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.
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.