openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Culture wars aren't a distraction, they're a battle over everything

For some, the ‘war on woke’ is just common sense. But they’ll find that the pillars holding up England’s traditional hierarchies are rotting. Part one of four

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
11 December 2021, 12.00am
Union Jacks, statues, street names and war memorials form an edifice of some conservatives’ culture
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Colin McPherson / Alamy Stock Photo

“People sometimes ask why I make such a noise about our flag, history and culture,” wrote Lee Anderson, Conservative MP for Ashfield, on Facebook this summer. “Well, it’s not just me. I’m part of the Common Sense Group at work, which has over 50 Tory MPs...”

“One of our aims is to promote our country as the best nation on earth, and fight back in the Culture War that [is] trying to erase our past by pulling down statues, renaming streets, and the desecration of war memorials.

“I happen,” he wrote, “to be very proud to be British and an English man.”

Like many of the new Conservative MPs elected in Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory, Anderson came to Parliament ready to drive a tank onto the front line of the culture war, only to find himself mired in a pandemic. Now, this generation of Tories thinks it can finally get traction for the issues that it cares about. Now that Brexit is done, they have a country to take back.

“Never be ashamed of our flag,” he concluded his Facebook post, signing off with a string of Union Jack emojis.

The Common Sense Group, which launched in May, is just one platoon of right-wing cultural warriors tearing through the UK’s politics, attempting to fire concepts from the fringes of online quarrels into the centre of public debate: terms like ‘cancel culture’, ‘identity politics’ and ‘wokeism’.

But what on earth do these things mean? Where have they come from? And, perhaps most importantly, how should those of us who believe in a more egalitarian and democratic society respond? To understand any of that, we have to start by asking: what is a culture war?

The cultural building site

In his Radio 4 series ‘Things Fell Apart,’ broadcaster Jon Ronson defines ‘culture war’ as “almost everything that people yell at each other about on social media”. Others point specifically to fights inflamed by politicians and the media. And, of course, there’s a truth to both of these perspectives. But I see it a little differently.

‘Culture’ has two meanings – one narrow, one broad. In the narrow sense, it means roughly the same as ‘the arts’. In the broad sense, it refers to whole ways of life, like ‘Maasai culture’ or ‘French culture’.

The writer and academic Raymond Williams argued that ultimately, the two are connected – that culture in the narrow sense is always an expression of culture in the broad sense. “Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings,” he wrote. “Every human society expresses these, in institutions, in arts and learning.”

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On most issues, English voters are a long way to the left of the Tory party

The statues, street names, war memorials and flags of Lee Anderson’s Facebook post may seem like fringe concerns to some. But they form an edifice of his culture. And they are architecturally connected to a whole way of being.

The term ‘culture war’ was introduced to modern political analysis by the American academic James Davidson Hunter in his 1991 book ‘Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America’. Much of what we think about the term comes from the US, too, leading us to associate it with evangelical Christians, the Deep South, American-style racism and Wild West gun fanaticism.

Those specific battle lines don’t trace neatly onto the UK. Our history, institutions and resultant ways of seeing the world are different. Conservatives here aren’t trying to preserve the social structures and norms that have sprouted from the US’s violent past, but those that emerged from the UK’s history of empire, class and conquest.

Why does England vote Tory?

It was the thinker Stuart Hall who described this version of British culture best. As Kojo Koram, a scholar of law, race and empire at Birkbeck, University of London, has written, Hallarrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1951 to find a rigidly hierarchical society that was undergoing profound social changes in the aftermath of the Second World War”.

The arrival of mass television and pop culture, not to mention Windrush-generation immigrants from across the Commonwealth, was “experienced as a loss by Britain’s elite”.

“In the pyramidal structure of the British empire,” writes Koram, “culture had long been defined and monopolised by the country’s boarding schools, elite universities and rarefied cultural institutions…

“The version of culture they projected was stable and unchanging, a unifying story connecting the elites who ruled Britain to the soil from which their ancestors sprang.”

We see this most starkly when we ask the question ‘Why does England vote Tory?’. On most issues, the majority of English voters are about as progressive as those in Scotland or Wales, and a long way to the left of the Conservative Party. Yet, while the Scots and Welsh have almost never given the Conservatives a majority, the English have elected Tory prime ministers at most opportunities for 200 years – because the Conservatives are the party of the ruling class, and Anglo-British nationalism, with its stories about empire, kings and queens, teaches that they are ‘sensible’, ‘competent,’ and ‘pragmatic’ – the people who ought to be in charge.

