Out of his depth? Nigel Farage during flooding on the Somerset levels in February. Photo: Getty
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How do you solve a problem like Nigel?

Whether or not Ukip gets its “political earthquake” in the European polls, it has changed the terrain of the next general election.

Nigel Farage reveals a lot through the things he chooses not to do and the things he regrets having said. For example, the Ukip leader recently decided he would not stand as a parliamentary candidate in the Newark by-election due on 5 June. He conceded, according to BBC reports, that his party’s “bubble would burst” if he ran and lost.

Farage now denies using the “b” word, for obvious reasons: to concede that his current support is overinflated is to hasten the day that it shrivels. But if Ukip continues to harvest votes on anything like the scale it has done in recent months, it will determine the outcome of the next general election. Farage attracts support from across the political spectrum but causes roughly twice as much damage to the Tories as to Labour. As Ed Miliband’s core vote is bolstered by left-wing defectors from the Liberal Democrat camp, it won’t take much of a Ukip turnout in marginal seats to result in David Cameron’s eviction from office.

For months now, the Conservatives have been braced for a shellacking in the local and European elections, with Ukip the main aggressor. Downing Street’s focus has been on averting panic among Tory MPs in the short term and then, over time, chipping away at Farage’s credibility and respectability. The aim is for angry voters to see Ukip as a tool of midterm protest but not a valid menu item when it comes to choosing a government.

Central to this argument is the warning that Britain could find itself saddled with a pro-European, pro-immigration Labour government, although Tory MPs report limited success with that line. Many Ukip voters are sufficiently enraged with all of Westminster to see no significant difference between the major parties. Downing Street is becoming more aware of the limitations of “Vote Farage; get Miliband” as a message. One No 10 source tells me: “It will have to be more sophisticated than that.” The general election campaign will stress economic dependability. Cameron will be sold as the only candidate who can be relied upon not to poison the recovery with snake-oil policy prescriptions, whether bottled as Farage’s fearmongering nationalism or as Miliband’s wealth-destroying retro-socialism.

Yet the Tories know that they can only begin to push that message once the smoke raised by the European election result clears. This is where the Newark by-election – and Farage’s decision to sit it out – becomes interesting. The seat has a solid Tory majority of 16,000. With different boundaries in the past, it has returned Labour MPs. The present vacancy exists because the incumbent, Patrick Mercer, resigned over egregious breaches of parliamentary rules regarding cash for lobbying. It is the kind of contest that delivers an earth-shaking upset ahead of a general election when there is a prevailing sense that the country is about to jettison the government of the day – as in the run-up to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide and Gordon Brown’s despatch in 2010. No one in Westminster detects such a mood abroad today. Labour is playing down its chances. The Liberal Democrats will be happy just to finish ahead of the Bus Pass Elvis Party.

Farage looked at the odds and decided that he, too, couldn’t win. He also meditated on Ukip’s handling of two earlier by-elections in this parliament. One was in February 2013 at Eastleigh in Hampshire, where the party came second and scooped the most votes cast on polling day. The Lib Dems held the seat only because they had organised a firewall of postal votes. The other was in February this year, at Wythenshawe and Sale East in Manchester, where Ukip again came second, beaten by Labour’s well-oiled get-out-the-vote machine. The second of these results wasn’t bad for the Faragists but was widely read as an embarrassing setback because, after Eastleigh, the expectations of a breakthrough had run out of control.

The lessons for Ukip’s high command from those episodes were that taking Westminster seats is a whole lot harder than heaping up protest votes in national opinion polls, and that the loss of underdog status poses a significant threat to the party. Once seen as the main challenger to the leading parties, Ukip is subjected to raised expectations of consistency and professionalism that it struggles to meet.

A big problem is finding candidates who have enough character to stand out in a campaign, thus easing the pressure on Farage to be constantly front-of-house, and without looking creepy or betraying views that make wavering supporters flinch. A very senior figure in Ukip once complained to me that it attracted “people who have failed at everything else in life, are feeling angry about it and are looking for someone to blame”. Last year, when there was chatter around Westminster of David Cameron facing a leadership challenge, the party tried hard to “turn” a handful of rebellious Tory MPs but none took the bait.

In any case, Tory defectors do not necessarily make good Ukip advocates. Until last month, the party’s campaigns director was Neil Hamilton, the former Conservative MP best known for losing a safe seat in 1997 thanks to his embroilment in the cash-for-questions scandal. Hamilton was demoted when Farage started struggling to answer reporters’ questions about how an emblem of Westminster sleaze fitted Ukip’s anti-establishment message.

