Imagine a political party that stood for election on a platform of Pissing Everyone Off. The Five-Year-Plan is to increase national irritation by 15%, paranoid ranting by 23% and make family-get-togethers 30% more fraught by 2029. MAKE BRITAIN ANGRY AGAIN, read the baseball caps. The choice of baseball caps — an annoyingly non-British form of headwear — is deliberate. It is part of an ambitious drive to increase stupid arguments about things that don’t really matter by 45% year-on-year.
Oh and this will be a tech-savvy Government too. Due to social distancing/general-issue 21st century atomisation (it’s rare these days that we actually get to meet the people we’re encouraged to view as our enemies), we can expect interventions in our waking thoughts too. You know your interior monologue? The narrator in your head who aims to bring coherence to the largely random events in your life? Yeah, that guy is going to go mental. He’s going to be arguing with invisible strangers ALL THE TIME. You’re going to hate it.
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If briefings by certain Conservative MPs are to be believed, cultural warfare as outlined above could form the bedrock of the party’s appeal to the nation in 2024. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine, either, since we have been living in a pale version of this nightmare since at least 2016, its escalation foreshadowed by a succession of not-quite stories that have pissed people off these past few weeks.
You know the sort of thing. The arguments about Rule, Britannia! at the Proms this summer (reheated just in time for the appointment of a new BBC director general, Tim Davie). The whole breaking the law interlude. The banning of “anti-capitalist” teaching in schools. Priti Patel’s “blue-sky” plan to send asylum seekers to the mid-Atlantic, or else repel them back to France by firing waves at their boats or using nets to clog their propellers. The appointment of the former Australian PM Tony Abbott as trade negotiator. The mooting of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in a sort of national censor role at Ofcom and former Telegraph editor Charles Moore as chair of the BBC despite his well publicised enthusiasm for defunding the BBC. As The Times reports, Downing Street wants to “‘whack’ the BBC, bash the impartial civil service, biff the judiciary and wage a ‘war on woke’”.
That Moore later dropped out of the BBC race is sort of the point. These have the feel of manufactured provocations, primarily designed to distract and divide. If one group of people go: “Argh, seriously what now?” and another group of people go: “In your face, you lot!” — well, great. It’s Government by newspaper columnist, for newspaper columnists.
And now, with the ludicrous — sorry, let’s be civil — the former actor Laurence Fox launching his own political party, many Conservatives clearly fear being outflanked on such important issues as the depiction of Indian Sikh soldiers in the First World War movie, 1917.
“We should start the conversation on British values and lead it,” one MP in a former Labour seat told the i newspaper. “It’s that or the current approach where we end up having to talk about how rubbish we are at testing. It’s an obvious choice”. Brexit will soon play itself out in some form or other. Coronavirus response has been a failure. So, in the absence of any grander vision, it’s — wait for it — “unconscious bias training, non-binary pronouns, the renaming of institutions and micro aggressions.” And if these seem like marginal issues compared to, say, jobs or the NHS, the Polish election was recently fought and won on the issue of “LGBT ideology”.
And for those Tories who feel that Boris Johnson isn’t giving issues like the singing of Rule, Britannia! at the Proms the attention that it deserves, there is the comfort that they, as individuals, can make a difference via their Twitter accounts “It’s something we can do easily,” says another Tory MP. “You don’t need to call out woke madness through a vote in the Commons, you can do it in a sentence.”
We don’t really need to get into the weeds here on whether the BBC really is a nest of Marxist post-modernists, or whether poppy-wearing should be enforceable by law. The thing about all of this stuff is: it’s bottomless. There will always be someone who can be demonised, some non-issue that can somehow be made to dominate headlines. When it comes to the BBC, pretty much every editorial or critical judgment can be portrayed as being biased. There is no way of appeasing the beast. Eventually, objective reality will be found to have a Left-wing bias — and war will be declared on that, too. And in the meantime, there will always be the equal and opposite loudmouth on the other side, spoiling for a fight, relishing the attention.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why certain Conservatives see fanning these flames as a winning strategy. Demographically, the party looks doomed. The coalition that delivered Boris Johnson his 80-seat majority at last year’s election is unstable. The Tories have always relied on an alliance of white shirts in Middle England and muddy-wellies in the Shires. Now, there are the former Labour voters in the “Red Wall” towns to appease too. These factions have little in common besides Brexit. And even on Brexit let’s not kid ourselves that all those former miners voted “Leave” because they wanted London bankers to have an easier time of it. Brexit was unicorns to some, rainbows to others, such was its beauty. But for its sponsors, it did have the subsidiary benefit of flushing out a whole cadre of new enemies to add to European bureaucrats and immigrants: trendy celebrities, the media, students, young people in general, civil servants, lawyers, teachers, etc.
These enemies will remain in place after Brexit is concluded. And so, as Philip Collins recently noted: “What we can expect… are pointless attacks on institutions such as the BBC, the civil service and the judiciary. There will have to be plenty of the populist, anti-conservative nonsense that leads Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, to say he will quit if the rule of law is broken ‘in an unacceptable way’. The absurdity of this distinction is what happens when you lose the issue that holds your party together.”
In his 2003 essay, The Brain-Dead Megaphone, the novelist George Saunders described the process by which America succumbed to Culture War. He asks you to imagine a room full of people quietly conversing — and a guy who marches in with a megaphone and begins ranting. Whether or not you share with Megaphone Guy’s priorities or agree with his take on things, the mere fact of his standing there, ranting, soon begins to affect your behaviour too. Your responses “are predicated not on his intelligence, his unique experience or the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice”.
You can’t not have an opinion about the Megaphone, is the point. It is “shrill, incurious, ranting and agenda-driven,” Saunders writes. “It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves…”
There’s something a little quaint about reading the essay in 2020 — I mean, George: meet Donald — but given the amnesia that so many have succumbed to since the internet became such a dominant force in our lives, it’s a handy reminder that the complaints that we make about social media companies are nothing new. Saunders saw the Megaphone as the composite of hundreds of voices from people we don’t know that arrive via “high-tech sources” — but he’s mostly talking about radio and 24-hour news media, and the shift away from a public-interest model of news and towards a corporate model. Everything is content. What leads the news agenda is not what’s most important, but whatever arouses the strongest emotions. Same as what gets the most clicks.
Culture War is clearly great for Twitter and Facebook, whose CEOs have long known that anger and division drive engagement. It’s also great for anyone looking to launch a talk radio station or news channel. Soon, if Ofcom rules can be bent far enough, Britain will have two Fox News clones, designed to create/feed this apparent desire for “opinionated news”: GB News (whose American billionaire founder considers the BBC a “disgrace”) and a Rupert Murdoch-funded rival. Culture War can clearly be a good short-term win for a Government that wants to distract from its inability to deliver what it has promised.
But long-term, it is hard to see how making Britain angrier and stupider — since this is basically what this is — serves any of the causes Conservatives claim to stand for. Among the things that make me actually proud to be British are how little we feel the need for jingoistic flag-waving; how civil the average group of British strangers is to one another; how disinclined to radicalism most British people are; how respectful of difference we are, by and large. I am perpetually struck, too, at the contrast between the furious, simplistic, tightly formatted debates that take place on social media, radio and TV — and the nuanced, subtle positions that most people hold even on issues as supposedly contentious as the Gender Recognition Act or even Brexit.
I’d argue further that to seek to escalate these sorts of arguments is profoundly anti-conservative. It erodes the institutions that actually give us some sense of national cohesion. (Try: “Defund Gardeners World”… or “Cancel David Attenborough” as a slogan and see how far you get.) It pits rural cousins against city cousins, fathers against daughters, undermining families, communities, the country as a whole.
And it accepts, as collateral damage, our mental health — turning our sovereign thought processes into a battle ground. One in four people suffer from some form of mental health issue according to the WHO; Covid has made the burden far heavier. It’s clearly hard to disentangle the precise effects of digital technology, Brexit, Trump, climate change, lockdown, etc on mental wellbeing, but there are high correlations between loneliness and belief in conspiracy theories, and between social isolation and extremism. In effect what the Culture Warriors are saying is, whatever it is, let’s make it all worse. Let’s reformat the electorate into a series of trigger points and reflexes… for what? For some shareholder’s bottom line? Because Dominic Cummings doesn’t actually have any better ideas? The brazen entitlement! We will make you think of us. How about fighting the next election on, I don’t know, the NHS? Or green jobs? Or mental health?
My point is: if you polled pretty much anyone: “Would you like public life to become more angry and stupid? Would you like to fall out with your aunt? Would you like more of your thoughts to be dominated by dumb shit that when you look it up isn’t acutally even a thing?” then almost all of us would say no. If we are to have Culture Wars, we need conscientious objectors, peace campaigners, impartial observers. We need to actively seek out things we can agree on. But we also need to remain vigilant. As a Belgian friend reminded me this week, there is something worse than Government that starts floating ludicrous ideas in order to distract and enrage. A Government that starts implementing ludicrous ideas in order to distract and enrage.