Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘Culture Thrives On Dialogue and Difference’: Seasons Greetings From Byline Times

An end of year reflection from Peter Jukes, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Byline Times

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

‘A Civilisational Moment’

Christmas came early for those who have been worried about the rise of national populism in the UK. For a second time in a year, Stella Braverman was sacked as Home Secretary for infringing the Ministerial Code. Braverman’s departure was welcomed by many, including former special advisor Nimco Ali, who described her as “delusional” and concluded that she “made this country unsafe”. 

But, however much the Prime Minister disowns Braverman now, Rishi Sunak enabled her short but destructive tenure in the Home Office, during which she extended Therese May’s ‘hostile environment’ and Priti Patel’s attack on asylum seekers to a much wider war against British civil society. 

An early adopter of the imported alt-right conspiracy that “cultural marxism” is a transnational threat, Braverman pursued a class war with little class, belittling the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” for their “luxury beliefs”, claiming homelessness is a “lifestyle choice” and, of course, taking the demonisation of asylum seekers to an unlawful extreme with her Rwanda deportation policy. 

But the issue that sealed Braverman’s fate was her untenable interference in operational policing matters around the Gaza ceasefire march on this year’s Armistice weekend. She not only undermined the ancient rights of assembly by describing pro-Palestinian protests as “hate marches”, but interfered in operational policing matters by accusing the Metropolitan Police of favouritism and taking sides with the left. 

The essence of the right-wing culture wars of the past seven years has been to seize on any random, but highly visible, event (such as the England football team taking the knee at the 2020 Euros) and then turn it into a wedge issue to foster internal division. 

Inflation rising? Wages flatlined? Trade declining? Hospital waiting lists going up? No problem: just focus on a polarising ‘us and them’ spectacle and encourage people to hate each other rather than try to cooperate and improve things.

Weaponising the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and trying to stoke division between our Muslim and Jewish communities, was Braverman’s last great hurrah. And in her demonisation of ‘hate marches’, she was joined by key figures who shared a stage with her at the National Conservatism Conference in London earlier this year.  

The academic Matthew Goodwin called the collision of Remembrance Sunday with the ceasefire protest a “civilisational moment”. In a medley of his favourite inflammatory themes, Goodwin invoked the “rise of radical Islamism” with “years of mass, uncontrolled immigration” and the “rapid rise of a radical ‘woke’ ideology which has been embraced by the new, left-leaning class who dominate our elite institutions”.

Another National Conservatism speaker, author and Spectator columnist Douglas Murray echoed these apocalyptic warnings about the ‘hate marches’. He praised Braverman as one of the few honest politicians left in a period of “near universal deceit”, claimed the Met Police had been “infiltrated”, and demanded “the people of Britain must come out and stop these barbarians”. These sounded less like dog whistles to the far-right and more like full-throated battle cries. 

Some right-wing extremists took up the call, particularly rallying around former EDL Leader Stephen Yaxley Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’) who led a few hundred through London. 

Despite the warnings from the populists, the main incidents of the day did not come from the hundreds of thousands on the ceasefire march, but from the far-right who violently pushed past police barriers around the Cenotaph before the 11 am moment of silence. 

This was, then, the main legacy of Braverman’s culture war: a weekend devoted to the memory of the war dead – many of them lost in the Second World War and the fight against fascism – noisily interrupted by fascists. 

Don’t miss a story

Though she might have crashed out of government, Suella Braverman rode on a tide of national populism and the underlying belief – voiced by Goodwin and others – that the key conflicts of the present are about immaterial matters such as identity and ethnicity, rather than economics or citizenship. 

In their attacks on multiculturalism – as Chris Grey has pointed out in these pages – they see culture as somehow monotonous and unchanging rather than dynamic and diverse. 

For many communities – especially those left behind by globalisation and now suffering from the impacts of Brexit – the feeling that change comes at an economic cost and some cultural diminution is understandable. We can look back at the past as a better, more familiar and comforting place, forgetting that the past itself was once new and unfamiliar. After all, fish and chips was imported by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants to Britain in the 19th Century. 

But cultural change only becomes a zero-sum game if communities are deprived of resources and aspirations. Your Polski sklep doesn’t have to mean my local farmer’s shop is closed down. Your Irish pub serving Thai food doesn’t have to threaten my Yorkshire local. There’s no reason your African music centre must drown out my English folk song evening. 

This either-or approach is a result of poverty and a lack of equal opportunities: the very problems ignored or even exacerbated by the national populists. 

Christmas enshrines multiculturalism and the cross-fertilisation of customs and beliefs in ways many of us may not even be aware of.

Our current British version is full of American imports like Turkey from the 20th Century, Germanic elements from the 19th, and of course the genius of Charles Dickens who almost single-handedly serialised it. 

There are doubts whether the older Christian tradition was a variation of the Roman Saturnalia – it might even go back to even older celebrations of the winter equinox – but there is little doubt that Latin traditions were preserved by the Catholic Church. And of course, the underlying elements go back to early Judaism, with a Messiah story heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian theology, and a genesis myth which – as Stephen Greenblatt explores in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve was taken and adapted from Babylonian traditions.

Every year, right-wing newspapers and pundits try to stir up seasonal ill will by claiming some local institution has ‘cancelled’ Christmas – a fake news story that has now become as traditional as turning on the lights in Oxford Street. But every year, it goes ahead: Christians and Hindus, Muslims and Jews, and the great swathe of non-believers celebrate the festive season in a myriad of different ways. 

This is how traditions are kept alive, revitalised with new songs and themes, rather than preserved in formaldehyde on a museum shelf. And this is how culture thrives – through dialogue and difference, competing protestors on the streets, different music from different bars – rather than the bland monotony of a monoculture.

And with that, best wishes for Christmas – however you celebrate it – from the whole Byline Times team.  

Written by

This article was filed under