Brexit was supposed to have left the country bitterly divided. But Henry Mance finds identity battles losing their grip on the national conversation.
George Orwell said that Britain was a family with the wrong members in control. At times over the past six years, it has resembled a family on the brink of divorce. Arguments over history, race, gender and symbols have boiled over. The number of UK newspaper articles referring to a “culture war” rose from 21 in 2015 to 534 in 2020. In 2021, it reached nearly 1,500 as shown in the chart below.
Graduate students at an Oxford college were criticised for removing a portrait of the Queen. The National Trust, the sedate custodian of stately homes, was accused of being too “woke” for backing historical research into its properties’ links to the slave trade. Researchers at King’s College London warned that, with such identity politics, “the UK could be at the early stages of a trend seen in the US in the 1980s and 1990s”.
This culture war seemed inexorable. Divisive messaging had won the 2019 general election: Boris Johnson promised to break the grip of the metropolitan elite. The internet itself seemed to reward a lack of nuance and compromise. If you wanted a vision of the future, you could imagine a hyperbolic tweet forever stamping on a human eyeball.
To its proponents — like the rump of Tory MPs who called themselves the Common Sense Group — the culture war was more important than the tax burden or the state of public services. Because the culture war supposedly defined who we were as a society.
A truce in the culture wars would show that British politics is not as like US politics as many observers assume.
Something has now changed. British social media is no longer so full of simplistic stances on identity. Johnson’s attempts to recapture the zeitgeist of identity politics — by bringing back imperial measures and sending away asylum-seekers — could not save his premiership. Two upstart TV channels that launched to counter woke views, GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV, have both floundered.
An ad campaign for TalkTV’s star presenter Piers Morgan ran: “Love him or hate him, you won’t want to miss him.” Morgan is a talented presenter, but so far most Brits are happy to miss him and his efforts to “cancel ‘cancel culture’”.
Perhaps the culture war couldn’t match up to actual war in Ukraine. Perhaps identity politics felt contrived compared with the cost of living squeeze. Who cares if they are paying in pounds and ounces if the prices are so high? Economic identities have come to the fore again. (“Class war”, ran a front-page headline in the Sun newspaper in June, about rail strikes.)
At the same time, perhaps the ending of coronavirus lockdowns eased the level of anxiety that had spilled out on social media. It’s possible that we will never be as online as we were in the summer after George Floyd was murdered. Perhaps we have become tired of shouting at one another? Perhaps what we really want is to come together in mushy appreciation of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, Paddington Bear, and Paul McCartney at Glastonbury?
Whatever the reason, a truce in the culture wars would be significant. It would show that British politics is not as like US politics as many observers assume. While our long-lost cousins dig trenches over abortion and guns, Britons may have bridges. Even as rallying cries such as Black Lives Matter cross the Atlantic, their precise manifestation does not. A culture war is not necessarily our destiny.
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