What even is Britishness? Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
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The culture wars of the left have contributed to Labour becoming unelectable

Pseudo-radical academics do the same damage to the cause of the political left in Britain as the populist American right does to the Republican Party. 

As Labour continues to flail around and self-flagellate, the Conservatives are putting their first post-election plans into action. As part of its new counter-extremism strategy, announced by Theresa May, the government will stress the importance of promoting British values. Now shorn of its Liberal Democrat deadweight, which was always more concerned about upsetting the tropes of metropolitan ­multiculturalism, the Conservative government hopes to add a greater ideological dimension to the fight against extremism. The question is how this will be translated into legislation.

The business of promoting Britishness has always broken down at the point of delivery. If the definition of extremism is famously vague, any consensus on what constitutes our national identity has proved more elusive still.

How will the Labour Party respond? In 2007, Gordon Brown sought to begin a national debate about “what are the British values that make us proud to be British?”. The 2009 book he co-edited with the journalist Matthew d’Ancona, Being British, is one of the more thoughtful offerings on the subject. It is not that the conception was flawed; but Brown, for whatever reason, was not the man to take it forward.

The greatest problem that the Labour Party has today is that it has lost its ability to appear national. At the heart of Jon Cruddas’s recent post-mortem of the election campaign was the party’s failure to articulate a genuinely national message. All the great Labour victories were built from this basis. The 1945 victory – reinvented by the film-maker Ken Loach as some sort of kick in the teeth for Toryism, thereafter betrayed by quislings of the left – was nothing of the sort. The “spirit of ’45” has been sullied because, to borrow a contemporary phrase, its achievements, such as the NHS, have been “weaponised” to serve a sectional message.

As Labour continues to cast around for a working formula, it is in grave danger of looking in the wrong places. Much was made of the use as strategists of key advisers from Barack Obama’s team during the ­British election campaign. David Axelrod, ­Obama’s former guru and adviser, provoked some griping, given his large retainer and relatively limited involvement. Others, such as Arnie Graf, were said not to have been involved enough.

Yet there is a certain irony in this attempt to replicate the Obama model – because, if anything, the British left has started to replicate the flaws of the American right. On the one hand, there was the s0-called 35 per cent strategy adopted by the Miliband team: mobilising the base with the aim of winning just enough votes to get over the line. This was the first-past-the-post equivalent of Karl Rove’s much-maligned 51 per cent strategy in George W Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

On the other hand, it has meant embracing the left’s version of the culture wars that characterised those campaigns in the United States. In the UK, it is not religious fundamentalists or shock jocks who insist on controlling the tone of national debate, but their mirror-image on the left: the self-appointed, state-funded popes of received wisdom in the universities and the arts. To many British academics – or, at least, to the noisiest ones – there could not be anything more sacrilegious than promoting British values. National identity is contested terrain, of course. But what the liberal left contests is that we should be proud to be British at all.

Pseudo-radical academics do the same damage to the cause of the political left in Britain as the populist American right does to the Republican Party. Outraged of Oxbridge are the first out of the traps to convey their horror at anything that offends their world-view.

Academics often talk about something called the “cultural turn”, which began in the 1970s. This stressed the importance of “culture” in nearly every aspect of the humanities and social science and gave rise to post-structuralism, critical theory and other faddish sub-disciplines. In truth, this was not a “turn” but a “project”, which is still going on. To deviate from it is greatly discouraged. Indeed, the cultural turn also coincided with a shift in the political strategy of the radical left in this era. Giving up on the hairy-handed troglodytes of the working classes, it saw more opportunity to break down societal norms by picking at society’s fabric.

The Labour Party polled 9,347,304 of the votes cast at the general election. An estimated half of that number visited last year’s poppy display at the Tower of London. When Michael Gove was education secretary, the self-appointed guardians of the historical profession greatly enjoyed themselves announcing their opposition to Gove’s expressed desire to teach more British history in schools. But, in a June 2014 poll for YouGov, 77 per cent of respondents supported the notion that the role of schools was to instil British values in their students.

On this fundamental point, the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, is one of the saner voices. He “gets it” far better than many of his erstwhile colleagues in academia and, crucially, any contender for the Labour leadership to emerge so far. Reflecting on the kicking that the UK Independence Party gave Labour in its heartlands, he has urged his party to “champion a sense of national identity which, in many parts of the country, feels undervalued”.

It will be a while yet before the Labour Party gets its act together. In the meantime, it would be a disaster if it subcontracted these culture wars to an intellectual establishment that has served the left so badly.

John Bew is a historian and an NS contributing writer. He is completing a biography of Clement Attlee

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.