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What’s at stake in the culture wars?

Not only are they real, but they are of grave importance

Artillery Row

Not everyone thinks that the Culture Wars are real. Many on the left think — or purport to think — that they’re a fantasy of the right-wing imagination, conjured up and put about in order to distract from the failures of Tory rule and win votes. A prominent proponent of this view is Sathnam Sanghera, Times journalist and author of Empireland, published in 2021 during the premiership of Boris Johnson. Focusing on the colonial front, Sanghera writes of “the government-endorsed front in this imperial culture war”, of “taxpayer-funded culture warriors” who are in “the troubling business of propounding the inane idea that to be proud to be British you need to be proud of British imperial history”, and who “endors[e] campaigns to defend free speech and fight ‘cancel culture’”. (I can’t imagine to whom he’s referring.) “What is driving the government culture war?” he asks. Answer: “The most convincing explanation [is] … that it was a deliberate political strategy propelled by long-time Tory fixer Douglas Smith”. He concludes, “This new breed of culture warriors is not interested in national unity: they will sow division, encourage racial discord, do anything, if it wins them elections.”

This is stubborn, head-in-the-sands nonsense. How do I know that? Because the colonial front of the culture wars came uninvited to my doorstep eighteen months before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. In late November 2017 I published an article in The Times, making the utterly moderate case that we British can find cause for both pride and shame in our colonial past. A fortnight later I posted an online description of my Oxford research project, “Ethics and Empire”, which entertained the possibility that imperial rule may sometimes be legitimate.

War only broke out when Dr (now Professor) Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University responded on 13 December with a tweet at 8.45am. She called her political allies to arms with the immortal words, “OMG. This is serious shit … We need to SHUT THIS DOWN”. What followed was a campaign of repression, starting the very next day with an online denunciation by a body of Oxford students. This was then supplemented by two further mass denunciations within the space of a week, the first signed by 58 Oxford colleagues, the second by 170 or so worldwide. None of them was addressed to me, and the third was directed explicitly at my university, urging it to withdraw its support from the “Ethics and Empire” project.

That was my “lived experience”. Boris Johnson and Dougie Smith had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Those who chose to make war came from Sathnam Sanghera’s political stable. Indeed, the fourth of the 195 signatories to the third mass denunciation was an historian on whom Sanghera relies heavily in his book, Kim Wagner. He tells us that they travelled together to India.

If you don’t believe me, ask Kathleen Stock. I don’t know how Kathleen votes, but as she is a gay feminist philosopher, I rather doubt she puts her X by the Tory option on the ballot paper. In October 2021, she felt compelled to resign from her professorial post at the University of Sussex, perhaps ending her career in her early forties, because of a sustained campaign of harassment by students and some colleagues — a campaign that her university somehow failed to stop. What was Kathleen Stock’s sin? She held philosophical objections to prevailing views about transgender self-identification, and she persisted in expressing them.

So, no, Sathnam, it really, really wasn’t Boris wot done it. It was your political tribe.

The silencing of free speech versus the future of liberal Britain

Not everyone on the left thinks that the Culture Wars are real — and not everyone on the right who thinks they’re real, thinks they’re important. Many Tory MPs insist that the cost of living, funding the NHS, building more homes and improving productivity are more politically urgent and electorally more crucial. Yes, they very probably are. The issues at stake in the Culture Wars are crucial to the well-being of this country in the long-term, however, and fighting them will bring electoral dividends.

The first thing at stake is freedom of speech. If it is freedom of speech, then also of thought: because what we dare not say becomes, over time, too burdensome to carry on thinking. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the freedom to voice perfectly reasonable thoughts about colonial history, transgender identity and race in Britain has come under threat. It has been constrained in recent years. This should be obvious to anyone whose eyes are open: the many cases of repression have been widely publicised in the press.

A single incident of repression chills the air around thousands of onlookers

It is true that, in my case and in Kathleen Stock’s, attempts to silence us have failed. We have continued to say what we believe to be both important and true, but that should not have cost Kathleen her job. It is a practical certainty that there are many who share her gender-critical views or are sympathetic to them but, having witnessed the high penalty she has been made to pay, have resolved to keep their sympathy to themselves and their mouths prudently shut. A single incident of repression, made public, chills the air around thousands of onlookers. If anyone should think that my case and Kathleen’s are rare exceptions to an otherwise liberal rule, they should apply to the Free Speech Union for the depressingly long list.

