temptation for politicians to capitalise on the shift towards the exclusionary, for quick wins in the short term – but
the Britain we want to see emerge from this uncertain period will only fall on the right side of history in the coming decades if we find ways to articulate a shared purpose. The breakdown of the traditional dividing lines is complicated for political parties, but also creates new opportunities to bring people together where previous allegiances would have separated them. The fundamental response, then, to this new form of politics in Britain, is a simple one – to build a cohesive new community and sense of shared citizenship that revolves around a renewed assertion of what we hold in common.