Beginning to the See the Light: Culture Wars Special
‘There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief,
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief..’
This week’s demonstrations against legislation designed to outlaw the right demonstrate shows that parts of the country resemble a pressure cooker set to explode.
There have been several reports of the police ‘overreacting’, code for being violent.
This time the thugs in uniform will not find it so easy to hide behind choreographed evidence and denial as they did in the 1984 Battle of Orgreave (1). Now, almost everyone has a camera phone, meaning that photos and video can be posted on-line in real time. Even a fiercely right-wing press will be hard pressed to defend that.
As we have written before the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, is the governments latest project to stoke the fires of the ‘Culture Wars’. It is led by a Home Secretary, seeking her revenge on the Black Lives Matter (‘BLM’) marches of last summer.
As recently as last year, it was thought that the desire to fight a ‘culture war’ was limited to a small group of extremists. We should remember that populism requires on-going enemies that politicians can use to focus the ire of the electorate.
Whilst Brexit keeps giving in that respect it is in the past, meaning that a new target is required, hence the culture wars.
Typically, the subjects of his war are gender, equality, and climate change.
‘parts of the country resemble a pressure cooker set to explode’
Aside from the proposed legislation highlighted above, I want to start with where the government thinks we are on racial equality.
The much-delayed report by No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is the government’s official response to the racial justice movements connected to Black Lives Matter
The commission’s chairman, Dr Tony Sewell, said the report did not deny that racism exists in Britain, but there was no evidence ‘of actual institutional racism’.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘What we have seen is that the term ‘institutional racism’ is sometimes wrongly applied, and it’s been a sort of a catch-all phrase for micro-aggressions or acts of racial abuse. Also, people use it interchangeably – systematic racism, structural racism [are] just being used wrongly.’
The report openly rebuffs the arguments of the BLM movement, saying, ‘the well-meaning idealism of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence’.
In response race equality experts describing it as ‘extremely disturbing’ and offensive to black and minority ethnic key workers who have died in disproportionate numbers during the pandemic.
The document emphasises the academic achievements of children from minority ethnic backgrounds, saying that many students from these communities do as well or better than their white peers. As a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter UK responded, saying the report ‘fails to explore disproportionality in school exclusion, eurocentrism and censorship in the curriculum, or the ongoing attainment gap in higher education.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, the report overlooks disproportionality in the criminal justice system which were a catalyst for last summer’s protests.
For example, black people in England and Wales are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than their white peers.
Turning to C-19, Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said: ‘As we saw in the early days of the pandemic, 60% of the first NHS doctors and nurses to die were from our BAME communities. For Boris Johnson to look the grieving families of those brave dead in the eye and say there is no evidence of institutional racism in the UK is nothing short of a gross offence. The facts about institutional racism do not lie, and we note with some surprise that, no matter how much spin the commission puts on its findings, it does in fact concede that we do not live in a post-racist society.’
On pay and other work-based disparities, the report calls this ‘an improving picture’, saying that overall, ‘issues around race and racism were becoming less important and, in some cases, were not a significant factor in explaining disparities’, with areas such as social class viewed as of equal importance.
The report says: ‘We found that most of the disparities we examined, which some attribute to racial discrimination, often do not have their origins in racism.’
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said that the disproportionate rates of school exclusion and arrest among black children underlined evidence of an institutional problem. It would roll back progress if the government sought ‘to downplay or deny the extent of the problem, rather than doing what it should be doing which is getting on the front foot and tackling it,’ she said.
‘250,000 people didn’t march through our cities during a pandemic demanding better syntax’
Maurice Mcleod, the chief executive of Race on the Agenda, described the conclusion of the inquiry as ‘government level gaslighting’ and criticised the summary for claiming communities are being ‘haunted’ by ‘historic cases’ of racism, creating ‘deep mistrust’ in the system that could prove a barrier to success. He said the implications of the report were that ‘the reason so many black people don’t get on well in this society is because they are stuck in the past and this makes them mistrustful. So racism isn’t the problem, people talking about racism is the problem. We would argue that you cannot tackle structural racism if you don’t believe it exists. The only substantive thing in the report is the decree that the public sector should stop using the term BAME; 250,000 people didn’t march through our cities during a pandemic demanding better syntax.’