Lee Anderson wants to defend the symbols of that older, steeply hierarchical society – a world in which he knows his place, and so do those around him.

A culture war isn’t a foolish distraction from ‘real issues’. It’s a negotiation about how we make sense of those issues

It’s a place that has given him a particular perspective, one he thinks is so clearly common sense that this is what his group is called. But, as Antonio Gramsci taught us: “Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space.”

Our culture is the filter through which we look at the world. And so a war over culture isn’t a foolish distraction from the ‘real issues’, like wages, public spending or the climate crisis, as people from Tony Blair to political scientist Frances Fukuyama have argued. It’s a negotiation about how we make sense of those issues, over how we interpret the overwhelming data of material reality.

These cultural debates often explode with arguments that can seem abstract to many people, even if they’re vital to the lives of small numbers: changing gender norms ignites a quarrel about trans rights, shifting perspectives on empire mean statues are torn down.

Each issue is important in its own right. But the reason some get so much attention is that they tap through rotting pillars holding up our traditional social hierarchies and allow us to see beyond. Other ways of understanding the world begin to come into view – Raymond Williams called these ‘structures of feeling’. And, gradually, some of these new structures of feeling spread throughout a society and become the new common sense.

That is what conservatives fear the most.

The Common Sense Group

“The Common Sense Group stands for authentic conservatism,” writes its chairman, John Hayes MP, in the introduction to a series of essays by the club’s members, published this May.

“With opportunities provided by Brexit, the time for a refreshed national conversation on the defining issues of our time – nationhood, community, migration, the rule of law and public order – is now,” he adds.

“The battle of ideas has been drawn into sharp focus with the emergence of extreme cultural and political groups, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Kill the Bill et al. – subversives fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future.

“The expectation of our voters is for a government that, at last, might reflect the will of the people, rather than pandering to the peculiar preoccupations of the liberal elite and the distorted priorities of left-wing activists.

“The business of politics is values – it’s about place, purpose and pride. The Battle for Britain has begun, it must be won by those who, inspired by the people’s will, stand for the common good in the national interest.”

The essays list a predictable set of targets and enemies: human rights laws in general and trans rights in particular, the BBC and social media, immigration and, most of all, something they call ‘wokeism’.

The Common Sense Group aren’t on the margins of their party: they are its scouts, seeking out a field for the next battle

It’s easy to dismiss this as a silly set of ideas from the further reaches of the Tory Right. But that’s a mistake. The current cabinet is made up of what was until recently the outer edge of the Conservative consensus. The Common Sense Group aren’t on the margins of their party: they are its scouts, seeking out a field for the next battle.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Right has sustained itself through a series of moral panics and nationalist cultural spasms. As openDemocracy’s co-founder, Anthony Barnett, has argued, the ‘war on woke’, whipped up by right-wing politicians and the press and their outriders over the world, is best understood as the successor to the war on terror – and, probably, the predecessor to a ‘cold war’ with China.

In general, this has been a very effective electoral strategy – conservative parties have continued to dominate politics in most Western countries, despite most of their citizens being broadly progressive on most individual issues. They do this by projecting national ‘common senses’, about who’s ‘practical’, ‘good at governing’, ‘prime ministerial’ or ‘presidential’ – whether the British upper class, American huckster businessmen or German technocrats – and who isn’t.

Of course much of this work is done through major cultural institutions – in England’s case, the oligarch-owned portions of the media are particularly significant. But they aren’t some alien species that’s arrived without context. Like the Conservative Party, public schools and pubs, football, the Royal family and gardening, the press is an expression of the English way of life as well as a shaper of it.

If we were to simply ignore cultural conservatives as they bully one minority after another, slash funding for every progressive institution and reinforce traditional social structures and ways of seeing the world, then we’d not be focussing on ‘the real issues’. We’d be allowing the powerful to dictate how we talk about and understand the world.

But that’s not going to happen. Because there is another reason that the Right sounds so panicked. And it’s that its members know a simple truth. Their institutions are fraying. Their view of the world is in retreat. Their common sense is increasingly contested.

They’re losing.

Look out for the rest of this series, coming soon...

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