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A vision of Britain’s polarised future A Briton in the US explains why we can expect partisanship to get far, far worse

A protester dressed as Boris Johnson outside The Supreme Court. Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty

A protester dressed as Boris Johnson outside The Supreme Court. Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty

September 26, 2019   6 mins

Hello, my name is Daniel Kalder and I come from the future. Your future, to be exact. And I’m here to answer your questions.

Wondering when all this political polarisation will end and people will learn to, like, chillax again? Curious as to what life with a politicised judiciary will be like? Thinking about the long-term consequences of all those cool new tricks that John Bercow has conjured forth from hitherto arcane parliamentary precedents?

Well, I am here to reveal all — and I don’t even need to stare at a chicken’s entrails to do it. You see, I’ve been living in the US for the past 13 years, a land where unhinged levels of polarisation and an ultra-politicised judiciary are par for the course. And all of this has given me a certain degree of insight as to the future facing the land of my birth.

So let’s answer some questions and see what lies in store. After all, the future is already upon us.

1: I’m tired of Brexit and wish that people would stop thinking in ludicrously binary terms and treating politics as a zero-sum war against pure evil. When will it end?

Never. Or at least, not any time soon. I arrived in the US in 2006, while the Iraq War was raging and memories of Florida, “hanging chads” and a very sad Al Gore from six years earlier still divided the nation. Indeed, I vividly recall walking into a Barnes & Noble where there was a table heaped high with books dedicated to the then-thriving genre of Bush-hate, which had also spawned TV shows, stage productions, websites and even a movie portraying his assassination.

This doesn’t seem healthy, I thought, but at least he’ll be gone in two years’ time. The rage will burn itself out… then Obama was elected and, for a second, it really did seem as if the spirit of kumbaya was abroad in the land, and that maybe, just maybe, people would settle down a little bit.

But before you knew it, he was talking about government healthcare and stimulus spending, and suddenly a terror of socialism gripped the hearts of freedom-loving patriots, the Tea Party was on the march, and angry people were stockpiling ammo lest the government come for their guns, etc. It all got to be very, very exhausting. Then we got Trump, who successfully scrambled the brains of his opponents, his own party and the media, and it got even more exhausting.

It’s bad my friends, it’s bad. Of course, you might argue that the US was settled by millenarian Puritans not known for their love of nuance, and so they have form for this kind of stuff, while good old Britannia will get over it. But the Brexit vote was a once-in-a-generation decision that will change the country forever, whereas Americans can and do kick out their presidents on a regular basis, yet still they rage as if “The Republic” were perpetually on the verge of extinction. Brexit strikes deeper; so whether the vote is respected or somehow overturned, there is no path forward that does not involve great bitterness.

Expect shrieking, paranoia, and more reductio ad Hitlerams than you can shake a copy of The Guardian at. You can also expect that voices of reason will arise, you know, like Ian Austin’s just announced Mainstream movement.

They will be ignored.

2: So what should I expect from a politicised Supreme Court?

Yeah, you’re going to really hate that.

I mean, it’s not that I actually believe that Boris Johnson was all that interested in the Queen’s Speech either. I just assumed that everybody knew and agreed that, in politics, hypocrisy, game-playing and general chicanery come with the territory — like that time John Major prorogued Parliament to duck the cash-for-questions scandal. You know, the same John Major who took Boris Johnson to court to prevent him from proroguing Parliament to stop it from messing with his Brexit mojo. And yet here we are, with the Supreme Court getting mixed up with this mess, and ruling that Boris acted “unlawfully” and is a very naughty boy.

In the US, of course, the Supreme Court is constantly being asked to deliver judgments on issues that divide the country along partisan lines, and its judges can almost always be relied on to vote on entirely partisan lines (except for the lonely guy who has to referee between the two sides). Annoyed by the teaching of evolution? Do you desire to burn the flag? Pro- or anti-abortion? Let’s ask the folk on the Supreme Court what they think.