Black Lives Matter UK said the movement was ‘perplexed by the fact that the report claims to reject the term BAME, describing it as ‘of limited value’, yet uses the category to analyse income gaps. I’m doing so, the commission insidiously disguises the inequalities faced by Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Caribbean and African workers’.
Begum said: ‘This commission long lost the confidence and the trust of the ethnic minority communities when it appointed Tony Sewell to lead it, a figure who asserts with others in this government that institutional racism does not exist.’
This report, which is long on denial, added to proposed policing bill appear to be the opening shots in the Culture war which was unofficially declared last December, by Liz Truss, in her role as Minister for Women and Equalities. In a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies she promised to ‘reject the approach taken by the left, captured as they are by identity politics and loud lobby groups’, to dump fashionable ‘postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault’ and, instead, to ‘root the equality debate in the real concerns people face’.
Whilst the adoring Tory media hailed the speech as ending the politics of identity and the restoration of class to the inequality discussion, she only mentioned class once and then to talk of the ‘white working class’. It was less a critique of identity politics than the pursuit of an identity politics of a different kind.
‘Beyond, the left-baiting applause lines, there was little of substance’
Beyond, the left-baiting applause lines, there was little of substance. Promises to end ‘unconscious bias’ training and to look into ‘more flexible working’ sound ideal, but there were no supporting policies offered to bring about her more egalitarian world. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as her anti-inequality agenda appears to be at odds with the actual policies of this government.
This speech served only to drive a wedge between the opposition Labour Party’s voting coalition.
Truss said government watchdogs will ‘focus on enforcing fair treatment for all, rather than freelance campaigning. To make our society more equal, we need the equality debate to be led by facts not by fashion.’
The government believes that campaigners overly focus on the protected characteristics written into the 2010 Equalities Act, including race, sex and gender reassignment, to the detriment of a wider debate about class and geography. Truss endorsed this saying, ‘This means some issues — particularly those facing white working-class children — are neglected.’
Whilst the government plans to focus on the treatment of individuals over groups, there are others in the Tory party who are concerned that this will see them viewed as distracted and out of touch from the issues that affect people’s lives.
The thrust of Truss’s speech was bringing the debate to fore as we, hopefully, exit the pandemic. ‘As we recover from the coronavirus, Liz thinks it’s important that everyone has a fair chance to succeed in life and get on,’ said an official close to the minister. ‘It’s a chance to build back better and seize the opportunity to deliver real change. The equality agenda has to be part of that.’
The Culture Wars are backlash to so-called woke culture (2).
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, said the war on woke began as a counter to the ‘silent revolution’ of liberal and progressive attitudes during the economic boom of the decades up to 2008, which allowed space to fight inequalities. What we are seeing now is a backlash among those alarmed at the pace of change.
‘What we are seeing now is a backlash among those alarmed at the pace of change’
‘I guess you could summarise it as being against all things politically correct,’ Bale explained, as well as ‘the idea that somehow the pendulum has swung too far to the liberal side of things.’
Research suggests that, although most people in Britain agree racism exists and support equal rights, they are largely anti-woke.
Bale, who has worked for the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, concluded that the electoral coalition Boris Johnson won at the 2019 election which he won with a combination of marrying rich southern seats and poorer northern ones, could be best maintained in the next election (2024) via a campaign on cultural issues rather than fiscal ones.
The Tories and their ‘coalition’ will likely be divided on issues such as taxation and spending, especially post the pandemic, than on social issues.
For example, a working-class voter might be anti-woke but pro-bigger state and higher taxation, while a wealthier voter might be anti-woke but pro-small state and lower taxation.
Put simply the Conservatives are more likely to win the next election if the debate focuses on social values rather than economics.
There is considerable support within the party for this approach. John Hayes, a Conservative MP and former adviser to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, launched the Common Sense Group of parliamentarians, which boasts around 70 MPs and peers, in a bid to fight against illegal immigration and woke culture.
‘the Conservatives are more likely to win the next election if the debate focuses on social values rather than economics’
‘When the values on which British society is built are derided and dismissed by all kinds of groups, either because they don’t understand them or because they don’t like them, we are going to stand in defence of them,’ he said. ‘If Conservatives don’t stand firm against these radical militant attacks, who will?’
