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Artillery Row

Of course the culture wars matter

It is people who trivialise them who are not taking politics seriously

What unholy force could compel a man to read election literature? It’s a question scarcely asked, seldom pondered and never answered beyond the confines of political party offices, so dull is the genre and so small is the actual audience.

So there’s cause to be cautious when any group makes an argument premised on what people want to see in these unloved missives. And that’s especially true when the group in question, the think tank More in Common, is hoping to talk its own book, claiming what divides us is less important than what we share.

In the latest volley in the culture war that both everyone and no-one is fighting, More in Common and elite petitioners at 38 Degrees are claiming that voters want politicians to focus more on everyday concerns. This means more NHS, cost-of-living crisis and — yes, really — immigration, and less “abstract or confected cultural debates that feel far away from the issues that matter most to people.”

“There is a very real risk that politicians using culture wars will backfire electorally,” the report says. While talking about woke blobs and white privilege is good for clicks on social media, the authors reckon that it boosts public cynicism about politics and turns off the swing voters vital in any election win.

Their evidence for this is a mix of survey results and focus groups. And as alluded to above, one of the lead findings, based on a survey of 2,000 people in Great Britain, claims that what people want to read about in election leaflets is potholes, not the transgressions of Victorian statues.

To determine this, survey respondents were asked which leaflets they’d be likelier to read based on hypothetical titles. And it’s clear, as Yes, Prime Minister could tell you, that the survey was designed with at least some eye on a preferred outcome.

While on the one side you have sober missives about a candidate’s “plan to create jobs in the local area”, on the other it’s a hysterical scheme “to protect our children from drag queens”. No doubt to the pleasure of the authors, survey respondents plumped for the economics.

But it’s hardly an apples for apples comparison. While one policy area is quite broad, the other is very specific. It would surely be fairer to compare the drag queen concerns with a plan to open a job-creating fish and chip shop, in the recent manner of Steve Tuckwell, MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip.

Alternatively, one could contrast local jobs with a need to shield children from inappropriate sexual material. Given the recent furore generated by psychologist Jonathan Haidt about smartphones, and the sympathetic reception in British media and associated polling, I suspect more punters would claim to want to read about.

Yet even beyond the survey design, it’s questionable how much we can trust the stated preference of the respondents over what they’d actually do. After all, who among the punditry hasn’t bemoaned the Westminster fixation on personality and scandal, just before clicking over to Guido Fawkes coverage of the latest MP sex scandal?

The public are little better. Matt Hancock’s spectacular exit from government in 2021 may have been framed as a story about politicians abiding by their own lockdown rules. The reason it cut through is that it involved footage of a cabinet minister grabbing the arse of Oliver Bonas’ comms director. 

So I don’t believe people want to read about potholes. I accept many, in some small way, would like to be the kind of person who did read about potholes, but only as much as the average drunk would like to tell his doctor a weekly alcohol intake in single digits.

Reasons to be sceptical only grow when you read the report’s concession that culture war topics are not all surface froth about 57 varieties of gender. None of it is to be taken as an instruction to politicians not to “discuss or debate contentious issues” or to deter campaigners like More in Common and 38 Degrees “from ensuring the causes they care about are on the agenda”.

The problem is allegedly with cheap tactics, not thoughtful strategy. “Debating gender identity or the future of our immigration system is not engaging in a culture war,” they say. Politicians shouldn’t “trivalise or weaponise these issues” by “focusing on imagined or imported problems” or speak about topics in an inflammatory or divisive manner.

many of the culture war issues involve worldviews that are deeply-held and irreconcilable

But the trouble, as many more timid commentators have found, is that even the most sober, banal statements on these topics provokes a furious response. And that’s partly because many of the culture war issues involve worldviews that are deeply-held and irreconcilable.

You can believe that Britain is or isn’t unusually and irredeemably racist. And you can believe a transgender woman is or isn’t a woman. You can even believe that the past few decades of mass migration have been a blessing or a curse. But in all these cases, you can’t believe both.

No doubt some politicians and campaigners don’t speak about these things in the mollifying tones of an Acas mediator. But it would be even more troubling if such people didn’t speak about these things at all.

Because when issues are de-politicised, they do not go away. Rather they are handed off to quangos and undemocratic government bodies, the results decided by experts of whatever definition. That is probably fine for Bank of England interest rates, local area plans and — dare I say it — potholes.

It is decidedly less fine for questions of what kinds of people are allowed to join our nation, how we understand our history and the thorny issue of what it means to be a man or a woman. And that is why political figures talk about such things: they attract attention, as even the virtuous survey respondents to More in Common acknowledge.

Some of this attention is no doubt driven by gimmicks and spectacle, as will always be the case in a field that has to compete for attention. But it’s also the case that these topics matter to people — often moreso than the price of bread. It’s those who would shut down the circus that are genuinely trivialising the issue.

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