Lord William Wallace writes….News from the front of the Culture War

It’s worth reading the right-wing media to try to understand where the policies our opponents are advancing come from. In the Sunday Telegraph some weekends ago Simon Heffer was encouraging Michael Gove to continue to fight ‘the Blob’, which for Heffer includes the staff of the NHS as well as school and university teachers, most civil servants and others in the public sector, theatres, museums and charities, the BBC (of course), and the clergy of the Church of England – a large chunk of our population, possibly even a majority of its university graduates. On September 26th Eric Kaufmann warned the Telegraph’s elderly readers that ‘Britain’s education system and cultural institutions have succeeded in shaping the worldview of millenials, which will make conservatism unelectable.’ The task for Conservatives is therefore ‘to change the direction of the culture’ before too many young people have been indoctrinated by ‘woke’ radicals.

Robert Shrimsley’s Op-Ed in the Financial Times in July was headlined ‘Tory culture war is fight for a new establishment.’ He notes that ideological Tories realise that ‘the Conservatives have lost the establishment and with it many of the shapers of society’s values’. He adds the judiciary and big business to their perceived progressive ‘blob’. He discerns ‘an attempt to create an alternative establishment, …[recognising] that much of what happens in society happens outside of government and in places where conservatives feel outnumbered.’

The struggle to regain ground stretches from reorienting the BBC, through reshaping cultural institutions through public appointments, to bringing Britain’s universities under tighter control. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary demonstrates that public appointments will be a central focus for coming battles. The next chairs of OFCOM, of the Charity Commission, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others will be chosen with careful regard to their ‘anti-woke’ stance. The Equalities Commission and the Office for Students have already been reoriented; British Museum trusteeships have been fought over, and other similar bodies closely examined.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, now moving through the Commons, carries the culture war into what the ideological right sees as the driving force of woke culture. The Policy Exchange papers which provided much of the rationale for the Bill asserted that 80% of university staff are ‘on the left’ – defined as not having voted either Conservative or UKIP in the 2017 election. (Given that well over 20% of staff in many universities are not British citizens, this is a highly dubious claim.) It will require universities to demonstrate ‘diversity of opinion’ in appointments and promotions, permitting aggrieved applicants as well as speakers denied an audience to sue universities for redress.

Much of this is derivative of American culture wars. The Times, actively stoking cultural fears, has published two-page spreads on the dismissal of a single American professor and on ‘How woke totalitarians conquered America’ (September 11th and 18th). Isolated examples of ‘cancel culture’ in British universities are portrayed as evidence that the entire system is at risk. Arguments over history syllabuses and statues are given extensive publicity, with single incidents blown up into major confrontations. The sometimes-bitter clashes between radical feminists and trans activists are weaponised as ‘the illiberal left’ suppressing diversity of opinion. Most liberals don’t feel particularly ‘woke’, let alone considering themselves members of a hegemonic metropolitan liberal elite. But these cultural warriors see themselves as fighting an existential battle to regain intellectual hegemony. Munira Mirza, the former Revolutionary Communist who is now Boris Johnson’s key adviser on these issues, has quoted Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist theorist of intellectual hegemony, on the current struggle.

The challenge for the Conservatives will be to consolidate their support among the elderly and socially conservative without losing too many of the young and educated – as Kaufman was warning. The challenge for liberals is to consolidate the support of professionals and graduates without losing the sympathy of non-graduate voters or being trapped into sounding patronising about the less-educated. There’s an anti-intellectual streak running through the Conservative Party, a distrust not only of experts but of all those who encourage independent thinking. We have to be clear, tough, but not over-intellectual in our response.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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9 Comments

  • ‘The Blob’ is a reference to a 1958 sci-fi movie starring Steve Mc Queen. It had a revival as a cult film in the 1980’s and was re-made in 1988 . Blob was an alien which crashed down to earth and dissolved anything in its path as it grew. Original was part of the cold war ethos of facing up to secret corrosive enemies.

  • The right do like to try to find as many examples as possible of cancel culture and “political correctness gone mad” as they can and exploit them for political gain.

    However the left duly oblige by providing them with plenty of such examples. Cancel culture is real as acknowledged by many who are not on the right including Tony Blair and Barack Obama.

