Are we ready to fight the Culture War?

Two op-eds in the Sunday Telegraph in recent weeks have hailed Ron de Santis, Governor of Florida and strongest alternative Republican candidate for the US Presidency in 2024 to Donald Trump, as showing the way forward for British Conservatives: to fight the culture war as vigorously as possible. It looks as if the Conservatives are already doing so.

The whole point of culture wars is to distract the attention of voters from economic difficulties and concerns about inequality by attacking ‘the liberal establishment’ which – it is claimed – is betraying the instincts and traditions of ordinary people. Migration, friendliness with foreigners, intellectual sophistication (instead of ‘common sense’ and ‘what you know in your gut’), concerns about diversity, gender, rewriting history and what used to be called political correctness and is now called ‘woke’ make up the mix.

De Santis is a graduate from Yale University, where he now claims that he was ‘taught that communism was superior’, and Harvard Law School, who is now attacking the autonomy of Floridan universities. He’s tightened state laws on abortion, thrown doubt on climate change, resisted the Covid lockdown and removed tax privileges for the ‘woke’ Disney Corporation. That’s the example that many Tory strategists want to follow.

Over the past week we have seen the political technologists of Tory political strategy take over from the reasonable face Rishi Sunak has been presenting. ‘Stop the boats’ is a three-word slogan borrowed from Australia rather than the Trump phrasebook. A ‘new’ deal has been launched which is much the same as last year’s anti-migrant initiative, with no clearer indication of how its targets can be reached or those who manage to reach the UK removed. At Prime Ministers’ Questions on March 8th a ‘red-wall’ Tory MP raised the threat of ‘graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner and 72 genders’ to children in English schools, and the Prime Minister promised an ‘urgent review’ into sex education. And the following day Conservative HQ circulated a digital message in Suella Braverman’s name blaming “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour party” for blocking her attempts to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across the Channel.

The myth of a dominant liberal establishment, composed of civil servants, BBC journalists, university staff, school teachers, doctors and nurses, and of course lefty lawyers (and judges) is a central theme in this culture-war fantasy. It enables right-wingers to present themselves as outsiders, on the side of the ignored working class, with only the financial support of hedge fund billionaires and the voices of the Telegraph, Times, GB and Talk News to keep them going. A related myth has been developed, most explicitly by David Goodhart of Policy Exchange in his book ‘The Road to Somewhere’, that intellectuals and liberals are unpatriotic, loving foreign food, foreign films, holidays and friends, whereas the City financiers and property developers who have underwritten the Conservative Party and UKIP are deeply embedded in our national community – in spite of their offshore tax arrangements and their Caribbean hideaways. It’s characteristic of the falsity of this populist argument that the two newspaper groups that have promoted it most strongly have been owned respectively by brothers who commuted between the Channel Islands and Monaco and by a British resident who claimed non-dom status for many years.

The culture warriors want the detested ‘liberal establishment’ to respond with outrage and assertions of intellectual superiority – so they can claim to stand for common sense and ordinary people. The populist claim that ‘they are patronising you’ with complicated arguments was wielded effectively in the Referendum campaign, and still feeds resentments amongst Leave-supporting voters. We should resist, as far as we can, responding in the terms that they are trying to provoke.

The obvious and positive response is to emphasise that the future of the NHS, the quality of state education, fairness in tax and spending, and the quality of democracy are all more important than the issues they focus on. As counter-attack, ridicule of rich people pretending to be on the side of the left-behind against the establishment is a powerful weapon. Focus on corruption in the Conservative Party and its funding, on the chaos and incompetence that has marked this government since 2015, above all on the widening of inequality and the deterioration of public services, will strike home with voters.

Above all, we need to avoid the trap into which many American ‘liberals’ have fallen, of answering their intolerance of alternative views with an intolerance on our own side of dissent. We are defending liberal democracy against illiberalism, reasoned argument against prejudice.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Well said, William.

    William, you say, “The whole point of culture wars is to distract the attention of voters from economic difficulties and concerns about inequality by attacking ‘the liberal establishment”…… Indeed.

    And so, it can be said, is the current Tory campaign attacking Gary Lineker’s right to free speech. It’s time the Lib Dem leadership echoed Ian Wright and Alan Shearer in giving their support to Mr Lineker.

