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Facing down the whitelash

How we vote increasingly depends not on class but ethnicity. To stop us going down this dangerous path liberals should listen, understand and argue back, says Philip Collins

Identity wars

Facing down the whitelash

How we vote increasingly depends not on class but ethnicity. To stop us going down this dangerous path liberals should listen, understand and argue back, says Philip Collins

© JANE CAMPBELL REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

The chief question of politics, the one whose answer does most to define the electoral dividing line in the west, is no longer “what do I have?” but “who am I?” The first can be a disruptive question to ask because what I have may change over time, and so my politics might change with that. Who I am, though, is more fixed, and so the second question carries the contrary danger—that politics gets stuck. Identity politics is a demand that the world outside becomes identical with the world we see from the inside. As such, it is a recipe for endless conflict between people who never change.

While the phrase identity politics is most often used in connection with minorities, it has more recently been attached to majorities too. The argument that the cultural majority should be given special attention in the same way minorities are is at the heart of two new books, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, and Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift. Both books have sweeping implications: could populism perhaps be the prelude to the demise of democracy? Eatwell and Goodwin, as well as Kaufmann, try to elucidate the causes of democracy’s troubles. In that respect at least, the books follow on from other volumes of varying degrees of anxiety published in 2018 from David Runciman, Timothy Snyder, Yascha Mounk, Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which explore how liberal democracies might conceivably come to a sticky end. They all trace a story of decline similar in tone—though on a much larger canvas—to the decline thesis that once gripped accounts of modern British history.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Timothy Garton Ash and David Allen Green assess Brexit and ask whether it’s too late for things to change. Garton Ash explains how Brexit is just one part of a fracturing Europe and that it might not be too late for the UK’s situation—or that of the rest of Europe—to change. Green takes apart the “shambolic” way that Britain has approached Brexit and suggests a number of options that parliament should strongly consider if minister are to change their views. Elsewhere in the issue: Jo Glanville visits a rural GP surgery and exposes the crises that are played out day-in-day-out all over the country. Stephen Phelan suggests that Spain’s decision to exhume General Franco’s remains threatens to disturb more than his bones. Martin Rees writes about our dreams of understanding the entire universe—and how we may never be able to satisfy that desire.