He says the fight will be electorally salient: ‘The kind of people who vote Conservative typically, and the kind of people who might vote Conservative who don’t currently, are sick and tired of being patronized by the liberal establishment.’
Others fear that this approach will be counterproductive. Damian Green, chair of the centre-right One Nation Conservatives group in parliament, and a former Cabinet minister, is also irked about ‘identitarians’ and the perceived threat to free speech. He said, ‘The danger for the Conservative Party is that if it fights those battles, it sounds as extreme as the people on the other side,’ he said.
Johnson, as a populist, is the ideal leader of the culture war. Brexit, which propelled him into Downing Street, is a cultural battle, the 2016 referendum was based on fears about immigration, sovereignty, and so-called elites.
The PM has cultivated a brand of anti-political correctness, not least with a string of controversial newspaper columns. ‘We are proud of this country’s culture and history and traditions,’ he told the Conservative conference this year as he attacked amorphous political enemies. ‘They literally want to pull statues down; to rewrite the history of our country; to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct.’
There are those around Johnson who realise that stoking the fires of the culture war is merely a way to maintain power rather than achieving real change to people’s lives. ‘You don’t want to provoke it but you don’t want to shy away from it,’ said a senior government figure. ‘It matters, but it’s not as important as delivering genuine opportunity for those communities.’
The problem for the Conservatives is, as usual, Nigel Farage. The former Brexit Party boss, who is popular among socially conservative voters, is developing a new movement called Reform U.K.
‘The problem for the Conservatives is, as usual, Nigel Farage’
Bashing woke culture is high on its agenda. ‘Political correctness is an absolute scourge and curse on our society and needs to be faced into, full frontal, tall, strong and proud,’ said Richard Tice, Reform U.K. chairman.
The group hopes to put pressure on the Tories with a big push on law and order in police and crime commissioner elections in the spring.
Despite its strong appeal for some voters, polling shows British voters support increased equality, although they have complex responses to individual issues.
- A 2019 British Election Study survey showed few people thought efforts to increase equal opportunities for ethnic minorities, women and gay and lesbian people had gone too far, but there was little appetite for more.
- According to a YouGov poll from July last year, most people believe a transgender woman is a woman and a transgender man is a man, but do not think it should be easier for people to change their legal gender.
- 50% of people support the Black Lives Matter Movement, according to an Opinium poll, but two-thirds think statues linked to slave traders should remain on display and less than a third believe in reparations to descendants of slaves.
Chris Curtis, from Opinium, explained: ‘The public hold fairly complex and nuanced views on these issues, far away from the ideological way these battles are fought in politics and the media. They are generally comfortable to consider changes that will help improve equality, but only if those changes sound reasonable.
Truss is confident voters will agree with her agenda and sees an opportunity to put the Labour Party under pressure. The opposition has a large liberal, well-off and city-dwelling membership base which holds different values to its historic working-class vote.
Activists in grassroots campaign group Momentum have complained about Starmer taking a more socially conservative line in an attempt to appeal to swing voters. As an example, they were disappointed when he kept quiet in a recent row about the deportation of foreign criminals to Jamaica.
Gaya Sriskanthan, Momentum co-chair, said Starmer was ‘embracing flawed social conservatism that both sacrifices minorities and ultimately doesn’t address the root cause of discontent.’
But an ally of Starmer insisted the leader was able to signal to social conservatives without compromising on Labour values. ‘I don’t think it’s any secret that Labour needs to show it’s listening. But the issues you talk about have to be the issues people really care about,’ the person said.
Some of the cultural rows have even handed the Labour leader opportunities to signal his values to voters without compromising with members, for example when his spokesperson argued ‘enjoying patriotic songs does not and should not be a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it,’ in a spat about the BBC Proms.
‘In some ways it has been helpful because it has given us a free hit on showing that Labour is not an out-of-touch, middle-class party,’ the person said. ‘It is a more nuanced and complicated party than that.’
The X-factor is the impact of the pandemic, with research suggesting that the C-19 crisis had prompted an outburst of social solidarity.
