Mud-slinging between rivals in the Tory leadership election sounds like more of the same old ‘tribalism’ in UK politics. But this is not just politicians behaving badly because they are unpleasant people or politics is dirty. Choosing a new leader reveals how much politicians are forced to shapeshift into different groups, improvising into new alliances and enmities to further their interests and causes. To dismiss the way politics enacts as tribalism, is to disparage both politics and the societies around the world that conceive of themselves as divided into tribal or clan groups. They are just groups that we belong to that fuse and splinter depending on how much dependence versus animosity they face in relation to neighbours; whether you call them tribes or not misses the point. Smaller units come together to face a common competitor or enemy, and then disperse to squabble or battle among themselves, whether it is in sport, religion or politics, in all societies.
Situations of competition bring out this fission and fusion. I used to work in the energy department of a charity. We saw ourselves as superior to the housing department and competed against them for funding. When jointly confronting another charity, then energy and housing experts suddenly became the best of friends. The Mursi, a group of pastoralists with whom I am working in Southern Ethiopia, are divided into clans that historically come together to fight against neighbouring groups, as anthropologist David Turton explains. If the Mursi (or neighbouring group) manage to win a battle and occupy territory, then a peace-making ceremony will legitimise the new situation, and they can return to distinguishing between their clans. New patterns of fission and fusion are always emerging. The Ethiopian government has been leasing the land to foreign companies in recent decades, so the Mursi have periodically created alliances with neighbouring groups, and even foreign researchers and film-makers, to fight for the right to remain on their territory. These processes continually shift, create untidy and different sized units and can make everyone confused about where their loyalties lie in any given moment.
Similarly in Westminster, any large political party is made up of factions based in part on ideology but also on alliances forged by reciprocal deal-making, swopping useful information and rubbing along together doing the hard emotional and political work in the corridors of parliament, Whitehall and the streets of their constituencies. Any effective politician forms alliances with others in their party (and sometimes other groups) to persuade them to support their amendment, motion or bid for leadership. What the Mursi do for land, or charity workers do for funding, politicians do for political support.
The current Tory leadership contest is fragmenting the Tory party in a familiar way. You back someone for a range of reasons – they have a good chance of leading the party to win at the next election; they will inspire the party and run the country effectively; they might recognise your talent and give you a frontbench position, and so on. You might even extract a promise from a contender for a particular post if you bring supporters with you. Personal and party ambition is entangled with national interest because MPs think the other party will lead the country to destruction. It gets even more tense when factions reach the conclusion that their own side has descended so low that it is time for the other side to have a turn to rule. After all, politics is not only (or even mainly) about calculating self interest, it is about fear, belonging, revenge and hope.
Unlike the Mursi, in Westminster it is a war of words, images, hastily designed logos and tweets rather than guns, sticks and, more recently, film or theatre. Praising your own and badmouthing the other becomes an inevitable part of the process. Gossip reveals not only who is competing but what sides people are on. While the Tory clans keep wooing those who don’t yet belong, they rubbish the leaders of the other clans. Revealing your hand might encourage others to publicly declare, but is risky. Politicians are always reading the runes and know they will have to bear the consequences, and be seen as disloyal by the new leader, if they have backed a horse that loses. In general, when MPs fudge and refuse to answer questions, it is often that they don’t know or don’t like what their preferred candidate’s policy is. Politics works far better, or at least with more candour, if party leaders show forgiveness for the fleeting disloyalty of going off-script. PM Johnson’s punitive approach to those who failed to obey him, and side-lining of anyone seen as a rival, had a chilling effect on Tory MPs from which they need to recover fast.
After they choose their leader, Tories will remember they are fighting together for the support of the public, and will shapeshift as if they had never splintered. The in-fighting will then move from the public realm to the private conversations in the tea-room, corridors and bars. Some friendships with temporary opponents in their own party will be rekindled. When faced with supporting Ukraine, the parties might even come together to attend to the national interest. Whether we will get effective fusion of nations for political action against global challenges – notably climate breakdown – is an open question. It happened just after the Second World War, so it is not impossible, but the interests vested in maintaining division and competition continually pull us towards fission rather than fusion. Social media and endemic leaking seem to be driving us towards more fragmentation. We either need to become better shapeshifters or relearn the arts of discretion and kindness to strangers.
This blog is part of two projects that have received funding from (a) the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 834986), as explained here https://grnpp.org/ethnographies-of-parliaments/ and (b) Performing for Peace, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Global Challenges Research Fund (AH/W006944/1) with details here: https://grnpp.org/olisarali/