Fighting the good fight

Culture wars are as old as politics itself – and far from being inauthentic confections, they cut to the heart of real, living disagreements about history, identity, nationhood and belonging.
A riot in Covent Garden, London c.1790. Credit: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
A riot in Covent Garden, London c.1790. Credit: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
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In the last few months, I’ve noticed the emergence of a new stock phrase on the British left. Ever since the early 1990s, people have talked about ‘culture wars,’ a phrase borrowed from the United States. But now there’s been a subtle change. Today’s left-liberal columnist doesn’t talk about ‘culture wars;’ he or she talks about ‘contrived’ or ‘confected’ culture wars, such as the argument about whether ‘Rule, Britannia’ should be played at the BBC Proms, or the rows about the statues of imperial heroes.

‘Barely a week passes without some new confected outrage,’ laments one Guardian writer. ‘Indulging media confected culture wars should not be the business of anyone with serious political judgement,’ agrees Tribune. Boris Johnson’s government has started ‘a contrived culture war, to agitate the Tory base and distract from this government’s terrible failings around Covid,’ complains Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust. And from across the water, the Irish Times proclaims that culture wars are a ‘tedious charade … a distraction from the substance of politics.’ 

But this is nonsense. Whatever your views about the individual engagements, culture wars aren’t a distraction from the substance of politics. They are the substance of politics, and always have been. They cut to the heart of real, living disagreements about history, identity, nationhood and belonging. Culture wars strike a chord with readers and listeners because they genuinely matter. You may not care about, say, the colour of your passport. But throughout history a lot of people have cared enough to fight about it. How do those Seamus Heaney lines go again? ‘Be advised my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / to toast the Queen.’

Already I can hear the objections. Politics shouldn’t be about flags and statues: it should be about taxes and benefits, vaccination doses and lockdown regulations. It should be about class conflict and economic inequality. It should be about cold, hard facts and figures – not what the Irish Times calls the ‘pantomime’ of cultural conflict.

Yet this strikes me as a colossal misunderstanding of what politics is. In Britain, for example, the two great factions of Whigs and Tories first emerged during the Exclusion Crisis of the 1670s, a white-hot political debate about whether the crown could pass to the Catholic James, Duke of York. This was a classic culture war, a question of identity, nationhood and sovereignty, as well as personal religious conviction. And it set the tone for what was to come.

A generation later, in 1710, tens of thousands of people rioted in towns across the country in support of the Tory Anglican clergyman Henry Sacheverell, who had preached a blistering sermon attacking the ‘false brethren’ of religious nonconformists – and by extension, the administration of the Whigs. The Sacheverell issue dominated the general election that autumn, and the public backlash – ‘For the Queen, the Church, and Sacheverell’ – produced a Tory landslide and forced Queen Anne to summon a new administration under Robert Harley. So it mattered. Yet what was it, if not ‘a culture war, to agitate the Tory base,’ to borrow Dr Begum’s words?

Across the world, in fact, politics has always been a culture war. Think of the bloody rows about the nature of Christ’s divinity in the late Roman Empire, or the equally deadly arguments about the place of icons and images in eighth-century Byzantium. Think of the bitter conflict between Catholics and anti-clericalists in nineteenth-century France, or of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. Think of the origins of the US Republican Party, founded by anti-slavery Northern Protestants and rooted in the Methodist, Congregationalist and Lutheran churches of New England and the Midwest. 

Or think of Britain’s Labour Party, riven from the very outset by Edwardian culture wars. ‘If the Labour Party could select a king,’ grumbled the dockers’ leader Ben Tillett, ‘he would be a Feminist, a Temperance crank, a Nonconformist charlatan … an anti-sport, an anti-jollity advocate, a teetotaller, as well as a general wet blanket.’ Somehow I doubt he’d have been a great Jeremy Corbyn fan.

Why, then, do some people complain that cultural disagreements are ‘confected’ and inauthentic? There are two obvious answers.

The first is that some people – most, but not all, on the left – really are indifferent to the cultural anxieties of their fellow voters. Like good Marxists, they think politics should all be about the base, not the superstructure. They think Brexit was a massive distraction, and simply don’t understand why anybody cares about flags and statues, whether for or against. Their natural habitat is the seminar room, their weapon of choice the spreadsheet. They are Hillary Clinton, basically.

The second, and more interesting, answer is that people don’t like culture wars when they think they might lose. They are the heirs of the Whigs in 1710, shuddering at the thought of the London mob. They would be very happy – delighted, in fact – to strip museums of their artefacts, demolish statues of imperial generals, remove all patriotic hymns from the Proms and encourage schoolchildren to tour National Trust properties in sackcloth and ashes. But unlike their Whig predecessors, they don’t have the basic self-awareness or historical literacy to see this for what it is: a new offensive in a long-running cultural civil war.

Instead, they see themselves as the guardians of absolute truth, the champions of virtue. Debate is unwelcome, criticism illegitimate. And what really worries them, of course, is that the public are on the ‘wrong’ side, just as they were in 1710. After all, polling in Britain shows that most people like ‘Rule, Britannia,’ think Churchill was a hero, and have no desire to flagellate themselves about the supposed sins of their ancestors. So the last thing the culture warriors of the woke left want is a public debate.

Can there ever be a final victory? Probably not. Culture wars – like politics, because they are politics – will always be with us. They are about basic human impulses. There will always be patriots and puritans, joyless moralists and reckless libertarians. The irony, then, is that the Guardian and co. have got it completely wrong. Centuries from now, people won’t be arguing about taxes and spending. These are merely our own contemporary obsessions, which would baffle our ancestors and bemuse our descendants. But flags and statues, history and identity? That’s what politics is really about. 

So don’t be afraid of the culture war. Bring it on.

Dominic Sandbrook

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, best known for his books on post-war Britain. He has presented many BBC TV documentaries, is a columnist for the Daily Mail and is visiting professor of history at King’s College London.

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