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Rishi Sunak Stumbles as he Takes the Knee to the Culture Warriors

The Prime Minister’s attempts to wage a culture war with Keir Starmer have ended up doing far more damage to himself than the Labour Leader

Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street in order to attend Prime Minister’s Questions. Photo: Imageplotter/ Alamy

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There was a curious moment at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions when Rishi Sunak appeared to suggest that Keir Starmer’s decision to publicly show solidarity with black victims of racism was somehow unBritish.

“He [Starmer] talks about what… Britain values. This from a man who takes the knee”, Sunak told the chamber.

The implication here was that Starmer’s decision a few years ago to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter’ protesters by taking the knee somehow put him out of step with ‘British values’.

It’s unclear why this should be the case, given that at the time of the protests, Sunak himself said that he had “enormous respect” for those taking part in them.

More recently he has also been keen to express his “solidarity” with victims of antisemitic racism following events in Israel and Gaza.

Yet for some reason he now appears to believe that Starmer’s decision to show solidarity with black victims of racism is somehow derisory.

Following the session, I put this to his Press Secretary directly.

Asked if the Prime Minister believes Starmer was wrong to take the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors, she told me that “I think the Prime Minister’s view is that politicians are there to you know, to lead, not to, not to sort of do a virtue signalling move. 

“So as far as he’s concerned, like, you know, from our side we have a very diverse cabinet and we’re very comfortable in, you know, in that, but I think it was a bit of virtue signalling on his behalf.”

Yet when asked whether the PM believes white footballers were also “virtue signalling” on the issue when they took the knee, she replied that he did not as they were “doing it for their teammates”.

After further pushing on the issue it remained unclear why the PM believes that some people taking the knee in solidarity with those protesting against anti-black racism is deserving of “enormous respect” while other people taking the knee in solidarity with those experiencing anti-black racism is deeply unBritish and derisory.

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An Unconvincing Culture Warrior

The exchange highlights the absurd tangles the Prime Minister has got himself into in recent months with his belated conversion to the world of GB News style culture wars .

This unconvincing conversion has obliged Sunak to both pretend to be someone who cares about fringe issues such as the 15-minute city conspiracy theory, while indulging in ‘Great Replacement’ rhetoric with Italy’s far right PM, at the same time as claiming to be a sensible centre ground steward of the nation. The result is that he fails to make a convincing impression of being either.

Sunak’s latest comments come in the same week that Starmer himself sought to distance his own party from the era of culture wars, describing the Prime Minister’s own attempts to indulge in them as “desperate”.

“In its desperation to cling on to power, at all costs, the Tory party is trying to find woke agendas in the very civic institutions they once regarded with respect”, Starmer said in a speech on Monday.

Whether or not a Labour Government would be successful in moving British politics away from its focus on such topics remains to be seen, however.

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Over recent years an entire political/media cottage industry has been created on the basis of importing exactly these kinds of US culture war tropes to the UK. 

That it has so far been largely unsuccessful, with polls showing voters overwhelmingly remain much more concerned about core issues such the economy and the NHS, has not stalled these attempts.

Indeed, it is likely that should Starmer become Prime Minister, that certain parts of the media, and the Conservative Party itself, will see its appetite for such subjects only growing further.

Yet, what Sunak’s rather clumsy attempts to ignite a culture war with the Labour Leader have shown is that those trying to wage such wars often end up doing far more damage to themselves and their own reputations than they ever manage with their actual targets.


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