- In February 2020, 70% of voters agreed that ‘it’s everyone for themselves’, with 30% agreeing that ‘we look after each other’.
- By September, the proportion who opted for ‘we look after each other’ had increased to 54%.
- 57% reported an increased awareness of the living conditions of others,
- 77% feel that the pandemic has reminded us of our common humanity,
- 62% feel they have the ability to change things around them – an increase of 15 points since February.
Tim Dixon, co-founder of More in Common and co-author of the report, said that while there had been an increase in ‘culture war’ politics in Britain, the country was far better placed to avoid further divisions than many other nations: ‘Both sides of a culture war rely on exaggerating the threat of the other,’ he said. ‘Both sides want us to think that every person who is ‘on the other side’ to them has all these opposing views. The truth is many of these debates just pass most people by, because they are often based on creating false choices. The UK is actually in a better position than many countries and should be more optimistic.
‘During the Covid-19 crisis, there is evidence of a community spirit. The concern that we have for ethnic minorities in the UK is higher than elsewhere, as is the sense of solidarity. It suggests that we’re like a kaleidoscope, where segments of the population cluster together in different ways. But it clearly isn’t a binary story. Divisive politics is happening in Britain, but it hasn’t yet spread too widely.’
The culture war highlights the social and demographic issues prevalent in this country and will reflect how people react to the Tories propaganda. Post the 2019 election YouGov interviewed over 40,000 British adults to discover patterns across demographics: age, class, education, and previous votes (3).
Age is still the biggest dividing line in British politics:
- For every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points, and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by eight points.
- The tipping point – the age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour – is now 39, down from 47 at the last election.
- Labour is down among all age groups, although slightly less so among those nearing or in retirement, losing just 5% of their vote share among the over 60s, compared to around 9% among the under 60s.
Conservatives perform best across all social grades, confirming that class is no longer a key indicator of how people vote.
- The Conservatives did better amongst C2DE voters (48%) than they did amongst ABC1 voters (43%).
- Labour performed the same amongst both social grade groups (33%).
Education; the highest level of education someone has achieved remains an important dividing line in how people vote.
- Labour did much better than the Conservatives amongst those who have a degree or higher, by 43% to 29%.
- The Liberal Democrats also performed very well amongst this group with 17% of the vote share.
We saw in 2016 that those with a higher education level were overwhelmingly more likely to back remaining in the EU, and this has seemingly transferred into party voting.
The Conservatives won amongst the much larger group of voters who do not hold a degree:
- They outperformed Labour by more than two to one (58% to 25%) amongst those whose highest level of education is GCSE or lower.
- Compared to 2017, the Conservatives have improved amongst those without a degree, but performed worse amongst those with a degree or higher.
- Labour lost voters amongst all three education level groups.
Brexit realignment was already a factor in the 2017 general election, with 55% of Remainers voting Labour and 65% of Leavers voting Conservative.
This time around the Conservatives managed to boost their vote share amongst Leave voters to three quarters (74%) while the Labour Party actually reduced their share of Remain voters to just under half (49%). This fall came mainly at the hands of the Liberal Democrats, who increased their vote share amongst Remain voters to 21%, compared to 12% in 2017.
‘It matters, but it’s not as important as delivering genuine opportunity for those communities.’
Both the Conservatives and Labour lost voters on the other side of the Brexit debate. The Conservatives held on to 19% of Remainers (down from 25% in 2017) while Labour’s vote share amongst Leavers was 14% (down from 24% in 2017).
I thought long and hard how to conclude this, then I realised it had already been done for me: ‘It matters, but it’s not as important as delivering genuine opportunity for those communities.’
This was from a senior government figure, but it sums up this administration perfectly, their priority is power, nothing else.
Those in the ‘rich southern seats’ would vote Tory if a chimp was leader, they have allied this to the culturally conservative working class who are scared of change, and the elderly who want to return to the good old days’.
This is a government that wraps itself in the flag of a country it cares nothing for. For them patriotism is exclusive, if you aren’t with them, you’re against them.
‘I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.’ (4)
- The word, Woke, is shorthand for an awareness of social justice issues, has been used to denote honor or ridicule, depending on the speaker and context.