Certainly, the vice-chancellors of most of Britain’s universities should do that, since they have been dogged in underestimating the scale of the problem. In its September 2021 memorandum on the then Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the Russell Group claimed, in defiance of ample evidence, that the problem is confined to a tiny handful of cancelled events. As Sir Tom Stoppard has observed — and I have just implied — the problem is far less cancellation than it is self-cancellation. Rather, single cancellations cause multiple self-cancellations.

What’s at stake here is not just the freedom of individuals to speak their minds. Nor is it just the testing of prevailing orthodoxies. What’s at stake is the liberal temper of culture and politics amongst us in Britain. If Britain is not to suffer the alarming degree of political polarisation now afflicting the US, we need liberal citizens who have the strengths of character — the virtues — that make them capable of responding to alien viewpoints thoughtfully and civilly. Universities have an enormously important civic responsibility to help student-citizens grow such virtues.

The good news is that two initiatives have improved the prospects of free speech in this country over the past three years. The first was the founding of the Free Speech Union by Toby Young in February 2020. (I have an interest here: I chair the FSU’s board.) The FSU now boasts over 11,000 subscribing members, and it is helping to support legal cases that will nudge the future interpretation of the law in favour of freedom of speech. It has also spawned sister organisations in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The second encouraging initiative was the Conservative Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which became law in May of this year. By requiring universities for the first time to both defend and promote freedom of speech and academic freedom, by creating a system that will allow individuals’ complaints to rise above their universities to the Office for Students, by creating a new statutory tort that exposes delinquent universities to litigation, and by creating a new Director for Freedom of Speech whose sole mission is to enforce legal compliance, the Act will help liberate the tongues of students and professors currently tied by fear of harassment and institutional abandonment.

Transgender self-identification versus the well-being of the young

On the gender front, there’s plenty of reason to doubt the intellectual coherence of transgender-self-identification. When a biological male believes that his inner, authentic self is female, what exactly does he think being “female” is? I’m still waiting for someone to persuade me that this doesn’t trade on gender stereotypes that feminists rightly taught us to throw overboard decades ago.

There’s even more reason to doubt that the well-being of young people is well served by taking their asserted genders at face value and allowing them to align their bodies by making irrevocable physical changes. According to Hannan Barnes’ shocking chronicle of the scandal at the Gender Identity Development Service (or GIDS) at the Tavistock Institute here in London, there was widespread doubt amongst clinicians about young people’s claims of “an inborn ‘trans’ nature”, awareness that these were sometimes correlated with eating disorders and self-harm, and suspicion that they might be caused by abuse or trauma. Furthermore, the long-term effects of using puberty-blockers were “largely unknown”. There was considerable uncertainty about which patients would benefit from them, and the health of some young patients actually seemed to worsen whilst on them.

The basic narcissism of progressive virtue-signalling is exposed

Notwithstanding all this, “the clinical team … never discussed as a group what it even understood by the word ‘transgender’”, clinicians “never dream[t] of telling a young person that they weren’t trans”, and they always prescribed puberty-blockers unless the patient actively refused them. What’s more, expressions of doubt by staff were discouraged. “Someone would raise concerns, and someone else would move in to shut it down,” writes Barnes. “Those who persisted in asking difficult questions were not received well … those who spoke out were labelled troublemakers. [According to one witness,] ‘There were always scapegoats … and they were always driven out one way or another’ […] Junior staff looked on and learnt.”

Note the chilling effect.

Barnes’ book bears the title “Time to Think” because she identifies the general problem at GIDS as that of “not stopping to think”. This raises the question, why? Barnes gives several reasons. One was the fact that GIDS was propping up Tavistock financially, so senior managers had a material interest in not disturbing its assumptions. Another was the unwillingness to offend transgender lobby groups such as Mermaids for “fear of a backlash”. Most important of all was concern for the “progressive” reputation of the management. According to David Bell, consultant adult psychiatrist at the Trust and whistleblower, “The senior management regarded [GIDS] as a star in our crown, because they saw it as a way of showing that we weren’t crusty old conservatives; that we were up with the game and cutting-edge. That was very important to the management to show we were like that.” Observe how that has nothing at all to do with the care of patients, and how it has everything to do with the self-regard and political standing of the managers. Not for the first time, the basic narcissism of progressive virtue-signalling is exposed.

