Losing without a fight

No one will say the truth to the one side that is waging the culture war. The only dog in this battle will win it


The smug default in British public life is to disavow both sides, for sides are extremes, and what reasonable person would want to end up there? When public disorder during lockdown arises from good causes, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, and from bad ones, such as the antics of far-right thugs, the liberal knows the course to take. A reasonable person can inveigh against both a plainly bad thing as well as a plainly good thing that has let itself down, and to do so reminds this individual of how open-minded they are. But there aren’t two sides. There is only one. And it’s winning.

The only “side” in the culture war is the new left because its strategy is one of permanent offensive. The progressive left sets the legitimate range of discussion and polices it. All resistance is reactive or defeatist. Progressive opinion has thus been winning since 1990.

Take the roiling absurdity outside America since the death of George Floyd. What does the death of a foreigner killed by a foreign policeman in a foreign land say about the state of Britain? The facts of the Home Office’s homicide index are clear enough. Between April 2016 and March 2019, 500 whites, 45 blacks and 38 others were convicted in England and Wales of murdering 583 white victims.

The idea that there is a racial tsunami of murder in this country is monstrous. We are being asked to fight against a fantasy

Over the same period, 81 blacks, 11 whites and nine others were convicted of murdering 101 black victims. Roughly 3 per cent of Britons are black. The idea that there is a racial tsunami of murder in this country is monstrous, let alone — “hands up! don’t shoot!” — one waged by our unarmed police. We are being asked to fight against a fantasy.

We will, if we remember it at all, cringe with embarrassment at the war on statues. But even this risible squall reveals something important: no one will say the truth to the one side that is waging the culture war. We were supposed to seriously believe that public art was doing intolerable psychic damage to passers-by. Untold generations before coped, but this one could not. This was and is untrue. The statues harmed no one and could harm no one. We owe it to people being driven half out of their minds to insist on reality. Pretending otherwise does not comfort them, it validates their nightmares.

Foolish old white men like Simon Schama embody the smug reasonable disposition. His brainwave was that all statues should come down and be safely contained instead in museums. Parody dies at this point. However, we need to remember that the issue is not why the frightening statues went up or stayed up, but why people demanded they come down. Some of it was the theatre of physical power. Most of it, however, was faith. This point needs to be returned to, time and again. For the people who would pull statues down in accordance with their beliefs have an unshakeable faith, whereas all too few of the statues’ would-be defenders possess any of their own.

Too much of the right fails to stand up for what it privately believes in. This is not a problem from which the left suffers. Too many right-wing politicians are demonstrably content to occupy office even if all that this means is carrying out the agenda of the left. Which brings us to Boris Johnson, culture warrior. He’s smeared as such by the left for anodyne efforts such as calling for a “cross-governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality” while defending a statue of Churchill.

This would be by some estimates the seventh such commission this century. There is, as yet, only one statue of Churchill to defend in Parliament Square, but who knows, perhaps by the end of Mr Johnson’s time in Number 10 there’ll be as many Churchill statues as there are inequality commissions.

We’re called The Critic in part because we believe in high critical standards as an end in themselves. We think of them as being something honest, rather than just the freighted consequences of a power structure. This is why you often read left-wing voices in these pages: the only thing we privilege is the quality of their writing. But that’s also why we criticise the right, for its absolute failure on its own terms. The failure starts with the right’s inability even to use its own terms to define reality. Every polite failure to contradict “mansplaining”, “whitesplaining”, “straightsplaining” or “cisplaining” surrenders the field before battle is joined.

Doubtless we should deprecate the campaigners of the left for their preachy personas and their doctrinal solidarity, but we should be modest enough to acknowledge what they have achieved. In response to the magical thinking that pulling down statues would change anything other than planning laws, what did the prime minister say? “Why not add,” to the Foreign Office’s central courtyard, “[statues] of the men and women — most often BAME — who helped to make our modern Commonwealth?”

Why indeed? What is so objectionable about this patronising tokenism? What assumptions does it take at face value, and however much it sneers in private, defer to in public, as part of public policy? It is no good right-wing cynics dismissing the progressive left’s mission as a “new secular religion” unless those on the right are firm in their own basic creed. The only dog in this fight will win it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover