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14 July 2021

The Tories are learning that culture wars make you enemies as well as friends

The backlash against the government’s stance on England players taking the knee shows there is a cost to its “anti-woke” strategy.   

By Rachel Cunliffe

One of the defining characteristics of a war is that it involves an enemy to fight against. In political as in military conflicts, by taking a side you are not only rallying those who agree with you, but establishing yourself in opposition to those who do not. 

It is curious that this basic reality does not seem to have been a factor in the Conservative Party’s decision to wade into the so-called “culture war”. The conflict itself is not new – politicians have been arguing about history, patriotism and social values since the dawn of civilisation (just look at the collapse of ancient Greek democracy, or the crisis of national identity Rome suffered after the civil war in 30 BCE). But the branding is, as is the growing view that the woke vs. anti-woke battle is the biggest dividing line in British politics, as the US pollster Frank Luntz recently argued

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

For Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, the culture war has proved a convenient way to continue energising the voters won over by Brexit. After the UK left the EU, a new unifier was needed to hold together the ragtag coalition between the traditional Eurosceptic right and working-class communities who felt left behind by liberalism and globalisation.

The culture war provided what seemed like a cost-free way of doing that. There has been an endless supply of flashpoints for the government to seize upon, from the vaguely culturally relevant to the laughably trivial: the lyrics of “Rule Britannia” on the last night of the Proms (Boris Johnson), National Trust properties offering historical context (Oliver Dowden), rows over what should be done about statues of slave traders (Robert Jenrick), Oxford students choosing to remove a portrait of the Queen (Gavin Williamson). 

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When ministers opine on such matters, they do two things. First, they make sure this cultural dispute is the topic discussed on the morning broadcast rounds that set the news agenda for the day, rather than pesky issues such as rising Covid-19 cases or the lack of financial support for people self-isolating. Second, they put the Labour Party in the awkward position of having to take a side too. Does Keir Starmer agree with republican students who have no respect for the cherished institution that is the British monarchy, or is he happy to betray the young progressives who form a key part of Labour’s voting base? 

The calculation in No 10 has been that those paying attention to these debates will either be the “wokeists” on the left who hate the Conservatives anyway, or people sympathetic to the anti-woke position who will be heartened by the government taking a stand. Given that most people in this country don’t know what the culture war even is, the risk of ministers alienating potential voters with these stunts is minimal. Those on the other side – National Trust executives and statue campaigners – don’t have the profile or platform to argue back, at least not loudly enough for the public to listen 

Unless, of course, they’re on the England football team, with the kind of name recognition and cult followings politicians can only dream of. 

Over the course of Euro 2020, the government has had its first taste of what happens when a culture war skirmish fails. At the start of the tournament, England’s ethnically diverse squad chose to protest racial injustice by taking the knee before games. Most England fans applauded; a small minority booed their own players. While Uefa has a blanket policy banning political statements on the pitch, it supported the right to take the knee, saying it “has a zero tolerance against racism and any player who wants to demand equality amongst human beings by taking the knee will be allowed to do so”. 

The response from Conservatives, in and out of the government, was to put England footballers in the same category as woke Oxford students, and ridicule them. Backbench MP Lee Anderson vowed to boycott all England matches, claiming that taking the knee aided “a political movement [Black Lives Matter] whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life”. While the players have been very clear about what the gesture means to them and why they are doing it, this attitude was echoed by education minister Gillian Keegan who said it was “symbolism more than action” and called it divisive.  

Meanwhile, Johnson refused to condemn those jeering at the team, and when Home Secretary Priti Patel was asked if she thought it was right for people to boo players protesting against racism, her response was “That’s a choice for them, quite frankly”. 

The logic seems to run that since taking the knee is a gesture associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, and since BLM is a cause supported by left-wing progressives, coming out against the England players would win Conservatives the anti-woke plaudits they have enjoyed from other culture war clashes. 

Now, the Tories are having to deal with the consequences of that decision. The triumphs of the tournament have seen the England players become national heroes, while the abhorrent abuse – online and on the streets – aimed at the three black players who missed penalties in the final proves just why standing up (or rather, kneeling down) for racial justice is so important. Statements denouncing the racism we’ve seen lately ring hollow when they come from the mouths of ministers who just a month ago were castigating the team for trying to draw attention to it.  

Crucially, this time ministers don’t have the largest megaphone. The footballers are right there telling their side of the story. They have the platform not only to rally the country to their cause, but to call out the politicians who dismissed them, as England player Tyrone Mings did to Priti Patel. 

And it turns out both the British public in general and football fans specifically support the right for players to take the knee and by a high margin. The Conservatives called this one wrong by refusing to stand with those protesting racism when they had the chance, which many are reading as implicitly backing the racists in the crowd over the champions on the pitch. It’s not just woke-obsessed lefties who are disgusted – it’s anyone who has watched this phenomenal team thrive over the past month and who finds their commitment, to the game and to tackling injustice, far more inspiring than the politicians who derided them. 

This is, of course, unlikely to translate into an actual political crisis for the government. The Conservatives still enjoy a healthy poll lead over Labour and the Euros will be a distant memory by the time of the next general election. But the Conservatives should take this as a warning: stoking culture wars can make you enemies as well as friends, and some of those enemies will be more powerful than you realise. So by all means play the anti-woke angle if you think it will fire up your base. But be warned: you can’t fight a culture war without casualties.