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Imperial Measures: Confected Culture Wars and National Identity

Sam Bright considers the metrics that undermine the right’s new ideological gambit

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Downing Street holding an England flag. Photo: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Imperial MeasuresConfected Culture Wars & National Identity

Sam Bright considers the metrics that undermine the right’s new ideological gambit

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The approaching Platinum Jubilee, with all its pageantry and national symbolism, is also an occasion for collective debate about Britain and its identity.

The nationwide commemoration, marked by a four-day bank holiday weekend, is already empowering those on the right of the political spectrum – who are comfortable celebrating monarchy and tradition, and who are not overly concerned with the social and colonial hierarchies symbolised by the royal family.

Draped in the Union Jack, their walls adorned with pictures of the Queen, hard-right political figures will signal – both overtly and covertly – that they embody ‘British values’, contrasting their brand of polished patriotism with the supposedly subversive instincts of lefty ‘woke snowflakes’.

But this ideological rupture is largely a figment of the right’s collective imagination. In an attempt to demonise their opponents and retain the loyalty of important socially conservative constituencies, reactionary actors in politics and the media have perpetuated a confected culture war – the key facets of which bear little resemblance to the truth.

Cancel Culture

‘Cancel culture’ is the cornerstone of the culture war – the belief that organisations are pressured by the ‘woke mob’, particularly university students, into no-platforming and silencing prominent right-wing commentators.

This claim is often made through prominent right-wing media outlets by those supposedly ‘cancelled’ – and has formed the ideological basis of two big money broadcasting enterprises that have been launched in recent months.

The first, GB News (backed by £60 million in startup funding from global millionaire backers), claimed that it would “puncture the pomposity of our elites and politics, business, media and academia and expose their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is” – as stated by the channel’s lead presenter, Andrew Neil, before he resigned from the project.

Picking up the cause in recent weeks has been Piers Morgan, the star of newly-launched Talk TV, who claimed in his opening monologue that: “My mission statement for this show is very simple – I’m going to cancel cancel culture. I’ll defeat this insidious, joyless societal scourge with those most effective of democracy-preserving weapons – common sense and truth.”

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In the weeks following the launch of Talk TV, Morgan’s viewing figures have plummeted, hitting a low of 24,000 on 19 May.

Indeed, perhaps part of the reason for Morgan’s subterranean ratings can be found in the fact that cancel culture doesn’t really exist.

Over the past couple of years, the Government has introduced legislation to clamp down on perceived acts of censorship on university campuses. In February last year, for example, the Department for Education announced that it would be appointing a free speech ‘champion’ with the power to fine universities or students unions that, in its view, wrongly restrict free speech.

However, when questioned by opposition politicians about the evidence used to inform its strict new policies, ministers admitted that there have only been “a small number of high-profile reported incidents in which staff or students have been threatened with negative consequences” for their political views.

Moreover, ministers cited two academic studies on the topic of university censorship – one of which in fact claims that academic free speech has been “politicised” by the Conservative Party and figures on the right of politics. The study examined events held at King’s College London (KCL) and found that only six out of 30,000 could be reasonably classified as ‘free speech incidents’ over a five-year period.

And, in an even more ludicrous development, the anti-woke warriors have now begun to rage against acts of censorship that haven’t even happened. GB News, for example, has speculated that the works of William Shakespeare may be ‘cancelled’ – despite the fact that absolutely no-one has made this demand.

That didn’t stop Katharine Birbalsingh – the Government’s newly-appointed chair of the Social Mobility Commission – from appearing on GB News and suggesting that: “When I say eventually Shakespeare will go, it could be in five years, it could be 10 years, it could be 15 years, but I think that’s the way we’re heading.”

Trans Debate

Another primary focus of the culture warriors has been the ‘trans debate’ – over the extension of rights for transgender people.

While there is a heated debate about the ways in which trans rights can be extended while strengthening gender equality efforts, the tone of the conversation among right-wing actors is overwhelmingly negative, often exaggerating the fury of those campaigning for reform.

This debate has consequently trickled down to the mainstream broadcasters, with Labour MPs and shadow ministers now interrogated about the trans debate on an almost daily basis.

Yet, this conversation invariably ignores the fact that recorded transphobic hate crimes more than doubled in England and Wales from 2016/17 to 2020/21 – while the Government has “tentatively” estimated that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 trans people in the UK, standing at a maximum of 0.7% of the population.

Moreover, a July 2020 poll by YouGov found that British people were broadly supportive of trans rights – with 50% of those surveyed believing that people should be allowed to self-identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth (versus just 27% that disagreed).

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As YouGov notes: “Britons tend to support transgender people using their new gender’s toilet (46-49% vs 28-30% opposed) and changing rooms (42-45% vs 32-34% opposed).”

It adds that: “Women tend to reject the argument that allowing transgender women to use female facilities puts them at risk. By 46% to 28% women say that doing so does not present any genuine risk of harm.”

Overall, people are fairly indifferent to ‘woke’ issues. KCL research shows that 35% of people haven’t heard of the term (though signifying a marked decrease from 51% in 2020), while 46% of people don’t think that the country is divided by culture wars. A majority (54%) either don’t know what ‘woke’ means, or think it’s a term of endearment.

“We need to remember that these issues are far from the top of people’s lists of concerns, and the vast majority of people are not as fired-up as the media and social media discussion often suggests,” says Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at KCL.

“But that doesn’t mean the issues are irrelevant to the public – there are important debates to be had about culture change in the UK. However, the tone of the discussion, as much as the content, matters – and the nature of the conversation we’re currently having is risking increased division.”

Tolerant Majority

The latest trigger topic has been the Government’s proposal to reintroduce imperial measurements ‘to mark the Platinum Jubilee’. Again, this debate is laced with fallacies – with the Daily Mail suggesting that we’re only able to make this change due to our departure from the EU.

That’s not the case. While the EU’s weights and measures directive required grams and kilograms to be displayed on products, it was still possible to list pounds and ounces. Johnson has also been promising this reform, to no avail, for years.

On the whole, recent polling suggests that the country is more tolerant and more united than is portrayed on the dimly-lit studios of GB News – and that people are relatively apathetic towards culture war conversations.

For example, British Future has found that around three-quarters of Britons now feel that our society’s diversity is a part of British culture, rather than a threat to it. This is a significant shift from 2011, when – according to the think tank – more than half the public said that having a population with a variety of backgrounds and cultures undermined British culture.

Views towards immigration have also improved – with 59% of people believing that immigrants are necessary to help economic recovery, compared to 26% a decade ago. At the time of the EU Referendum in 2016, 40% of Brits said that immigration was one of the most important issues facing the UK, yet that concern has since evaporated to around 10% of the population.

Instead, the public is now far more concerned with public services and the economy – 62% of people picking the economy as one of the most important issues facing the country, up from 25% when Boris Johnson entered office in July 2019. Health is now second on the list, at 36%, while Britain’s departure from the EU is selected by just 18% of people, compared to 70% in July 2019.

This may indicate why a confected culture war has been pursued so aggressively by the right: as a replacement for Brexit, which previously acted as a motivating, cohering force for social conservatives, the potency of which has steadily dwindled since Johnson signed his ‘Oven Ready’ deal with the EU.

The culture warriors have therefore reached for ideological weapons that can preserve the pro-Brexit coalition, seeing the political and financial threat of a country beginning to shed its Leave-Remain tribalism.

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