In Newark, the party’s candidate is Roger Helmer, a 70-year-old former Tory MEP whose record of social commentary includes defending a policy to repatriate immigrants, claiming that some rape victims should “share part of the responsibility” for being attacked and sympathising with people who finding homosexuality “abnormal and undesirable”. (Nigel Farage told Jeremy Paxman on 19 May: “He was brought up in a traditional biblical upbringing. He lived as a young man in a country where homosexual behaviour was an imprisonable offence . . . You know social attitudes do change and we shouldn’t demonise people.”)

Ukip’s dilemma is that it relies on votes from people who wish such views enjoyed more currency in mainstream politics, while also feeling the need to dissociate itself from lurid prejudice. It is hard to disentangle the two impulses. Scrutiny of Ukip’s rank and file has flushed out a stream of councillors and activists who deploy the idioms and imagery of the far right – Holocaust denial, Nazi salutes and calls for expulsion of non-white people from Britain. This month, Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a British-born Indian former member of Ukip, published a withering attack on the party for “deliberately attracting the racist vote” and moving in a direction she found “terrifying”.

Nigel Farage’s jovial bluster is no longer sufficient to launder the more sinister views that swirl around him. He turns tetchy when challenged over his distaste for foreign languages spoken on trains. His casual conflations of Romanian nationality and criminal behaviour have prompted hostile comment from previously indulgent Tory-leaning newspapers. Farage seems unsure whether he should be defending the assertion or apologising for it.

It is not yet clear what the impact of any of this will be on Ukip’s poll performance. The party still enjoys some immunity by claiming to be the victim of smears by the “mainstream media” and the “Westminster establishment”. MPs from all parties are torn between the urge to denounce Ukip as a receptacle for xenophobic bile and fear of alienating their own errant voters.

On the Tory side there is growing confidence that Ukip support can only decline as the party acquires a disreputable air. The source of many press reports that embarrass Farage is Conservative Campaign HQ, where researchers scour pamphlets and social media for unsavoury remarks by Ukip candidates. Tory strategists recognise that undermining Farage is a job best undertaken at arm’s length. Too many direct attacks by Cameron would lend Ukip the status of equal adversary and risk reminding Tory dissenters of the times they have felt insulted by their own leader. “We need the racist thing to seep into public consciousness,” says an ally of the Prime Minister. “But it can’t be us saying it.”

Moderate Tories are beginning to see an opportunity to cleanse their own party of toxic associations if the perception of nasty extremism can be made to cling to Farage. Some MPs admit privately to being glad to see the back of some of the defectors from their local constituency organisations – a view reinforced by the abusive letters and threatening emails they get from the new Ukip recruits. “In a bizarre kind of way they’ve done the Tories a favour in the long run by making us look moderate,” says one Conservative who is defending a marginal seat.

Labour has been slow in waking up to that dynamic. At first, the opposition tended to view Farage’s strength as a helpful disruption of Tory support – a family feud on the right that eased Miliband’s path to Downing Street. Then it became clear that Ukip was attracting support from older, working-class voters who felt neglected by Labour in government, especially over immigration policy, but remained culturally immune to voting Tory. At that point, Miliband’s allies conceded that there was a potential hazard down the line but insisted it was not big enough to cost Labour seats in the 2015 general election. Only in recent weeks have aides started voicing concern that Ukip is dragging the whole political debate on to terrain that the Labour leader finds inhospitable.

At the start of the year, senior Labour figures were counting on the result of the European elections to trigger civil strife on the Tory side. Now they are frantically managing down expectations of their own performance, portraying the poll as a false indicator of national allegiances in which the voices of fanatical Eurosceptics will be over-represented – a free hit in which voters will punish all the Westminster parties. (As one strategist puts it: “A f*** you vote in a f*** you election.”)

The results of European ballots show a historically weak correlation with the outcomes of subsequent general elections. William Hague’s Tories won in 1999. A decade earlier the Green Party took 15 per cent of the vote. Politics then reverted to prior trends. Awkwardly for Miliband, that trend looks like a downward drift for Labour. A modest opinion-poll advantage is melting into the margin of error. At this stage of the parliament, an opposition expecting to win the next general election would usually have a commanding lead. Even in the unfamiliar landscape of coalition politics, with Ukip as a wild card, Labour should be the natural choice of people who voted Tory in 2010 and have since regretted it. “You’d expect them to be switching from government to opposition, not to some random third party,” says Ben Page, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos MORI. “Labour just isn’t getting those switchers.”

Labour’s campaign has not been short of policy. There have been announcements about housing (capping rents; taxing unused properties), wages (beefing up the statutory minimum) and health (guaranteed GP appointments within 48 hours), among others. There have been aggressive assaults on Nick Clegg as the pathetic mascot of millionaire-hugging Tories. Labour has also trained its fire on Ukip, presenting it as a gang of hard-nut Thatcherites, bent on robbing workers of their employee protections and privatising the NHS.

