A humble pamphlet at the Tory conference contains a winning formula
What does ‘winning the culture war’ look like? To some, keeping statues up. To others, maintaining the definitional boundaries between men and women.
To me, I think it would look something like Building Young Britannia, the pamphlet the YMCA were handing out at this week’s Conservative Party Conference.
The content is exactly what you’d expect of a third-sector organisation focusing on young people. But the aesthetic is eye-catching. Even after a decade in power, it’s unusual for a charity to deign to work this hard to appeal to the Right-wing eye.
For the Tories, there is a lesson here. There is more to any battle over the culture than a handful of high-profile pitched battles with their committed opponents. The fight for the Union depends on winning innumerable small battles over small things that lend a British shape to national life; the same is true for the party’s other values.
Boris Johnson’s determination towards a higher-spending vision of Conservatism increases even further his opportunities to do so. The State casts a long shadow over civic society, and not just through law and regulation. Organisations hoping to avail themselves of public funds have to appeal to those who gatekeep those funds. That gives ministers huge soft power.
What seems to be missing is the will to wield it, or a vision of what a more Conservative state (as opposed to merely a smaller state) would actually look like. Faced with a vast, professionally-organised lobby in the third sector, the Tories seem to often go onto a sort of ideological autopilot.
Contrast this with the way Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalists conduct themselves. Since taking power at Holyrood in 2011, the SNP have ruthlessly wielded patronage to subvert civic Scotland, elevating complacent yes-men and women whilst stifling anti-independence voices.
Pushing back against this is one reason that the UK Internal Market Act (Ukima) was so important: the new powers for London ministers to spend money in Scotland give the Government an opportunity to set up a counter-current of British patronage and curtail the First Minister’s power to wield her control of public funds against unionists.
But the case also highlights what can be done. If the Government’s mission is to revive a common sense of British nationhood, why should charities and other organisations that want public funds not be co-opted into that effort?
‘One Nation’ Conservatism is not just liberalism in a blue rosette. Implicit is the idea that you can’t deliver its vision of a more harmonious and better-ordered society whilst neglecting the ‘nation’ that underpins it. From the other side, there are probably few better ways to sell social programmes to Tory activists than place them in the context of a broader project of national renewal.
Doubtless there will be plenty of people in the third sector who dislike this. But then conservatives very often dislike progressive speech codes. Winning the culture war is overcoming that resistance. Building Young Britannia is a start.