What’s at stake in the culture war over trans-gender self-identification? Amongst other things, there is the genuine mental and physical well-being of disturbed, vulnerable young people. Second, there is the freedom of transgender sceptics to give lawful expression to important and reasonable doubts, without suffering damage to their careers or the loss of their jobs at the hands of noisy, aggressive activists who want to stop us thinking, lest we see the truth.

Anti-racism” versus the correction of ethnic disadvantage

The discrepancy between “progressive” virtue-signalling and the effective relief of human suffering is also evident on the racial front of the culture wars. In his recent book Beyond Grievance: What the Left gets wrong about ethnic minorities, Rakib Ehsan points to evidence that Britain today is remarkably lacking in racial prejudice. This includes the 2018 report of the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, “Being Black in the EU”, which showed that racial discrimination was least prevalent in Britain amongst all EU member states. Ehsan also observes what Kemi Badenoch’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities reported in March 2021, namely, that average outcomes vary significantly between different ethnic groups. Chinese and Indian Britons usually outperform West Africans, West Africans outperform Caribbean Britons, and all non-white groups outperform poor whites.

These data simply do not support the claim of “anti-racist” activists that Black and Ethnic Minority (“BAME”) people in Britain are generally disadvantaged because of the racial prejudice of white Britons — that “systemic racism” is the cause of the problem. They also suggest that some ethnic minorities tend to perform better than others because of internal cultural factors — not least, strong families and high educational aspirations. By the same token, it suggests that the cause of relative disadvantage often lies in culture, not racism. “Family dynamics and internal cultural attitudes,” Ehsan writes, “can have a very real impact on the life trajectory of people living in Britain’s competitive society.”

Yet, Ehsan notes, in defiance of the empirical data, the Labour Party has given itself over to the Black Lives Matter movement, “brainlessly” importing racially polarising identity politics from the US. This holds, as a matter of political dogma, that we may speak of “BAME” people as if they are a single homogenous body, united in their common disadvantage, which is simply attributable to a systemic racism rooted in every white person’s “privilege”. Ehsan comments that “modern left ‘academivists’ … often prioritise the aggressive promotion of their regressive politics over rigorous academic investigation”. Moreover, he thinks that “the identitarian left would love nothing more than to psychologically imprison all of Britain’s ethnic and racial minorities in a hopeless state of grievance”, so as to preserve “their precious white-privilege narratives and their perception of Britain as a hellish island of rampant institutional racism”.

They react with the fist of repression, desperate to freeze thought with fear

All of which raises the question, why are such narratives and perception so “precious” to the “progressive” Left? What are they valuable for? People who really care to correct unjust economic and social disadvantages are eager to understand the causes correctly, since accurate diagnosis is requisite for effective remedy. When presented with evidence that their wonted diagnosis — say, systemic racism — simply doesn’t stand up empirically, they react with keen curiosity, albeit with scepticism. That’s because what matters above all else to them is solving the real problems of human distress and injustice.

That is not how the “progressive” Left react. Instead of words of doubt and criticism, they react with the fist of repression, filling the air with abuse and threat, desperate to freeze thought with fear. What do they really care about? Ehsan suggests that money is one thing, writing that “the financial health of bad-faith actors ultimately rests on the peddling of fundamentally warped interpretations of British society and its institutions”. Then, of course, there are “anti-racist” political careers built upon carefully fashioned personas, which attract social status and power.

There is more to it than that. It is notable that members of the Cultural Left are determined to think the very worst of their own country. It is important to them that Britain is, and remains, a “hellish island of rampant racism”. They don’t need to believe this. The hard evidence says that they shouldn’t, but they do, regardless. Why? What’s going on here psychologically, even spiritually?

One plausible candidate is the operation of a degenerate Christian sensibility. For Christians, the paradoxical mark of the genuinely righteous person is a profound awareness of their own unrighteousness. The saint is distinguished as the one who knows more deeply than others just what a sinner he really is. There is considerable virtue in this, for it tempers self-righteousness with compassion for fellow sinners, forbidding the righteous to cast the unrighteous beyond the human pale.

Yet, like all virtue, it is vulnerable to vice. It can degenerate from genuine humility into a perverse bid for supreme self-righteousness, which exaggerates one’s sins and broadcasts the display of repentance: holier-than-thou because more-sinful-than-thou, signalling one’s personal virtue by inflating the collective vice of one’s people. The Jesuit-educated French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner, captured this when writing of contemporary, post-imperial Europe in the Tyranny of Guilt:

This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. … Barbarity is Europe’s great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility).

There is a self-obsessive quality about this. Whilst the rhetoric claims the mantle of the oppressed, the action completely ignores them:

[B]y erecting lack of love for oneself into a leading principle, we lie to ourselves about ourselves and close ourselves to others … In Western self-hatred, the Other has no place. It is a narcissistic relationship in which the African, the Indian, and Arab are brought in as extras.

What’s at stake in the culture war over race? First, an accurate diagnosis of the causes of unfair disadvantages suffered by particular ethnic groups or social classes, which is the prerequisite for effective relief. Second, the avoidance of a demoralising, polarising politics that excites groundless, Manichaean antagonism between “blacks” and “whites”.

Decolonisation” versus the security of the West

The colonial front of the culture wars is related to the racial one. British colonial history has become controversial in part because it is used by the British representatives of Black Lives Matter to argue that the systemic racism of Britain today is rooted in our colonial past, which can be equated with slavery. Therefore, we must repudiate our colonial past, pulling down the statues of imperial heroes, in order to exorcise our lingering racism.

In addition to a more truthful account of race relations in Britain today, what’s also at stake on the colonial front is the integrity of the United Kingdom. This is because some Scottish separatists make an argument that can be distilled into this equation: Britain equals Empire equals Evil. Accordingly, Scottish independence would be an act of national self-purification. By cutting the cords binding it to a Britain discredited by the imperial abuse of hard power, Scotland is free to sail off into a bright, new, shiny, sin-free, European future.

The British Empire was one of the first states in history to abolish slave-trading

Bound up with this is the third thing at stake on the colonial front of the culture wars: the strength and self-confidence of the West. Britain remains an important secondary pillar of liberal democracy in the world. Not many things would delight the West’s totalitarian enemies in Moscow and Beijing more than to witness the disintegration of the United Kingdom. Recalling the final days of the Scottish referendum campaign in September 2014, the then British ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant has written, “My Russian opposite number sympathised with barely suppressed glee at the prospect of the UK dismembered and its permanent seat on the security council called into question. It was clear to me that Scottish independence would have had a devastating impact on the UK’s standing in the world, much greater than withdrawal from the EU ever would.”

What is more, the obsession of the “decolonisers” with the British Empire — rather than, say, the Arab or Chinese or Russian or Comanche or Zulu one — is curious and begs explanation. In part, their real target is the record of the West, for which the British Empire is a proxy. Certainly, the story they tell about the British Empire as a litany of racism, economic exploitation, cultural repression and unconstrained violence is eagerly picked up and broadcast all over the world by the likes of Al Jazeera. It also fuels the demand by Caribbean states for reparations for slavery from Europe, quantified in June of this year by the Brattle Group as amounting to US$108 trillion.

As I have demonstrated in my recent book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, the “decolonising” narrative is wildly distorted, not least in its dogged refusal to recognise that the British Empire was one of the first states in the history of the world to abolish slave-trading and slavery. It then used its imperial power to suppress these practices both from Brazil, across Africa, to India and Australasia. My attempt to correct the record has been met with the thought-resistant fist of repression, not only amongst university students and professors, but also amongst the junior staff of my original publisher at Bloomsbury.

What’s at stake in the culture war over colonial history? First, the exposure of a false narrative about race relations in Britain today. Second, the exposure of a false narrative that inflates the case for Scottish independence and the disintegration of the UK. Third, the exposure of a false narrative that undermines confidence in the liberal West, at home and abroad, at a time when illiberal powers in Moscow and Beijing are rattling their sabres in Ukraine and at Taiwan.