In fact, here in the States, the justices on the court are celebrities, the objects of hate and/or adoration depending on your political views. Heck, I spotted a hagiographic book about Sonia Sotomayor in the kids’ section of my local library the other week. Meanwhile Ruth Bader Ginsburg is such an icon that Hollywood made a film about her life, starring an actress from one of those rubbish Star Wars films Disney has been making, and you can even buy Catholic-style candles with her face on them instead of a saint. Really.

Politicised judiciaries are a symptom of polarised politics; when nobody can agree on anything, a handful of unelected people in robes step in. Already I have heard fantasies about tossing Johnson in jail if he refuses to pursue a Brexit extension. But this is just the start.

Now that the judges are wading into politics, prepare for immense acrimony. You will see more lawfare, as people try to take down governments they dislike through the courts. You will learn the names of the judges. You will discover how the judges are appointed. Newspapers will start to dig into their political affiliations. You will learn whether they ever wore blackface, about the bar fights they instigated at UB40 concerts in the 1980s, and you will see them attacked and vilified by politicians on the Right and Left.

You will wish you could go back to the old days, when judges were old folk in curly wigs.

3. OK, but what about the legacy of John Bercow? At least Parliament is more powerful now, right?

Attitudes to the actions of the Speaker in the ongoing parliamentary shenanigans serve as a Brexit Rorschach test. If you’re for Remain, then his interpretation of the rules is a pretty butterfly, if you’re for Leave, it’s a dead dog with its head split open by a meat cleaver.

Regardless, the glee felt by Boris-haters may well turn out to be short lived. For while it may feel empowering to delay Brexit, and to force him to submit a letter to the EU asking for an extension, it is evident that Parliament has no strategy other than to humiliate and torment the PM. It is also obvious that the leader of the opposition is afraid of an election as he thinks he might lose. After all, Boris is not exactly collapsing in the polls.

But the larger and most obvious point is that Bercow’s innovations, cooked up in the heat of Parliament’s nervous breakdown will — like the politicisation of the judiciary — have all kinds of consequences further down the road. Here in the US we tend to be a little more straightforward, but blowing up tradition can still backfire, and quickly. In 2013, when the Democrats grew tired of Senate Republicans blocking Obama’s executive and judicial nominees they didn’t discover new possibilities in old rulings, but rather exercised the “nuclear option” by simply changing the existing rules, lowering the threshold for approval from 60 votes to 51. Hey presto, they could now get their nominations through the Senate.

It felt good at the time, but a precedent had been set, and the Republicans under Trump would soon go further and apply the same reduced threshold to Supreme Court nominations. Enter stage right Brett Kavanaugh, who, because he could not be blocked by the Democrats in the Senate, had to be destroyed by other means. And yet, today he sits on the bench regardless. The Democrats lost.

And so it is that one day the new rules of Parliament laid down by Bercow will be used against some of those celebrating them now, and there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth when it does happen.

4. This future you’re talking about is totally depressing. Is there anything I can do about it?

No. The bitterness, the rancour, it runs deep, and shall abide.

What do I do, out here in my hyper-polarised future? Well, I don’t watch a whole lot of news, as the news that matters finds me anyway. I don’t do social media. I do read poetry, and visit state parks with my family, and listen to music. Recently, for instance, I got through all ten of Mahler’s symphonies, plus Das Lied von der Erde. That was nice.

Well OK, there is at least one bit of good news. You live in the UK, and whenever the UK attempts to copy something the US is doing, it always comes out a bit crap. Think about those giant strip malls in American cities, vast and filled with restaurant chains, gyms, cinemas and shopping options. Transplant them to Britain and what do you get? Maybe a bowling alley and a McDonald’s next to a car park on the outskirts of Basildon. Our version of hyper-polarisation will likely be a slightly more feeble imitation of the American original.

But that small comfort aside, I recommend that you settle in, and make yourself comfortable. You are in it for the long haul.

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.


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3 years ago

I was full of internal stress while reading this, then when you got to the bit about ignoring the news, travelling & listening to music as a remedy to the madness, I eased up with a sigh of relief. There really is nothing that many of us can do, other than to bypass the crazy entirely. I hereby commit that I shall read a newspaper only once a week to keep tabs on things in general, and other than that, I’m opting out. It’s a dank & miserable rabbithole otherwise, it seems.