  • Maybe if the ‘progressives’ didn’t want to overturn the result of the largest democratic vote in the UK had ever had – we’d be in a much stronger position in highlighting this so called ‘culture war’….It came across as elitist …As regards Lineker – I’m all for free speech & it extends to people you disagree with vehemently …
    Of course outside the Westminster bubble & twitterati life’s different – what we think is maybe irrelevant or a distraction – when the people have their say at the ballot box – reality starts to bite…

  • Tristan WARD 11th Mar '23 - 2:15pm

    @Martin Grey

    Is Brexit working well for you? It’s not working well for the country. We were right to call for another vote from the people to check whether they were sure about doing it.

  • @ Martin Grey, “Of course outside the Westminster bubble & twitterati life’s different”

    Err, no. Not quite Mr Grey. Gary Lineker currently at the Leicester City football match at the Kingpower stadium …. somewhat “outside the Westminster bubble & twitterati”… was greeted by hundreds of fans holding up banners in his support.

    As for your Brexit predilictions, and to quote the late Laurel & Hardy, that’s another fine mess…….. and certainly dragged Scotland (which voted overwhelmingly to remain) out against its will.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 11th Mar '23 - 5:41pm

    “Maybe if the ‘progressives’ didn’t want to overturn the result of the largest democratic vote in the UK had ever had – we’d be in a much stronger position in highlighting this so called ‘culture war’!”

    You are right. Pandering to bad policies and telling people want they want to hear regardless never has any bad long term consequences.

  • Martin Gray 11th Mar '23 - 6:47pm

    @David Raw … Scotland’s in the UK – it was a UK wide referendum..
    As for the govts immigration policy it will resonate with voters that gave Johnson an 80+ seat majority ..

    As for Brexit , it’s ironic that what people are calling for now – was deemed unacceptable in 2019 , and in doing so handed Johnson an election & the Brexit that followed …

  • If you are interested in Culture Wars then Jon Ronson’s excellent radio series, Things Fell Apart, still available from BBC Sounds, and on Spotify/Audible if you prefer, given a very insightful, and compassionate history of them.

    I disagree that the point of Culture Wars is to distract from important things, or that the phenomenon can be pinned on the right-wing, but I do think it’s a symptom of them that has been exploited deliberately by the right, and those of a more liberal persuasion have often fallen into the trap of making them worse while trying to make things better, often, as William states, by responding lazily to intolerance with a different brand of intolerance, and IMO accepting that any issue has just two points of view, with an us and them.

    The real problem with having sympathy for ‘both sides’ is not that one side is often very, very wrong, it’s that people think there are just two perspectives on any important issue.

  • William’s piece reminds us that passion can be combined with restraint and discipline when we are appalled by the ghastly nonsense of populist culture warriors.

  • George Thomas 12th Mar '23 - 12:32pm

    “The obvious and positive response is to emphasise that the future of the NHS, the quality of state education, fairness in tax and spending, and the quality of democracy are all more important than the issues they focus on.”

    I think there should be some acknowledgment that culture wars are given oxygen of key services struggling and ordinary people’s lives becoming more difficult.

    There are some really good reports on childcare at the moment which show that childcare is shutting down in more deprived areas, because free childcare payments by government don’t cover basic costs, with many private companies moving to more affluent areas. This is something which will solidify massive inequality in the UK and those in government will seek to find excuses for their failures.

    Or in other words, culture wars prompted and won Brexit vote, but people didn’t vote for Brexit because the services they needed were working sufficiently well and they as individuals had everything they needed.

    And parties of center ground denying things are becoming increasingly difficult, and have been since Thatcher and Regan, but centrists are the only logical thinkers around is just as much part of a culture war as anything else.

  • Lord Wallace is right that it is important to not give ammunition to the political right. Unfortunately many on the left seem to oblige by offering almost daily examples of taking wokeness too far which sustains the culture wars narrative.

    However, I don’t think that means we should stop opposing Brexit. I don’t understand what Martin Gray means by the “largest democratic vote in the UK” could you explain please?

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '23 - 5:00pm

    @Martin Gray: That poll is about 18 months old (as the date in the URL indicates), and it says nothing about how important the issue is in the minds of voters at the ballot box.
    Polling on this issue is fraught with difficulties, with two recent polls coming to contradictory conclusions.
    How the questions are worded makes a difference (cf a certain Yes MInister sketch), and Yes/No polls are vulnerable to “acquiescence bias”.
    What we can say with some confidence is that (a) support for Sunak’s boats policy is soft and thus might not stand up to proper scrutiny, and (b) the people most likely to support it AND base their voting decisions on it are among the least likely to vote for the Lib Dems.
    As for the “twitterati”, in general the people who shout the loudest on social media are the ones who go on about this sort of issue AND mostly have illiberal views on it. As another example, compare the interest in about trans issues among social media keyboard warriors and ordinary voters (who mostly thing “meh”).

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