Artillery Row

Stop the fight!

Our survey suggests most people don’t even know what the culture war is

“His biggest attribute is that he’s not into ‘faculty lounge’ politics.” This recent analysis of Joe Biden from James Carville, the influential advisor who masterminded Bill Clinton’s 1992 election win, speaks to a sense that the way in which universities and liberal “elites” approach certain issues can be alienating to the broader electorate.

It’s a sense that is often reflected in debate about the “culture war” that is increasingly claimed to exist in the UK. Tony Blair has said that handling culture, gender, race and identity successfully is a challenge for progressives — they often fall into traps set by the right on these kinds of issues, with the Labour party backed into electorally off-putting positions.

The right certainly perceive a trap in the higher education sector — the home of the faculty lounge — which has become a focal point for the culture war debate over here, with concerns about universities suppressing different views and coddling students, in ways that offend much of the public. Small but emblematic actions, such as the removal of the Queen’s portrait from a student union common room gather media and political attention that seems at odds with the scale of the issue.

It’s not just the specific terms in the culture war that are alien, but also the issues that are linked to these battles

Our new study shows just where the country stands on these matters, and points to why they inspire strong reactions. It also confirms what other research by colleagues at the UK in a Changing Europe has shown: that political leaders on the right are closer to the electorate on issues of culture than leaders on the left. For example, the public are nearly twice as likely to say universities should expose students to all types of viewpoints, even if offensive or biased against certain groups, as they are to say universities should ban such views.

And when it comes to the issue of “no-platforming” speakers with controversial opinions, only around one in six are in favour of such a response, compared with half who are against it. But views vary significantly among different sections of the population. For example, only 32 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds oppose no-platforming, compared with 60 per cent of those aged 55 and above.

Similarly, while the public are clear that political correctness has gone too far in the UK, with six in 10 agreeing with this view, opinions differ hugely depending on people’s age and politics: Conservatives and older people are twice as likely as Labour supporters and the young to see PC culture as a problem.

These divides are a theme that runs throughout our culture war debate, and they extend to the very terms that are used in it. To take one example, we asked people: if someone described you as “woke”, would you consider it a compliment or an insult? A quarter said the former and another quarter the latter — but the most common response, given by 38 per cent of the public, was that they didn’t know what the term means.

And while 52 per cent of the young think being woke is a compliment, just 13 per cent of those aged 55 or over think the same. Labour supporters are also three times as likely as Conservatives to think of “woke” as a form of praise.

It’s a similar story across many other culture war terms: most say they’ve heard at best “a little” about them, with large proportions saying they’ve never heard of common media and political tropes like “cancel culture” and “microaggressions”, and significant splits in understanding among different groups.

It’s not just the specific terms in the culture war debate that are alien to many, but also the issues that are typically linked to these cultural battles. When people are asked to describe, in their own words, what sorts of issues the phrase “culture wars” makes them think of, by far the most frequent response is that it doesn’t make them think of any. 

And only tiny minorities associate culture wars with many of the stories that have been prominent in UK media coverage: just over 1 per cent link the term to the Black Lives Matter movement or debates over transgender rights, while under 1 per cent make a connection to the removal of statues.

This is perhaps surprising given the explosion in political and media discussion of “culture wars” in recent years: in 2015, there were just 21 articles in the main British newspapers and news sites that used the term in relation to the UK. Last year, there were 534.

With this surge in attention come risks. Research into the history of cultural conflicts in the US suggests that the way political parties and the media engage in these debates plays an important role in growing division — changing cultural values are not a simple bottom-up movement, led solely by public opinion, beliefs and expression. How leaders and the media address the issues matters.

And we shouldn’t let the apparent triviality of some of the issues picked out distract us: this is a vital debate, where how it’s conducted is central to the outcome. The US experience in recent times provides a very live warning, which has been years in the making.

The challenge for UK politics is to realise that no one wins a culture war

Back in the 1990s, one of the early chroniclers of America’s culture wars, James Davison Hunter, signalled the risks: for him, these battles describe a sense of implacable conflict between two irreconcilable worldviews in what is “fundamentally right and wrong about the world we live in.” More recently, others have described how US political party support has formed a “mega-identity”, where, “when you activate one [identity] you often activate all, and each time they’re activated, they strengthen”.

The challenge for UK politics is to realise that no one wins a culture war, not for long at least — and the best approach is to call it off, or at least calm it down. For the Conservatives, this means recognising legitimate concerns about the speed of culture change among their core constituency without inflaming them. For Labour and other parties on the left, it means not ducking difficult cultural issues but painting an inclusive progressive vision that isn’t just about the leading edge of culture change.

The UK is still some way off from US levels of division, but we should all be paying close attention to what happens next, and actively choosing not to follow the trail America has set.

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