Cargo Cults

Simon Kuper: “Beware the Tory cult that’s steering Brexit.”

(This article was originally published in the Financial Times in November 2017. It was referenced by Rubí donkey in her Tuesday blog 24/09/2019 but the link leads to an FT pay-to-view page. So the article was placed here.)

In South Africa in 1856, the spirits of three ancestors visited a 15-year-old Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse. According to her uncle, who spoke for her, the spirits wanted the Xhosa to destroy their crops and cattle. The tribe’s ancestors would then return and drive the white settlers into the ocean. New, beautiful cattle would appear. The sun would turn red. The Xhosa duly began killing cattle and burning crops. This type of self-destructive quest for riches and freedom is now known as a “cargo cult”. (The word “cargo” denotes the western goods the tribe hopes to obtain.)

Brexit voters come in endless varieties. However, the particular sect now steering Brexit — the Europhobe wing of the Conservative party — is turning into a cargo cult.

At the heart of it is ancestor worship. There’s a widespread belief in Britain that “the past is the real us”, says Catherine Fieschi, head of the Counterpoint think-tank. Perhaps no other country has as happy a relationship with its chequered history. And the self-appointed guardian of this relationship is the Conservative party.

Hardly any of today’s Tories actually remember Britain’s golden age of ruling India and winning the second world war. Even the party’s ageing members are merely the children of the Dunkirk generation. Economically, they have been the luckiest cohort in British history. But they and many other Tory MPs feel the shame of late birth. They disdain the UK’s tame, vegetarian, low-stakes, Brussels-based, post-imperial incarnation, which in 70 years offered nothing more glorious than the Falklands war. Now they have their own heroic project: Brexit.

Cargo cults typically start when the tribe feels it is in decline, surpassed by foreigners. In Melanesia, the Pacific region with a tradition of cargo cults, locals came to feel like “rubbish men” (the phrase is pidgin English) in comparison with rich Europeans. “A recurring feature of these cults is a belief that Europeans in some past age tricked Melanesians and are withholding from them their rightful share of material goods,” writes Paul Sillitoe, an anthropologist at Durham University.

To get these goods, the tribe has to mimic modern rituals that seem to have made advanced societies rich. Melanesians built airfields to receive the ancestors’ cargo. The Brexiter flies around signing trade deals. Meanwhile, the inferior goods of today’s “rubbish men” must be destroyed. Hence the eagerness in this Tory sect (but not among the British population at large) to shut off trade with Europe. If the correct rituals are followed, the ancestors will return. The sect leader, Boris Johnson, in his biography of Winston Churchill, sometimes seems to cast himself as the reincarnation of the great “glory-chasing, goalmouth-hanging opportunist”.

But the cargo cult is threatened by non-believers. They can ruin things by angering the ancestors. For 15 months, Nongqawuse blamed the failure of her prophecy on the few Xhosa — amagogotya, or “stingy ones” — who refused to kill their cattle.

Now, leading Conservatives are hunting British amagogotya. Chris Heaton-Harris seeks to out Remainer university teachers, Jacob Rees-Mogg castigates the BBC and the Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney as “enemies of Brexit”, while John Redwood urges the Treasury “to have more realistic, optimistic forecasts”. The sect also suspects Theresa May and Brexit secretary David Davis of being closet amagogotya. That is probably accurate: as Britain’s point-people in the negotiations, these two sense that cattle-killing might not be a winning strategy.

Sillitoe says it’s wrong to dismiss cargo cultists as “irrational and deluded people”. In fact, he writes, “Cargo cults are a rational indigenous response to traumatic culture contact with western society.” Comical as the participants might seem, “they are neither illogical nor stupid”.

Certainly the Conservative cult follows its own logic. The aim isn’t simply to reduce immigration or boost the economy. Rather, Brexit reaffirms the tribe’s ancestral values against a disappointing modernity. The difficulty of Brexiting is part of the appeal: only a great tribe can renew itself through sacrifice. The stalling of talks with the EU is welcomed as a ritual re-enactment of Britain’s past glorious conflicts. Hence the ovations for any speaker at last month’s Conservative conference who urged walking out with no deal.

A recent blog by Pete North, a founder of the Leave Alliance, beautifully sums up many of these attitudes. North, who favoured staying in the European single market, predicts Brexit will send Britain into “a 10-year recession”. He writes: “After years of the left bleating about austerity, they are about to find out what it actually means.” And yet, he continues, “My gut instinct tells me that culturally it will be a vast improvement on the status quo.” He says modern Britons have become “spoiled and self-indulgent . . . in the absence of any real challenges or imperatives to grow as a people”. As the psychiatrist says of the TV character Basil Fawlty, there’s enough material here for an entire conference.

After the cattle-killing, many Xhosa starved to death, while flocks of vultures reportedly watched from above. Refugees who fled to the British Cape Colony were forced into serf-like labour contracts. But Nongqawuse lived on for another 40 years, albeit in exile, under a changed name.