I picked this for it patriotic connotations, or because it has been hijacked by the Tories. Blake was concerned about senseless wars and the blighting effects of the Industrial Revolution. Much of his poetry recounts in symbolic allegory the effects of the French and American revolutions. Erdman claims Blake was disillusioned with the political outcomes of the conflicts, believing they had simply replaced monarchy with irresponsible mercantilism. Erdman also notes Blake was deeply opposed to slavery and believes some of his poems, read primarily as championing ‘free love’, had their anti-slavery implications short-changed. A more recent study, William Blake: Visionary Anarchist by Peter Marshall (1988), classified Blake and his contemporary William Godwin as forerunners of modern anarchism.
As soon as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities announced its findings, I was awaiting Philip’s response, and I think its fair to say that he’s short-changed nobody; it’s an epic piece that tackles the ‘Culture Wars’ head on, whilst weaving in the familiar strands of inequality, populism and his all-round dislike for the current administration.
That this country feels like a tinder box is undeniable and with many predicting a summer of discontent, there is a need for silky political skills and diplomacy that have yet to feature prominently in this government’s arsenel; the Guardian’s report that ‘the police inspectorate has delivered a sweeping exoneration of officers’ manhandling of women mourning the killing of Sarah Everard’ brought back memories of all the A*s I achieved when permitted to mark my own homework.
So to the report delivered by Dr Tony Sewell – was it a genuine attempt to investigate and understand the tensions and discontent that led to the outpouring of anger at the Black Lives Matter protests, or a cynical exercise in gaslighting that started with the desired conclusion and worked backwards? Philip clearly has a view, and so apparently does Boris Johnson’s ‘most senior black adviser’ Samuel Kasumu who this morning announced his intention to stand down.
Philip sees the culture war as ‘a continuation of populist policies, creating enemies for the weak, uneducated to rail against’ – an extension of the politics of hate and the return to the politics of the 1930’s, which has been a consistent theme; however, he links that to the Tories’ determination to remain in power at an cost – ‘a placebo; no need to have policies, no need to try and improve things, just give people something to oppose.’
I feel ill-equipped to express a strong opinion about the findings of the report, but the vast majority of those with a lived-experience I have heard offering a view do not share the conclusion that there is no ‘institutional’ racism in this country and take little comfort in the fact that ‘at least its not as bad as (insert country)’.
Albeit that Labour’s performance has been lamentable – a Fool’s Day tweet I saw earlier announced that Keir Starmer fundamentally disagreed with a number of government policies – Philip makes the interesting suggestion that with the real economic fall-out from Covid yet to come, the Tories’ best chance of retaining power in the next election is to fight on a social agenda.
Liz Truss’ speech announced the government’s intention in that regard, and even though the government appears bomb-proof, wouldn’t it be refreshing not to repeatedly hear grubby stories such as those implicating David Cameron, or see pictures of Jennifer Arcuri draped in the union flag looking like a well-nourished Gerri Halliwell; I tell you what I want, what I really, really want – a hundred and twenty-six grand.
If the research Philip quotes is accurate, just maybe society post-Covid will be just a little more caring, and if mutually acceptable ground rules can be established, then maybe it really will be possible to build back better.
Again, with the caveat of never having experienced the hatred and bias that so many clearly have, two recent incidents relating to schools in Batley and Pimlico raise issues that can surely be used to inform debate about where lines should be drawn.
Events at the Charlie Hebdo office and in Copenhagen ignited furious debate concerning free speech and Salman Rushdie’s assertion that ‘nobody has the right to not be offended’; that the issue reignited outside a Yorkshire grammar school raises fundamental issues about what can and cannot be included on a curriculum intended to broaden horizons and fuel debate.
One thing’s for sure it would be far easier and more productive to have the debate in an atmosphere of trust and honesty, and time will tell whether this report has gone any way towards engendering that, of whether it has further raise the ramparts.
Two tracks, just for fun – first up Jimi Hendrix with ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and (spoiler alert – ‘the fact that it has been hijacked by the Tories only serves to highlight their stupidity. Blake was never of their ilk, he opposed slavery, and was classed as a forerunner of modern anarchism) William Blake and ‘Jerusalem’. Enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s