The Mythology of Tribes and Political Original Sin

I take the bible very seriously, slightly unfashionable in a secular age I know. However the epigraph in my copy asserts it is “to be read as literature”. I also take the concept of sin seriously. In the middle ages allegorical morality plays personified sin and moral attributes to help characters - and by extension the audience - chose the virtuous life. These days to expose modern sin we have Twitter. And the thing is we all sin. That does not mean we are sinners but we do err. It is to be human, and all that. Character is not just how we behave when we think nobody is looking, but how we carry the burden of our past actions. It is as true of people as it is of society and nations.

The activist movement Black Lives Matter does not just originate with the injustice in the American social system, it is a reflection of their original sin: slavery. Britain’s original sin is colonialism and empire. Yet let us compare and contrast British attitudes to empire with the recent celebrations of 1916’s Easter Rising. It does not take much revisionism to see in the insurrection an act of betrayal, not only against the legitimate government of the day - these rebels had no popular mandate - but against their countrymen. “In England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” However 200,000 Irishmen were fighting in the trenches, 49,000 died fighting for the British and other armies. Gandhi this is not. Ultimately the rebellion was crushed by British over-reaction. However, modern day Ireland has had no qualms in celebrating the heroes of 1916 who helped get rid of “the fecking English”. What other choice do they have? Mythology, innit?

Meanwhile, Britain still struggles with her colonial past. Unlike other former imperial nations, Empire matters. A great plurality feel a degree of pride in the accomplishments achieved when the world was coloured pink; a smaller, but significant, proportion feel at least regret, more likely shame. In truth I find the idea of applying weighted and binary emotional judgements to past actions in which we (as individuals) did not participate rather curious. Empire is a historical fact. Pride or shame do not change that. When we atone we try to reflect present mores, but this is different from emotional self-indulgence. While the idea of British - or English? - exceptionalism in all the absurdity of its flag-waving pomp is unpardonably arrogant, there is surely something at least as assuming in the opposing reaction.

Shame is an interesting emotion. For all our modern vanity, it is rather common. Most people confuse it with guilt. They are though quite distinct. The first is the awareness of having done something wrong; shame is an introspective emotion, wrought by how we appear to others. They are intertwined in the concept of good and bad behaviour, yet one can feel shame without guilt (or indeed without having sinned). Guilt is about how we feel towards other people, shame is about how we feel about ourselves.

The British tribe, left and right, is weighed down with its mythology of Empire. We all carry our sin. It's just that modern sin is different.

It may amaze even the most perspicacious reader to learn that politicians also sin. They, like us, have original sin. Perhaps their offence is not what many would necessarily suspect. A politician obfuscating - if you want to be simplistic, lying - is rather like the praying mantis devouring her male sexual partner. It may not be pleasant but it is inevitable. The thing about political original sin is that it isn’t, well, terribly original: it is easy opportunism. Since we are talking in epic terms, some might call it moral cowardice.

The question for politicians is for how long they can avoid failure

Before the 2010 election the Lib Dem leader signed a pledge not to vote for a tuition fees rise. Not only did Clegg sign the pledge but it became the centrepiece of his party’s manifesto. According to most accounts he believed this promise to be irresponsible. When he reversed his position, the public never forgave him. His party paid the price, as did he. While Cain merely slew Abel, Ed Miliband politically slaughtered his brother David. The elder turned his back on UK politics and moved to America, Ed never resolved the inconsistency of his political manoeuvering and led his party to predictable defeat. Both Clegg and Miliband were felled by their political original sin.

At the moment David Cameron is living his political original sin. When he stood for the leadership, he was an outside chance. It was not only his stunning speech to the party conference that turned the tide, but his promise to take his party out of the centre-right EPP grouping within the European parliament, a policy rejected by more sceptical predecessors. He spent the first decade of his leadership indulging his party’s anti-European wing before turning on them as he launched the Remain referendum campaign. He knew his opportunism could not last. They knew he was not being sincere. They believed him because we all want to believe the impossible. It is a human characteristic to put off painful choices.

He may yet escape from a fate his party has given to leaders as electorally successful as Thatcher and lamentable as Heath and Iain Duncan Smith. But that the leading contenders to replace him are Brexiteers suggests, at the very least, his legacy will be marred by his original sin.

With characteristically boring predictability the Canadian mounties always got their man. In the same sense, politicians’ original sins catch up with them. And no doubt they always will. Labour supporters should now be asking where does their leader’s original sin lie because circumstance will consume him as well. To howl against this is a fruitless leisure activity. The question for politicians is for how long they can avoid failure and whether the good outweighs their sin.

The question for tribes is how to live with theirs.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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