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Murdoch could have “media power unheard of in British history”

As the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB hangs in the balance, Joan Bakewell grills Mark Thompson,

I have known Mark Thompson since the mid- 1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2's Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: Mark Damazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day's agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.

Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation - the world of Bloomsbury, King's College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation - now in our seventies - still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark's path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially.
Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell I'll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?
Mark Thompson I've no idea. We can find out.
JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.
MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there's no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided - a Beyoncé audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We're known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way £7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we're doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.
JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.
MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there's no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.
JB There's a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we're living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.
MT You can say that. I couldn't comment.
JB It's as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.
MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It's not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there's exactly such a loss of support.
JB What about government support?
MT I'll come to that. The BBC is almost unique - the NHS is, too - as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. The BBC is more essential in terms of the provision of news than it used to be, because, although there's a multiplicity of sources of news, many of the other historically strong sources are much weaker. Something like 85 per cent of the UK population use the BBC's news every week.
JB But over the horizon comes the new deal with BSkyB and the [government's] decision about Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. Sky News is to be hived off under a non-executive chairman and some of the board are going to be non-executive for a period of only ten years. This has shifted the landscape for you, hasn't it?
MT Across Europe, we've seen the consolidation of commercial media. A pattern in many European countries is that there is only room for one major pay-television operator. If you are that operator, the amount of cash that's potentially thrown off by the business is colossal. In the UK, you have a pay-TV operator experiencing exactly this. Because of commercial decisions taken ten or 20 years ago, BSkyB is in
an utterly commanding position and will have far more money than the BBC or any other media player in the UK to spend on content.
JB What do you think of that?
MT We're talking about a concentration of media power in the UK that's unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe. The combination of that kind of power with ownership of a significant part of the newspapers people read, as well as an internet service provider - this is extraordinary power. In the end, it's for the competition authorities . . .
JB Did you press for it to be referred to the competition authorities?
MT Last autumn, I rather famously co-signed a letter saying that the proposal of News Corporation to buy the remaining balance of the shares should be referred to the competition authorities. I also made the case in Edinburgh in the MacTaggart Lecture last year.
JB So what do you make of this settlement?
MT I don't want to say any more. It's unusual for me to want to do anything other than cover these stories in an impartial and objective way. Given the shape of what's happening - the relative decline of other sources of electronic news, the funding security of ITN, the ability of commercial radio to fund news, the difficulty newspapers are having in funding newsgathering - it is going to be more, not less, important that the BBC has sufficient resources to be able universally to deliver high-quality, strictly impartial news to the British public.
JB You've never faced such a big beast, have you?
MT The concentration of media power doesn't have to be a problem. The issue is whether governments and competition authorities look at the environment and continue to look at it.
JB Do you think they'll buy your talent?
MT The BBC historically has had far less money to spend on its services than other players around the world. We remain the biggest and most trusted international news provider in the world, not because we've got more money but because we've got a reputation. It's going to be tougher after last year's Spending Review (SR) settlement, but we do have the resources to deliver outstanding journalism.
JB But they can still buy your talent.
MT For decades, we've seen a steady stream of people who've grown up at the BBC going off to ITV. To some extent, that's the system working - one of the reasons you might want a BBC is as a nursery slope for talent.
JB Would you work for Murdoch?
MT (Laughs) I'm fully, fully engaged doing what I'm doing at the moment.
JB It's not a "no"?
MT I wouldn't regard it as a "yes", either. It's important to look at the shape and balance of our media sector, rather than trying to demonise anyone. I believe that BSkyB, in many ways, has been a positive force. It's good to see somebody else investing in British talent and that, alongside the BBC, you've got Sky Arts. But it's important that everyone realises that Sky Arts is a service for those who already know they like the arts. When we put the Proms on BBC television, we can get, not counting the last night, between ten and 12 million people to sample them. We take the arts and share them with an entire population. We're doing something very different from Sky. There's room for both.
