If you thought the recent Gary Lineker fracas was the climax of the government’s culture wars campaign, think again. That was just a softening-up exercise: more and more ground troops will be deployed before the general election. Expect ministers to drop in to speeches provocative phrases such as “lefty lawyers”, “gender mayhem”, “champagne revisionism”, “eliterati” and “North London”.
Rishi Sunak and his team will say they are merely trying to let common sense prevail against the tidal wave of elitist-anti-establishment-liberalmongering-freedom-stabbing-treason-munchers who seek to reduce the debate to name-calling. Even to call it a culture war is far too inflammatory: it should instead be seen as a culture special military operation.
Whatever it is, it works. Lineker’s tweets were used as a weapon with which to beat the BBC. As we all piled in, attacking the corporation’s supine response to editorial pressure from the government, Tories with a deep loathing of the BBC could stand back and watch us light the fire. What should have been an opportunity to scrutinise the Tories’ new border policy was instead ju-jitsued into a harangue at the BBC about whether it could keep a grip on its sports presenters. This culminated in the delicious paradox of ministers ordering – yes, ordering – the BBC to be more independent.
This last move highlights the key weakness of the culture warriors: they can’t help but display the type of behaviour they seek to criticise. It’s their tic, their tell. So if they launch attacks on, say, a woke consensus causing censorship of valid opinion, or the non-platforming of alternative viewpoints, then take that as a cue to fling back at them their much more brazen attempts to silence any voice or opinion they simply don’t like hearing.
[See also: Britain’s far-right contagion]
From Boris Johnson expelling from his party anyone who disagreed with him on Brexit to Suella Braverman excluding the BBC and non-Tory papers such as the Guardian and the Mirror from her recent trip to Rwanda, via wealthy donors suing critical journalists, the right adopts an uber-snowflake approach to dissent. Legislation is brought in specifically to curb forms of protest they don’t like, and – as over the Lineker tweet – they cry “I’m offended” when they hear something that annoys them. Nobody is more triggered than a right-wing politician, who will do whatever it takes to stay in the only safe space they know, which is power.
The mistake we make is to meet them on the terms of their argument, when instead we should be invalidating the argument by highlighting the hypocrisy that breeds it. The group most keen to chastise a “metropolitan elite” is a cabal of ex stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers, management consultants, columnists for broadsheet newspapers, and, indeed, current ministers of state. One of them was even mayor of London: it doesn’t get more elite or metropolitan than that. These are people who’ve made a career going on national television to say: “You can’t say anything these days.” Some of them have been given their own nightly news shows on which to say it.
Listen to them, then throw their words back at them. And save your fiercest throw for when they question your patriotism, the dark subtext to this whole cultural ploy. They seek to portray those with whom they disagree as a threat to normal British life. The Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick’s comment on Lineker that “it’s disappointing that he is so far out of step with the British public” is an insidious weaponising of language to imply that if we don’t share their views we’re not legitimate participants in the dialogue.
[See also: Top Gear is finished]
Yet if we analyse their speeches and WhatsApps, we encounter a consistent attempt to belittle the institutions that run like a thread through the British way of life. Ministers rant against schoolteachers, railway workers, lawyers, the BBC, staff in care homes, the Church of England, the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the civil service, footballers, parliamentary committees, local government, refuse collectors, nurses, the creative industries, universities, and people who use food banks. Add all these targets up and you pretty much get the whole of the United Kingdom.
The fact is, the right is pouring out bile about Britain faster than the sewage pipes they’ve allowed to go unregulated. And there’s nothing British about them breaking international law, illegally shutting down parliament, and now encouraging whispers about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.
Yet they still sit in expectation they will cling on to power, arguing that only they can maintain order while all around sinks into chaos. This from the party that, over 13 years, has had five prime ministers, seven chancellors, incalculable education secretaries, and enough housing ministers to fill a poorly clad block of flats. Within this party sits the European Research Group, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the Common Sense Group, the Covid Recovery Group and many other factions whose titles helpfully contain the name of the thing they’re most against: it’s a potpourri that takes internecine strife to a level not seen since early 20th-century Russia.
Their culture war is a verbal civil war on values and freedoms fundamental to what it means to be British. To pierce their arguments, and to prevent the divisions and mayhem they seek to foster, should not only be a matter of principle but one of civic duty.
[See also: Fear and loathing at the BBC]
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special