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Wed 16 October 2019
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Otto English laments how the culture war that began with the EU Referendum has now polarised and enveloped every aspect of our national debate online.


It’s more than three years since the British people voted to leave the EU and we seem to be more bogged down in the stalemate of rage than ever.

Each day, new battlefields appear and the opposing armies line up to lob explosive tweets and soundbites at each other. Very little of it has much to do with Brexit anymore if, indeed, it ever did.

This is a culture war – a conflict of attitudes – and nowhere is this more apparent than on social media. Take the weekend.

On Saturday night, the Royal Albert Hall hosted the Last Night of the Proms. Thousands watched it live or in nearby Hyde Park, as well as at venues around the country, while millions more tuned in at home.

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The Proms are one of those most ‘British’ of events and, for the most part, it was business as usual. A mass of assorted flags, the familiar strains of much-loved tunes – Jerusalem, Rule Britannia and the whole bobbing sea-shanty thing. This is 2019 and not 1954 though and, as such, there were some modern flourishes.

Mingled among the Union Jacks was a heavy sprinkling of EU flags and when self-professed “queer girl with a nose ring” Jamie Barton ended a triumphant medley with her set piece, she rounded things off by waving a massive LGBT banner. Barton’s declared mission, prior to the concert, had been to “unite her audience” and her infectious performance seemed to do just that. As the crowd linked arms and sang Auld Lang Syne it all felt rather moving; a rare moment of collective unity, in a country that needs that sort of thing more than ever.  

But it was all too much for some on Twitter. Thousands of enraged users of the platform, fired up by happy people waving flags, immediately took to their devices to express outrage:

“Since when was the last night of the Proms about homosexuality?”

“I’ve never seen anything so obscene as this last night of the Proms!”

“All of them waving EU flags… are traitors and should go and live in Europe”


Save Our Souls

Sunday dawned and, as night follows day, fresh indignation arrived. This time, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) was the target.

A Mail Online article had “revealed” that the Institute was spending a fairly paltry £3.3 million on projects in Tanzania and Bangladesh and claimed that the organisation was “buying burkinis” while cutting jobs in the UK.

Forced to defend itself as the mob descended, the RNLI pointed out that this was just 2% of its annual expenditure and that its founding principle – established 200 years ago – had been to save “people and vessels of every nation, whether in peace or war”.

During World War Two the RNLI did just that – picking up downed Luftwaffe airmen and rescuing shipwrecked German crews as well as our own personnel. In the years before and since, it has saved those in need off our shores regardless of the words on their passports, creed or position on membership of the European Union. Today, the RNLI’s overseas aid programme – funded from a tiny fraction of its overall budget – exists to teach children at risk of drowning in developing countries to swim. What is so wrong about that?

Everything, according to the angry brigade who took to Facebook and Twitter to explain that they were cancelling their standing orders to the charity because it was saving the lives of poor children in Tanzania. Some even said that they intended to “boycott” the RNLI altogether – presumably by refusing to be rescued the next time they are drowning at sea.

MP Andrew Bridgen summed up the fury, telling The Times: “It is the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, not the Royal International Lifeboat Institute.”


As I read depressing reply after depressing reply to the RNLI’s tweets, I really did start to question quite how this country has managed to sink this low. Does a much-cherished institution really have to defend itself against the Mail Online and anonymous trolls for saving the lives of non-British passport holders?

Today, everyone is angry about something else and tomorrow we will all have the chance to get angry all over again.

The liberal left and Remainers are certainly not above blame. Too often, those of us on this side of the debate can come across every bit as aggressive as the more vehement Leavers. I plead guilty on that count as much as anyone else.

Compassion and empathy are too frequently lacking. The seriously misjudged leader in the Guardian which stated that David Cameron only felt “privileged pain” when he lost his severely disabled son Ivan in tragic circumstances – shows that nothing any more is above petty point-scoring.

So how and when will all of this internecine conflict end?

Perhaps – like the wars in Orwell’s 1984 – this is our new reality; a never-ending battle of opposing attitudes that will rumble on without end. What a pity that would be – that we could’t put our differences aside every now and then and have a good sing-song instead.

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