    Why would we want to side with the ultra-left on this? Many of their targets are great figures of the enlightenment and liberal history. Let’s be neutral in the culture wars.

  • Paul Barker 30th Sep '21 - 2:44pm

    This is a good piece but I think it overstates the newness of Tory attempts to harness Culture – Section 28 & the “Cones Hotline” were both attempts to tap into prejudice & appeal to the “common man” – both failed utterly.

    Attempts to import American politics are also likely to fail because the USA is so different.

  • William Wallace 30th Sep '21 - 8:33pm

    Paul Barker: Margaret Thatcher in her last year in office tried to change the history syllabus, too – following the demands of intellectual counter-revolutionaries like Andrew Roberts and Charles Moore. Happily, the chair she chose for the exercise preferred reasoned argument to ideology (and consulted Conrad Russell and me on the issue…) Student protest isn’t new, either – though current attacks from the right suggest that it is. My wife can still sing the protest song from the demonstration to block the South African Ambassador speaking at Oxford University in 1963.

  • Cynical theories abound, sadly too many political organisations, quangos charities, higher education establishments and private companies are terrified of them, terrified of an accusation of one phobia or another. ‘Woke Inc’ is a highly amusing and well referenced critique of critical theory and the woke movement.
    My organisation recently made unconscious bias training mandatory, I was facing a disciplinary for refusing to attend, so reluctantly, I did and demonstrated to the trainer how easy it was for me, or anyone who understands how the test works to be bias towards black, white gay, straight, trans, anti trans and so on, it’s not difficult to buck the test once you know how it works. The trainer was horrified.
    Obviously I have bias consciousness and unconscious, the test and much of the training is biased towards proving you are biased against x minority group.
    According to my latest test I have significant bias in favour of black and trans communities, in fact I do not.
    Victims aren’t we all?

  • David Evershed 1st Oct '21 - 12:40pm

    Lib Dems should be leading the call for free speech, especially in universities where some students and staff want to curb debate about some issues and only hear one side.

    Have we forgotten John Stuart Mill “On Liberty”.

  • Totally agree with @David Evershed about leading the call for free speech.

    Interesting article, but I fear it’s missing an understanding that there is actually a very real problem in parts of UK society and increasingly in many of our institutions with cancel culture, with intolerance of non-‘woke’ beliefs, and with left-wing attempts to rewrite history to favour their own political agendas. To my mind, a genuinely liberal approach ought to involve accepting that this is a problem that needs to be tackled, and therefore that at least some of the reforms the Government are proposing may actually be genuinely required.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 1st Oct '21 - 9:18pm

    @ Simon R,

    Left-wing attempts to rewrite history? You forget that history was, traditionally, written by the winners. So, as an example, the Boer War, where you hear very little about concentration camps and much about the heroism of outnumbered British troops (armed with guns and artillery as opposed to spears).

    If reflecting both sides of the story is left-wing rewriting, then perhaps you ought to acknowledge that your view of history is that of the winners.

    And what you call “cancel culture” might just as easily be called “holding those in power to account”. The justice system, politics and the professions are still representative of a ruling class and the power to boycott is a means of levelling the playing field somewhat. And it only works if enough people get behind such a campaign.

    I don’t even see that as left-wing, merely a reflection that actions have consequences, as they should. But then, this Government doesn’t really believe in taking responsibility for its actions, does it?

  • @Mark Valladares. I’m well aware that history is usually written by the winners. However, in the UK we also have a very strong academic tradition of continually studying, analysing and reassessing history, which should allow academics to account for ‘winners-bias’. Look at almost any history book written, say, 20 years ago, and compare with almost any history book written, say, 100 years ago and you’ll see vast differences in tone and content, which reveal that process at work. What’s happening today is very different: It’s an attempt to rewrite history that is primarily motivated not by a genuine desire to better understand history or apply modern scholarship techniques, but by a desire to ensure that history matches what identity-politics/etc. campaigners have already decided history should say. And not only to do that, but to silence anyone who disagrees by branding them racist/colonialist/whatever-o-phobic. That’s really not how history should be studied, and IMO it’s not something that any party that calls itself ‘liberal’ should be supporting.

    the Boer War, where you hear very little about concentration camps” That does not match my experience – the concentration camps featured very prominently in what I learned about the Boer war (and that was many years ago).

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