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Is the UK in the clutches of a culture war?

What exists of a culture war in the UK is waged largely on the sidelines by fringe parties, social media groups and newspaper op-eds.

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At some point, you've probably come across the term “culture war”. It describes a battle of perceptions, a fight between two seemingly phantom sides about what society is, what it should be, and what’s threatening it. It’s a phenomenon conceived in and, for the most part, fought in America. 

But avid readers of newspaper op-eds or social media in Britain could be forgiven for thinking it is just as present here – that we are equally polarised on the issues that are shoehorned into culture wars such as trans rights, climate change and overseas aid as people in the United States.

Except, actually, it's not.

There is a tendency in the media to “import” US social and political discourse, just as we import so much else. But this doesn’t always come with the necessary translation. The number of times “culture war” has been mentioned in UK publications has rocketed since the election of Donald Trump, and so too have the "hot takes".

Mentions of "culture war" in UK publications have surged since the election of Donald Trump
Index of "culture war" mentions in British English publications since 2010 (100 = 2010).
Google Books Ngram Viewer

But while it is one thing to assume a UK audience might be interested in the cultural and political issues gripping America, it’s quite another to assume they will respond to them in the same way. Something that vexes Trumpian Republicans might not incense supporters of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. 

British audiences are, for example, often assumed to have precisely the same sensitivities to the racial issues being fought over in America, but in some instances, this isn't true. The furore over the singer Adele wearing her hair in Bantu knots for the Notting Hill Carnival was American-led (the artist was accused of cultural appropriation by US journalist Ernest Owens), and when discussed in Britain, largely synthetic. As Helen Lewis writes for the Atlantic, when LBC, TalkRadio and the BBC sought to give oxygen to the debate over whether Adele was engaging in cultural appropriation, very few black Britons came on to profess outrage (shadow justice secretary David Lammy, for instance, went in the opposite direction), or to support Owens.

[see also: First Thoughts: How Suzanne Moore split the Guardian]

The assumption, nonetheless, persists; and some campaigns have already been fought on the basis that if a culture war doesn’t already exist here, it can be made to do so. For example, Dominic Cummings, the former chief aide to the Prime Minister has, along with the administration he served, been identified by reporters and commentators as an instigator in importing culture war issues to UK election campaigns. Recent plans to simplify the process for changing your legal gender for instance, were shelved in June, and were billed by the Sunday Times as a move to fuel a culture war "gripping" Britain. The purpose? To retain and bolster Conservative support at the ballot box.

But for that strategy to work – and talk of a UK culture war to have resonance – the country must at least be willing to entertain and be enthused by it. But the evidence so far suggests that when compared to America, Britons are far less likely to be exercised about the issues that make culture war the political soccer ball it is across the Atlantic.

Take gay rights, for example. Though overwhelmingly supported in both the UK and US, the share of Britons who believe homosexuality should be accepted is significantly higher than the numbers in America. In 2002, just over half (51 per cent) of the US population believed homosexuality should be accepted by society. That number has since risen to 72 per cent. In the UK, 74 per cent were accepting of homosexuality in 2002, and the figure now stands at 86 per cent. That is a gap between the US and UK of 14 percentage points.

What about transgender rights? The issue is, to a great many voters in the US, a sensitive one, and unlike gay rights, support for trans rights doesn’t command cross-party approval. Data from Pew Research, a Washington think tank, shows Americans are divided on the subject along partisan lines. Just 19 per cent of those who identify with or lean to the Republican Party say a man or a woman can be different from their assigned gender – that trans people do, in essence, exist. YouGov reported similar findings when it asked Republicans whether trans women were women.

But what about British voters? Compare those figures to the partisan divides in the UK, and the difference is stark.

US Republicans appear a lot more likely than UK Conservative and Leave voters to regard a trans woman as a man
YouGov polling conducted in 2018 (UK) and 2019 (US). Questions posed, although they should be noted as similar, are nonetheless different.

What we see here is a greater level of nuance in the UK on trans rights. While right-leaning respondents in Britain are still more sceptical on the issue than those on the left, there is less unanimity than in the US. Even if you were to substitute Conservative voters for those who backed Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, those sharp American dividing lines are simply not there. 

The main point is that if the culture war was wielded in Britain with reference to trans rights, it would do little to unite the body of voters already supportive of the cause, nor would it speak to existing prejudices in the same way that it does in America.

