Sorry, Britain’s culture wars aren’t going away
An FT columnist makes a strange — and flawed — argument
Henry Mance tells us that Britons are tiring of culture war issues and the economic questions that preoccupy the FT’s readers will now be our main meal. ‘Perhaps the culture war couldn’t match up to actual war in Ukraine,’ he begins. ‘Perhaps identity politics felt contrived compared with the cost of living squeeze.’ As evidence, he claims that GB News and TalkTV, with their paltry one million weekly viewers, have ‘floundered.’ BoJo and Brexit are old news while taking the knee before football matches and mainstreaming slavery in museums is now ‘settled policy.’
The claim that the culture wars are a distraction is a popular progressive trope whose surface plausibility lures in many otherwise reasonable people. It has a ring of plausibility to it, but those who accept it are serving as useful idiots for the radicals who are waging an all-out culture war in our institutions, from museums and publishing houses to schools and universities. Because these cultural socialists largely control the normative climate in organisations, elected government — alongside the law — is the only way the majority can push back to defend historic British values of freedom of conscience, free expression, equal treatment, reason and national identity.
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In a limited sense Mance is right. There is a cost of living squeeze caused by a once-in-a-lifetime war and the effects of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. The economy really is the top issue for voters.
The problem for Mance is that this is not the 1980s. There is precious little difference between the economic philosophy of Labour and the Tories. While Mance would like us to fixate on these minor differences and the managerial competence of each party, electoral choice is about much more than stewardship of the economy.
Mance claims immigration is now a non-issue. In fact it is the second-most important concern of Tory voters, with 44% placing it in their top three, ahead of healthcare.
To illustrate that the culture war is settled, he bizarrely presents a graph based on Bobby Duffy’s King’s study showing the exponential takeoff in culture war stories in the media, but proceeds, in a series of weakly-evidence paragraphs beginning ‘perhaps’ to say that the tide is turning.
Survey work I have conducted (to be published soon) shows that British voters are about 75% as divided along partisan lines as their American counterparts on these issues. Few Britons back extreme progressive positions such as teaching white children that they are oppressors or permitting trans women into women’s sports. However, Britons divide considerably along partisan lines over questions such as the boundaries of acceptable speech, whether Britain is a racist country and their appraisal of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Prior to 2016, few Britons cared about the EU. In America, culture war issues around cancel culture and Critical Race Theory were similarly absent from politics. However, unlike assessments over who can best manage the economy, these are values questions which divide the electorate and have considerable mobilising potential.
In Britain, culture wars issues are a middling concern, with around one in five Tory voters now ranking them a top three issue. This is not at the level of the one in two Republicans who do so in America, but it would be premature to assume Britain will avoid the path taken by America. Questions such as the definition of a woman and critical race theory have, for the first time, featured in political conversations around the selection of the next Prime Minister.
Because cultural questions are now the main dividing line between the parties, and because progressive activists in Britain have been nearly as relentless as their American cousins in their quest for cultural revolution, we should not expect a different outcome. When the unusual confluence of Covid and Ukraine abate, and the economy settles down, cultural questions are likely to rise in importance, much as they did prior to the Brexit vote when economic concerns were at a low ebb.
Tensions over whether to permit activists to recast British culture and history as shameful and to centre race and sexuality across all spheres of life are, like the question of leaving the EU, likely to only grow in importance in the years ahead.
Exactly right! The salience of these issues will continue to grow, hence Kemi is the only viable candidate.
It’s been a long while since I’ve been back to Britain, but even from across the Atlantic I get a sense that something has drastically changed over there – that Britain has become an informant culture brought about by social media and covid lockdowns, and where the police are more concerned with what you say than with what you do. I may be wrong. I haven’t been there for a while.
Here in the States the culture wars are largely accredited to stuffy old reactionary Republicans, when in actual fact it seems to be the progressives who are intent on heating things up. Transgender ideology and critical race theory being taught in elementary schools has created a huge backlash among parents. Is the same happening in Britain, and if so, are parents concerned enough to do anything about it? In the US, parents tend to be extremely protective of their children and will go to great (sometimes exaggerated) lengths to protect them. In Europe I’ve noticed that parents tend to trust the state more and seem less concerned about what is being taught in schools.
This was the defining moment for many parents in the US:
Most people just crack on with their lives here at the moment and see the whole woke thing as a kind of fringe activity, like being a member of CAMRA or the CND.
However the ideology has most certainly infiltrated the schools and universities.
I was a very proud dad when my daughter was sent a letter of commendation from her school recently, except I couldn’t understand it because she was referred to throughout in the third person plural. Then the penny dropped…
“However the ideology has most certainly infiltrated the schools and universities”
A massive understatement. The law has been compromised beyond words (‘hate crime’, ‘human ‘rights’ ‘, this or that ‘phobia’). Britain has been functionally Communist for about a decade, elections now being marginal to this major cultural shift, perpetrated equally by Government.
“In Europe I’ve noticed that parents tend to trust the state more and seem less concerned about what is being taught in schools.”
I suspect that most British parents have no idea what their children are being taught. Probably, they fondly imagine that they are being taught what their parents were taught: Trust is a British vice as well as a British virtue.
To address your first point: Many aspects of British life have been hollowed out. The buildings are still standing, but behind the facade there is less of substance than you remember. Those people who grumble that things don’t seem to work anymore are right – Things don’t work. The more successful revolutions tend to be like this: You don’t notice that you have had one until the bills arrive.
America was essentially the only country in the world that shut down our schools for over a year. The one positive was that parents finally got a window (albeit a tiny laptop shaped one) into what their children were actually being taught. And they were appalled.
Without that, Americans would be behaving just like Britons: “Sure, I read postings about some teachers saying crazy stuff, but that’s just Facebook, and I’m sure that’s not in Johnny’s school.” Apathy. The enemy of sanity.
I’m not sure whether I should feel comforted by this or not.
Julian Farrows wrote: “ Here in the States the culture wars are largely accredited to stuffy old reactionary Republicans, when in actual fact it seems to be the progressives who are intent on heating things up.”
You’re certainly right about that. The surprising thing to me is that so many people here don’t understand it.
After all, California would love to force Texas to be more like California, but Texas has no interest in forcing California to be more Texas-like. Same with New York State vis a vis Florida.
The gun debate, the abortion dispute and Voter ID all make who the aggressor is crystal clear. The progressive side insists on unanimity; the conservatives prefer variety.
Yes things have drastically changed in ALL manner of ways here in the UK. Sadly for the worst You can almost pinpoint the time and place……the statue of Edward Colston going into the water by thugs in Bristol , the advent of BLM and everyone’s obsession with social media! As for the children of the UK, yes , if parents take time to look into exactly what is now being taught in primary schools, they would be aghast. I would suggest anyone here that does not believe……should check out ‘The School Gate Campaign’. I researched what was to be taught because my granddaughter who is 9 was due to start this ‘indoctrination’. Parents are being misled by schools saying ‘it’s ok they are only being taught about growing up’. In a PHSE lesson. However some schools are going much further……they are introducing the transgender/gay culture in almost every lesson. One element of school material occurred in ‘geography’. The question the children were given was “can you suggest a hotel in a holiday destination where two men can go on their honeymoon”. Another was in a music lesson….all the gay composers of the last century. I have nothing against the gay or transgender community….their lifestyle their choice! But mine and that of my family is a Christian /heterosexual family life which is gradually being demonised for the benefit of the minorities as indeed almost all UK society is now geared to minority rule! The exception of course…….politics, where the majority then suddenly becomes necessary!
Just reposting a comment on what is being taught in U.K. schools: They are not just swallowing it they are teaching it. A delightful year 9 boy told me there are eleven different genders and babies are not born either male or female but are on a spectrum. I was shocked and tried reasoning with him but he was adamant it was true because his biology teacher told him. He attends an academically outstanding state comprehensive. When I broached the subject a few weeks later, he said there aren’t eleven different genders, there are seventy two. Truth matters to this boy and he couldn’t deal with the thought his biology teacher was wrong, he also said he doesn’t want to offend anyone so clearly it has been drilled into him, he mustn’t offend certain groups of people.
Hear, hear, to just about everything the author says. However, I just wish it were obviously true that
cultural questions are now the main dividing line between the parties
The way in which the ostensibly Conservative Party has supported endless legislation of a “progressivist” nature, underlines the fact that there is no party-based conservative opposition to the divisive presuppositions of identity politics and its poisonous spawn.
Economic issues can and will be dealt with, difficult and painful as that might be for so many of us. Sure, the current economic problems will leave a legacy. But the so-called culture wars are far more insidious, far more dangerous, because progressivist utopianism masquerades as virtue. It poisons the mind and renders those who adopt it (often without realising that is what they are doing) incapable of serious critical reflection.
Mr Kaufmann’s well-argued article makes me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essay “On Stupidity”, written when Nazi propaganda and persecution were at their height and had seduced an entire nation. One does not have to agree with Bonhoeffer’s explicitly Christian solution to that crisis; but the description he gives of those who had been seduced still stands, with astonishing force, as a warning to us all about the dangers of capture by ideology. And that is the subject of this modern commentary on the Bonhoeffer article.
Oh.my.gosh. Why does America sneeze and Europe catches a cold?
STOP importing our culture. STOP culturally imperializing yourselves.
You say it is bad, but then lap it up willingly and greedily. Britain. Europe. Get. A. Grip. Let us drown alone, without taking you down. Please.
Prior to 2016, few Britons cared about the EU.
I’m not saying Eric Kaufman is wrong (the graph linked to supports his assertion), but if so, why did Cameron deem it so important to promise a referendum on membership in the 2015 Conservative manifesto?
He thought that an easy referendum win would silence the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories. It was an internal squabble which became a national issue via the referendum.
Thanks – rings a bell, now you mention it!
He misses the third person of the trinity: gender, race, and climate
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