JB The World Service suffered cuts recently. [The BBC has] a new chairman in Chris Patten, who I suspect made representations to government and got some of that rescinded. On the other hand, the World Service will be brought into the BBC's budget. I'm worried. The BBC won't ring-fence that money and there's a risk that the corporation will leach it away.
MT You say that the BBC "won't ring-fence" it, but once it's paid for by the licence fee, I expect to increase the funding of the World Service, not diminish it. I'm sure that increase will last to the end of the present charter period. I don't know how much I can increase it; I'll need to propose this to the BBC Trust.
JB The financing could have stayed with the Foreign Office, couldn't it?
MT It could. But one of the lessons I was beginning to draw last summer from conversations with the government concerning the SR was that the World Service's funding would be safer in the hands of the BBC than in the context of these once-every-three-years SRs.
JB Let's speak about local news. At one point, BBC Oxford News was going to be cut. Then you got a letter from David Cameron . . .
MT I had a nice letter from David Cameron [about this], which I replied to with another nice letter.
JB So there was a charming collusion here between two people who live in Oxford.
MT First, let's pull back a bit. We're in the middle of an open debate inside the BBC about its future. One idea was whether you could merge local radio with Radio 5 Live or reduce local radio in some way. Although local radio is relatively cheap to run, when you run 40 radio stations in England, you have to multiply the cost. The point of local radio is that if it's not local, it's not doing its job. It's reasonable for people to have a debate about merging or shutting local radio but that's not the way forward for the BBC. There's a number of people, particularly older people, for whom local radio is the main or only form of BBC radio they consume.
JB But wasn't it rather strange to get a letter from the Prime Minister about local radio?
MT If you want to pursue it, you must talk to him about it. I've had a number of letters from MPs raising concerns that have been put to them by their constituents about these rumours. The terms of the Prime Minister's letter were those raised by his constituents.
JB Did you write as emollient a letter back to each of those MPs?
MT I've written in similar, even identical terms to other MPs.
JB You've got a new chairman, a strong character, who is taking an interest in the World Service and the pay scales in the BBC. A lot of people would agree that flak has come the way of the BBC because of management salaries. That's undeniable, people have got it in for you. There's a paradox: those who are paid high salaries are often in high-risk jobs, so the salaries are a compensation for that risk - but BBC jobs are for life, with good pensions.
MT Have you looked at actuarial tables for BBC directors general in terms of high-risk jobs?
JB They go on to better things, perhaps.
MT Give me an example. (Laughs)
JB Where did Greg [Dyke] go?
MT Yeah. Just mull over that. William Haley became editor of the Times when he left the job in 1952. That's it. (Laughs)
JB The point, Mark, is that it's done the BBC a lot of damage. The press and the public have taken against the idea that there are "fat cats".
MT It's clearly controversial. Each year, we ask people whether, over the course of the year, their opinion of the BBC has gone up or down. What percentage of the UK population would you say cites senior pay as the reason for why their opinion of the BBC went down last year?
JB A lot of people won't know [about it].
MT It's about 1.5 per cent of people.
JB Including [the crime writer and Conservative peer] P D James.
MT Most people in broadcasting understand that if you compare pay at the BBC with other broadcasting pay, it's much lower. Compared to other public bodies, it's very high. The BBC is a big institution and requires management. We've already committed to reducing the number of senior managers. When I became director general in 2004, there were about 700 senior managers - there are just below 500 now. Two hundred have gone already. You will see in the coming weeks a further, significant planned fall in the numbers of senior managers.
JB And pay?
MT Pay has come down significantly. We were the first - or one of the first - public bodies to freeze pay. I've never taken a bonus in this
job. Long before bonuses became contentious, I was waiving my bonus. We've frozen bonuses for all jobs; we've had a pay freeze for these jobs; we've removed pension supplements for senior managers. I think you will go on seeing a period of reform, but if the BBC cuts itself off from the way in which people in the rest of the media are paid . . . it's not a healthy way to run a great broadcaster. We are beginning to see executives leaving the BBC for jobs where they are being paid double or more. Once they move, it becomes very hard to come back.
JB The parallel is not with the commercial sector; it is with other public institutions.
MT All of our competition for the people we want to get is with other broadcasters.
JB You can take in managers from other industries, at private and public institutions.
MT Most of our external appointments are from the private, not public, sector. Other public bodies - local councils, even cultural institutions - aren't offering people the skills and experiences we need. The big area of growth in recent years has been the digital space, which is almost entirely in the private sector. We're having to recruit internationally and pay is in a different order. The BBC is trying to straddle the reality of finding people with what the public expects of public-sector pay. You will see more movement in the months to come.
JB In terms of management and cutting down?
MT Yes. I think we've now got the smallest top management board the BBC has ever had. I would hope that we will get to a point where the population of senior managers at the BBC is at or below 1 per cent of the staff.
JB Let's move on. Post-Hutton, post-Jonathan Ross, there's a sense that the BBC has grown timid and the fire in the belly has died.
MT Did you see the Panorama on care homes?
JB Yes, and I made a Panorama, too [on care for the elderly]. I'm aware that there are exceptions, but there's a sense that creative risk-taking has been constrained. I know this because we all have to fill in these compliance forms.