But a culture war isn’t only about trans rights. In Britain it could mean something else – a battle between two distinct identities, perhaps.

Since the 2016 referendum, the growth in the new “tribal” allegiances of Leave and Remain could provide the basis for such an ideological divide: a battle between perceptions of how the country is and how it should be.

In 2019, the fight between “Get Brexit Done” and whatever forgettable messaging the opposition parties produced could be interpreted as a strand of culture war, but it’s unlikely to go further than that. There’s very little that pits Leave and Remain voters against one another aside from the perception they are opposed – and, obviously, Brexit. Pluralities on both sides believe in and are concerned by climate change. Both sides favour increased funding for the NHS, and Leave voters aren’t even wholly united on one of the key drivers of the Brexit vote: immigration.

[see also: Keir Starmer must expose the government’s shortcomings on Brexit]

One subject that does divide opinion along Leave/Remain lines is that ill-defined phrase “political correctness”.

What “political correctness” actually means is irrelevant to voters. What it represents depends on which side of the fence you sit. To some, it is a clampdown on the ability to say what you like. To others, it is a necessary protection from prejudice and hate. 

A culture war could be fought on this divide. But it isn’t, and the battlelines would in any case actually be quite hard to draw. Even here there is nuance: the overwhelming majority of Britons, for instance, agree that political correctness sometimes goes too far and “exceeds common sense”. There’s majority agreement, too – including plurality support from Labour voters – that political correctness is employed as a smokescreen to avoid necessary discussion of issues such as societal integration.

Vast majority of Britons agree political correctness sometimes goes too far
Opinium polling conducted in 2019

Where there is disagreement – and where the country is seemingly split down the middle – is on whether political correctness is a price worth paying for a more equal society, and whether it even helps to create a better society.

Trying to use this as a wedge issue in a UK culture war would be, at best, extremely risky. The messaging would have to be far too nuanced. A Conservative campaign that went hard on political correctness would likely inflame the passions of as many voters as it would alienate. There was, after all, a reason why the Vote Leave campaign only chose to focus immigration in the final few weeks of the 2016 race. It was because it rightly recognised that the coalition of votes needed to get to 50 per cent plus one was just that: a coalition, and not a band of Ukip-supporting hardliners.

This isn’t to say a culture war couldn’t take root in the UK. It could. But if it did, it wouldn’t resemble that in the US, and nor would it look anything like what we see on social media. The number of Britons fighting these culture wars and who are vexed by them is hugely unrepresentative of the wider electorate. A minority (22 per cent, BSA 2015) of Britons use Twitter, and in 2017, those Britons on Twitter who were Conservative supporters were outnumbered two-to-one by those that supported Labour. A recent More In Common study found that though 15 per cent of Britons were prone to sharing political content online, those numbers were not nationally representative, for they skewed overwhelmingly in favour of those identified as "progressive activists".

Social media is unrepresentative in the extreme: it is full of activists arguing politics with activists, convinced those other activists are representative of the rest of Britain.

As Bobby Duffy of King’s College London notes, the rhetoric of political leaders plays a huge role in whether a culture war can exist. For it to work in Britain, we’d need mainstream leaders willing to entertain it, and entertain it both for a prolonged period and in a way that can resonate.

[see also: Why some Conservatives are nervous about making the next election a culture war​]

When Boris Johnson, shortly after he had resigned as foreign secretary, described veiled Muslim women as resembling "letterboxes" in a Telegraph column, we were, perhaps, given insight into how a culture war may play out in Britain. With condemnation from all corners – even from sections of his own party, it was a subject that, according to a Sky Data poll, split the country down the middle: 45 per cent said Johnson should have apologised, while 48 per cent said that he shouldn't.

Culture war, if waged from a leadership or prominent position, as Johnson did, may just work in the UK. But the issues on which it would be fought do not come top in the list of priorities of UK voters. Culture war in Britain has, so far, been waged mostly on the sidelines. It’s the reserve of provocateurs, of which the UK when compared to America has few, and by fringe parties and groups on social media and in newspaper op-eds. In 2017, it wasn’t the Conservative or Labour parties fighting over the burqa in Britain, for instance, but Ukip and the Green Party.

The conditions to create a culture war are there, but the will to make it so and the appetite from the wider British public are not.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman