IN the autumn of 2018, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Jeremy Hunt, was addressing his fractious party conference on the vexing question of Brexit negotiations.
Seeking a populist metaphor that would guarantee column-inches, he likened the EU to one of the most repressive régimes in human history: the Soviet Union.
The remarks were widely condemned in Britain. The Latvian Ambassador said that after invading in 1940, the USSR “killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants”, and had ruined the lives of three generations.
Her opposite number from Estonia tweeted: “Soviet régime was brutal, I lived under it, comparison is insulting.”
A European Commission spokesman was no less damning, if more measured: “I would say respectfully that we would all benefit – and in particular foreign affairs ministers – from opening a history book from time to time.”
How did we get here?
How could a Foreign Secretary compare the European Union to a totalitarian state that set quotas for the “liquidation” of hundreds of thousands of dissidents in the Great Terror, and sentenced more than 18 million people to hypothermia, hunger and exile in the Gulags?
With social media curating news-feeds to pander to our prejudices, more and more people are living in an echo-chamber, partly of their own making, where dissenting voices are not heard.
We discount evidence that conflicts with our passionately-held beliefs using “confirmation” or “myside” bias.
We all want to be kind. We all like to think that we are the good guys. It is fundamental to our wellbeing. We now have evidence that we are naturally predisposed to be kind and collaborative.
Our genes aren’t selfish. Evolution doesn't care if we are naughty or nice. If kindness helps our genes to reproduce then kindness and collaboration can flourish.
For most of the 300,000 years that Homo sapiens have walked the earth, population levels were low. There may have been less than half a million of us as recently as 20,000 years ago.
In an environment where food and land are abundant, the fittest have a huge incentive to collaborate in hunting and gathering, warding off predators, sharing tools and matchmaking across bands, rather than competing over resources.
For 95 per cent of the time that people have been on the planet, survival of the fittest for our species has meant survival of the kindest.
There is evidence that a rudimentary moral sense is innate, including research on how three-month-olds track the movements of "good" puppets, "bad" puppets and "neutral" puppets.
By the time they can reach for a toy after the show, six-month-olds "overwhelmingly" reach for the good guys.
One 12-month-old used the good puppet to hit the bad puppet over the head.
There's also evidence that an inner moral voice, a conscience, that applies the emotional brakes on bad behaviour by making you feel good when you do good things and feel bad when you do bad things, is nearly universal - shared by 99 per cent of women and 97 per cent of men.
We are instinctively kind to our friends, and we expect kindness in return.
It was only as populations soared over the last 20,000 years that we were forced into conflict, as hungry hunter-gatherer bands started raiding and pillaging.
The earliest known war graves, in Jebel Sahaba near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, are no more than 14,000 years old.
Our inner moral voice was still a hindrance to cruelty.
We need to justify our actions to avoid stress and cognitive dissonance. We are not sociopaths, but we are natural-born narrators. Convincing ourselves that we were good made it so much easier to be bad.
There are many good reasons why people voted to “take back control” from the European Union, including the lack of direct democratic accountability within the Commission, the loss of national sovereignty to a nascent political super-state, and the bloated inefficiency of EU bureaucracy.
But fears of an influx of Muslim refugees also influenced the outcome, with 48 per cent of respondents in an IPSOS-Mori Poll citing immigration as the most important issue facing the UK on the eve of the referendum.
The subtext of the Nazi rise to power was also the fear of immigrants during a period of austerity.
In 1928, little more than one in forty people had voted for them.
Four years later, their vote rose fourteen-fold to 37 per cent – easily the highest share of the vote of any party in the Reichstag.
Seventeen of the twenty-five points in the Nazi programme, first promulgated in February 1920, focused on the rights and obligations of German citizens, and the corresponding limits on foreign immigrants.
Far from feeling homeless, as Hannah Arendt thought, the 17.3 million Germans who voted Nazi in 1933 were likely to identify with traditional cultural norms.
Nazis polled badly in diverse, cosmopolitan cities.
Only 13 per cent of the urban unemployed voted for them.
The Nazi heartland was the small provincial city or rural village, among senior citizens, working-class ‘tories’, self-made entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, engineers and civil servants.
The demographics were similar to Leave voters. The vast majority of Brexiteers are neither racists nor fanatics, but then, neither were many who voted for the NSDAP.
Less than one in twenty were members of the Party. Within months, Germany was a dictatorship.
Brexit saw the rise of populist rhetoric about vassaldom and surrender, presided over by a government which abided by international law, except when they repudiated freshly signed treaties “in very specific and limited ways”, but thankfully British democratic institutions have been robust.
The Daily Mail, which supported “taking back control”, was heavily criticized when it ran mugshots of High Court judges in a front-page rogues’ gallery, under the headline “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, because they had the temerity to rule that the British Parliament was sovereign over the Executive in Brexit negotiations; producing a chilling effect on the separation of powers that was more Orwell than Ibsen.
Ben Okri once wrote: “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick.”
The outworkings of Brexit have led to concerns about the rise of English nationalism and the breakup of the UK, but more than anything Brexit is a cautionary tale about what happens when liberal élites ignore dissenting voices, or label the people left behind as a basket of deplorables. We all suffer from biases we are only dimly aware of, but we need to reach beyond our biases to have difficult conversations.
People with legitimate fears for their future need hope, but in the absence of hope, people will respond to fear.
There is no room for complacency.
The Withdrawal Agreement is done, but tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol remain.
We have to work together in friendship to minimise friction and recognise the enormous amount we have in common.
The solidarity shown during a global pandemic should put our problems into perspective.
As Vasily Grossman, who witnessed the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union and the concentration camps of the Third Reich, said: “Kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being.”
The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature by Éamonn Toland is published by Liberties Press and is available to buy now