The Culture Wars and electoral advantage

So, what’s at stake in the Culture Wars? In sum, these things:

  • the well-being of vulnerable young people disturbed by questions of gender and sex;
  • the accurate diagnosis of the causes of disadvantage suffered by some ethnic groups, so as to enable effective redress;
  • security against groundlessly divisive racial politics;
  • the integrity of the United Kingdom;
  • faith in the West and security against opportunistic demands for reparations for slavery;
  • and the freedom from illiberal, authoritarian repression to question and contradict false assumptions and narratives that threaten all of these.

These things give anyone who cares about them a reason to vote Conservative in the next general election. The Labour Party has been at best an uncertain defender of most of them and at worst an active opponent. On gender, it is true that Westminster Labour has lately set its face against gender self-identification. The Scottish Party has not. Gender-critical Rosie Duffield, MP, reported as recently as July that she felt ostracised by colleagues because of her views.

On race, Rakib Ehsan, who implies that he himself is a Labour supporter, reports that the party has completely swallowed racially polarising BLM politics imported from the US. When the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published its report in March 2021, it was thoughtlessly dismissed by every commentator in the Guardian. The Labour Party is now promising us a new Race Equality Act to tackle “the structural racism that scars our society”.

On colonial history and its legacy, I have not heard any expression of dissent from the “decolonising” narrative by any leading member of the Labour Party. I observe that in his book-length case for British reparations for slavery, Britain’s Black Debt, the Trinidadian activist-academic Hilary Beckles deliberately began most of his chapters with a quotation of British Labour MPs and Shadow Cabinet Ministers.

As for freedom of speech, the Labour Party relentlessly opposed and harried the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in its passage through Parliament.

For the first time, Teflon Nicola found herself fatally exposed

The Conservative Government, on the other hand, has resisted the dismantling of statues such as that of Cecil Rhodes, and the concomitant triumph of the “decolonising” narrative with its message of white colonial guilt, by insisting on a policy of “retain and explain”. It sponsored the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, whose nuanced and grounded conclusions about ethnic disadvantage Ehsan has effectively confirmed. Finally, it launched and saw safely through Parliament the freedom of speech bill, which was enacted in May of this year.

There are many important things at stake in the culture wars, and a Conservative government looks more likely to defend them. Moreover, there is evidence that it will do so to electoral advantage. No doubt the cost of living and the funding of the NHS will be foremost in voters’ minds when they go to the ballot box in 2024. Nevertheless, culture war concerns will often be there, too. We have recently seen two straws blowing in the political wind. One was the widespread opposition that Nicola Sturgeon aroused in Scotland by stubbornly proposing a law that would effectively permit transgender self-identification. For the first time, Teflon Nicola found herself fatally exposed as she marched out ahead, only to find that lots of her would-be supporters were standing still, their arms sullenly folded. It was the gender issue that had broken their trust in her.

The second, more recent straw was the defeat ten days ago of the “Voice to Parliament” campaign in Australia. That campaign would have given Aboriginal people — one of many ethnic groups in Australia and comprising only 3.5 per cent of the total population — uniquely privileged representation. Propelled by a sense of colonial guilt (to quote Fraser Nelson in last Friday’s Telegraph), “the Yes campaign outspent No by five to one. It had sports stars, companies and the whole establishment on its side, yet still lost in every Australian state”. The opposition was led by an Aboriginal politician, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who argued that colonialism has benefited Aboriginals. The “re-racialisation” of Australia into Manichaean camps of “white” and “black” should be resisted, and attention should focus instead on addressing unfair disparities, no matter what the skin colour of their victims. Price’s message strongly echoes those of Rakib Ehsan’s book and Kemi Badenoch’s commission — and it won decisively by six votes to four.

These two straws in the wind find broader social scientific backing in Eric Kaufmann’s Policy Exchange report, The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary Britain. From a YouGov poll in May 2022, Kaufmann concluded that “the British public leans approximately 2 to 1 against the cultural leftist position across 20 culture wars issues”. These, therefore, form ideal ground “on which conservative parties can unite both the right and the centre-ground, whilst creating divisions between the centre-left and the far left”.

That reveals the final thing at stake in the Culture Wars: votes.

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