To Labour’s great frustration, those messages have, in media terms, been peripheral to the noisier arguments about EU membership and whether or not a man who doesn’t want to live next door to Romanians is a racist. Miliband believes his focus on cost-of-living issues and fixing an economy that channels more wealth to the wealthy will look more relevant – prescient, even – when attention returns to the general election.

The European poll was always going to be a moment of intense interest in Ukip and a probable high-water mark in its support. Farage’s discomfort when interrogated about race and his difficulty recruiting presentable candidates can only increase when voters are choosing MPs to form a government, rather than lashing out indiscriminately at Westminster. Still, his capacity to harm Cameron’s prospects of re-election remains strong. The working assumption among Labour and Tories alike is that Ukip needs to take only about 7-8 per cent of the vote in 2015 to deprive the Conservatives of a Commons majority, which is a low bar for a party that regularly achieves double that score in the opinion polls.

For Labour, the threat is different but no less severe. Ukip’s reach may be limited by its status as a vehicle for protest votes but that gives it power to define the terms of protest in ways that harm the constitutionally recognised main opposition party. Labour’s priority is to look like a government-in-waiting but part of that image requires also looking like the main destination for people who don’t like the incumbents. Throughout the current parliament, Miliband’s defenders have credited him with courage in challenging the conventional political and economic wisdom; breaking with the old free-market orthodoxies; tackling “powerful vested interests” in the form of Rupert Murdoch, bankers, the big energy companies and (less convincingly) the dominance of Labour Party structures by the trade unions.

If that claim were resonating with voters, at least some of the insurgent energy that is fuelling the Ukip phenomenon would be lighting up Labour’s campaigns. Instead the party is lumped in with the Tories and Lib Dems as part of a shabby establishment stitch-up, with the added baggage of a reputation for economic mismanagement.

It is an old opposition conundrum: how to fashion a message that is dramatic enough to represent a credible alternative to the status quo, yet responsible enough to withstand scrutiny as a potential programme for government. Ukip isn’t bothering with the second part of the equation (which will be its undoing next year), but Farage is hogging the rhetoric of change and upheaval. His incendiary nationalism burns up the oxygen of publicity that Miliband needs to illuminate his milder offer of soft-left populism. That all suits Cameron to the extent that he is in the business of promising security through continuity.

While Labour and Tories have opposing reasons for wanting to see Farage thwarted, the basis for their arguments is the same. Downing Street aides and Miliband advisers both speak of the need to impress upon voters how high the stakes will be in 2015; how the ultimate question is whether Cameron is allowed to continue as Prime Minister – with one side warning that another term of Conservatism would finish off hope of fair rewards for all and the other warning that Labour would guarantee national bankruptcy. What they want, above all, is for the public to view the general election as a two-party race, with the Lib Dems and Ukip as sirens, luring in wasted votes and thereby abetting the real enemy.

How effective that combined effort will be depends on how bloody-minded people are feeling about politics in general. In 2010, the Tories were spooked by Nick Clegg’s sudden emergence from the first televised leaders’ debate as the candidate of political renewal – a mantle Cameron had hoped to wear. An aggressive campaign was launched, supported by Tory-leaning newspapers, to discredit the Lib Dem leader. It did not work, in so far as Cameron still failed to win a majority. Clegg was hobbled by the organisational incapacity of his party to capitalise on a surge of public interest, as much as by press vilification.

The Farage effect is partly analogous to Cleggmania, albeit played out over a longer timescale. Ukip’s appeal is the embittered, pessimistic inversion of the appeal that the Lib Dems once briefly had. Anti-politics is now soaking up the resentment caused by the coalition’s failure to deliver “new politics”. (And Ukip also attracts its share of former Lib Dem voters.) The Conservative newspapers are turning on Farage, which will hinder him, but not necessarily more than he will be hobbled by his own party’s institutional flakiness. Yet he doesn’t need to advance any further to alter the shape of British – or, more precisely, English – politics. That work is already done. Militant hostility to Britain’s membership of the EU and to immigration in general has infected mainstream opinion.

The threat that situation poses to Cameron lies in the electoral arithmetic – Ukip can cost him seats. For Miliband, it is a problem of momentum – Ukip has stolen his
insurgent thunder. The Tories spent too long chasing Ukip’s agenda; Labour spent too long ignoring it. Farage’s bubble will not suddenly burst. More likely, the air will seep out slowly over the coming year, by which time both Cameron’s and Miliband’s prospects of winning a majority may already be blown away.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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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.

***

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