MT There are several different issues here. One is whether we've got the courage to do brilliant, cutting-edge comedy and great investigative journalism. I think we do. There were things that not every New Statesman reader will think were right - for example, recognising that we should have members of the British National Party on Question Time. We are about to broadcast a three-part documentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I can't see any evidence that, in our output, we are any less . . .
JB I'll give you the evidence.
MT No, hang on. We did, in the light of the Russell Brand show and the trouble with compe­titions, put in place more explicit methods of compliance: forms to fill in, programmes to be listened to by more than one person. Why? Because we've had some really quite bad slip-ups, which demonstrated that the existing systems of compliance weren't being properly conducted. Have we got to the point where we should look at those systems and say, "Can we simplify them?" Yes. It's very easy rhetorically to turn this into: "The BBC has lost its nerve."
JB I'm talking about me. I'm having my vocabulary checked and modulated.
MT I'm amazed anyone's got the nerve . . . I'm the editor-in-chief. I can give you permission. What won't they let you say? Swear words?
JB It's to do with an attitude that I was expressing towards a public institution. They said, "Perhaps it would be safer to say . . ." Now, when a producer says that . . .
MT The finer points of a line in a script has got nothing to do with . . .
JB It's the end result of a climate of thinking that makes people feel . . .
MT Come, come!
JB I'm telling the truth! I'm on the front line.
MT In drama, comedy and investigative journalism, I think we are braver now than ever.
JB What about the era of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer - a whole swath of socially challenging drama?
MT Did you see Five Daughters last year, which we put on BBC1? An incredibly powerful drama about the Ipswich murders. If you listen to and watch what we're up to, we're doing that. The Russell Brand show was identified as a programme that had an editorial risk and nobody bothered to listen to it. You clamp down to make sure something like that doesn't happen again. If you're saying that this can lead to an over-concern about individual phrases - let's look at that. But to try to build that up . . .
JB I wonder if it's a fear of political bias.
MT I think we are more anxious about impartiality now than we have been in the past. One of the things that the public wants us to be is strictly impartial. Impartiality is the reason we had the BNP on Question Time. Sometimes, a concern for impartiality requires quite brave decisions. We don't have the right to exclude any party that has a significant, demonstrative electoral support, up to a certain level. There have been occasions, I believe, in the past, when the BBC has had limitations. For example, I think there were some years when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration.
JB Why do you think that was?
MT There was an anxiety whether or not you might be playing into a political agenda if you did items about immigration. In the 2010 election campaign, none of the parties was talking about immigration. We believed we should deal with it, because the public - not everyone, but a significant proportion - was saying to us that it was a real issue. We've got a duty, even if issues are sensitive and difficult to get right, to confront what the public want. I don't like the idea of topics that are taboo.
JB What on earth is Thought for the Day doing in the middle of a news magazine?
MT With Radio 4, like all of our services, you've got a shape that has been built up over decades of expectations and usage, which the public likes. Not all of it fits into a sort of PowerPoint slide, with neat divisions of genre. What you've got are living services.
JB This is an eccentric leftover, isn't it?
MT The idea of a moment for reflection in the middle of a topical few hours is interesting.
JB Do you listen?
MT When I can, I do listen. The only people who are anxious about it are people who are anxious, as you are, to make a point about it. There are people for whom it is very symbolic, one way or the other, and that's to be respected and worked through.
JB You're a Catholic, aren't you?
MT The last time I looked, yes.
JB How does your life shape up with your faith and your work?
MT I've worked in broadcasting with people with every combination of belief, non-belief, or ethical value system. Most people bring the whole of themselves in some way to bear, but at the same time my job, as editor-in-chief, is to keep this organisation open to perspectives.
JB I was asking something internal about you. Does your faith find fulfilment at the BBC?
MT I don't think there's a tension between the idea of being Catholic, or an Oxford resident, or a not-very-good amateur pianist, and being editor-in-chief of the BBC. What I try to bring is a sense of the values that I think you need to discharge this job properly - commitment to impartiality, integrity and truthfulness.
JB I present the Radio 3 programme Belief [the format invites individuals to discuss their spiritual world-view] and I mentioned to you once that we were thinking of interviewing a witch and you thought that would be fine.
MT I said that, did I?
JB Then I said - seeing how far we could push the boundaries: "What about a Scientologist?" And you shook your head.
MT If I shook my head, I don't think I meant it. I take Belief to mean what it says on the tin.
JB We also had a conversation some time ago about ageism. I set out the case that the BBC had no older women reading the news and that reinforced a biased attitude towards older women in society. You took the point. A little later, modest changes were made and we now occasionally have older women reading the news. Then Miriam O'Reilly won her case against the BBC for ageism, when she was sacked from Countryfile. A lot of older women rejoiced. Were you surprised by that?
MT I learned a lot about the case as it was taking place. More than that, I think that I and the BBC have learned from and need to go on learning from the verdict. As you know, this was something I was quite concerned about before the O'Reilly case came up. But that case confirmed to me that the BBC is well placed and has a responsibility to do something about it.
JB So it remains on the agenda.
MT Very much so.

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

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Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars