A new report fails to mention the role of progressive activists
The culture war is a Right-wing plot to win votes, and is dividing Britain. This has become the progressive Left’s go-to narrative, reflected in the Fabian Society’s recent report on culture wars in Britain. Despite the nod to extremism of both Left and Right, the report concentrates its fire on the conservative and classical liberal media, alongside Conservative politicians like Priti Patel. Its solution is cancel culture: ‘We need…to extract social penalties…even if the professional or political penalties are not yet forthcoming. Shame and social sanction are powerful tools.’ Paradoxically, it then proceeds to endorse pluralism. In other words, a diversity of opinions, as long as they are the correct ones.
The report’s mantra spilled forth from at least seven opposition MPs last night during the second reading of the Academic Freedom Bill, which passed 367 to 216. ‘The government must end its divisive culture war, stop stoking the fires of hate,’ accused Leicester East Labour MP Claudia Webbe. ‘Today the government is trying to manufacture a row about free speech on campus,’ charged Nottingham South Labour MP Lillian Greenwood. For Labour grandee John McDonnell the bill is ‘a propaganda exercise in this government’s persistent propagation of the culture war as many members have suggested.’ The playbook was clear: duck the glaring problem of chilling effects for political dissenters on campus which myself and others have amply documented in survey data by accusing the government of cynically stoking division.
This is the classic example of ‘it’s only a culture war when the other side do it’. The Fabian report, like other Left-wing critiques of the culture war, fails to honestly reckon with the role of progressive activists in elite institutions like universities, museums and schools, who started the culture war by pushing far Left beliefs like ‘decolonisation’, microaggressions and critical race theory. When conservatives and classical liberals argue for contextual balance, reason and free speech, progressives accuse them of ginning up the culture war while fanning the flames of racism, transphobia and much else.
As a result of the post-2015 ‘Great Awokening’ of progressive identity activism — as Matthew Goodwin and Frank Luntz note — the culture war is becoming more electorally important in the West, including Britain. While many don’t understand what Critical Race Theory or wokeness is, they have a view on whether a statue of Winston Churchill should be torn down, if schoolchildren should be told to confess their white privilege, or whether footballers should take the knee.
Consider that, among those who say they know what wokeness is, 78% of Conservatives disapprove of it compared to just 13% of Labour voters. There are partisan divisions on these issues, even if more modest than in America. For instance, 78% of Conservative voters think Black Lives Matter has increased racial tensions in Britain compared to 40% of Labour voters. It’s true that we don’t yet see anything in Britain comparable to the yawning partisan chasm in white American opinion on Black Lives Matter, where Democrats support it 86-3 while Republicans oppose it 4-86. But data I have seen suggest UK Tory voters have a dramatically more negative appraisal of Black Lives Matter than Labour voters.
Ultimately the only way to reduce the temperature of the culture wars is for elite institutions to change course to better reflect the diversity of political views in the country.