Tag Archives: Conservative Party

Britain’s coming culture war

15 Jun

We can see the contours of the remainder of this Tory government and the run-in to the next general election (scheduled for May 2024). The Johnson administration will continue to govern with incompetence, but its large parliamentary majority of 80 seats means that it will be insulated from external criticism. Those with the stature to criticise from within have already been eliminated from the ruling party.

So what will the governing agenda look like? The first two items on the agenda are obvious: the continuing Brexit shambles and coronavirus. The latter provides excellent cover for the former. Brexit means that the UK economy will take a massive self-inflicted hit. But much of this can be masked by the coronavirus recession. The promised ‘ sunny uplands’ of post-Brexit Britain will not be delivered in a material sense. But there will be a political boon for the Johnson government in the shape of near continuous sniping against Brussels: ‘Intransigent EU’, ‘Eurocrats snub Boris’, ‘French fishermen steal British cod’, … the headlines write themselves. As for coronavirus, we are going to have to get used to it being a fixture. The government will continue its strategy of avoiding any responsibility for its initial failures. The economy will be prioritised over health and if people get sick, then that is their own fault. The government line will be that it did the right thing at the right time. Any inquiry will be less than independent and have the same impact as all those other inquiries that sit on shelves.

The third agenda item is an insidious one but it will dominate: culture war. It is prominent now (Churchill’s statue, re-runs of Fawlty Towers) but has been bubbling away for years. Tory strategists will have seen how well it works in the United States and will be working hard to further foment it. In the absence of any policies or strategy, it is a cheap way of mobilising the base and winning votes. So be prepared to see almost constant rows about statues, head-scarves, and ‘classic’ TV comedies. There will be faux outrage a-plenty as loyal newspapers and columnists make hay. All they need is a single rent-a-quote mouthpiece to say they are offended and – bingo – there is a headline: ‘Outrage as loony left-wing council question Remembrance Sunday’, ‘Politically correct Uni bosses ban free speech’, ‘Now they’re after our food’. The language games will be insidious (‘they’, ‘our’ etc.) and stoke a binary. Trades unions, protestors, BLM, non-right-wing politicians, and Guardian readers will all be lumped together. If they can be associated with a violent fringe then so much the better.

We have seen this all before. It worked well with demonising Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbot and many others. But this time it is part of an on-going electoral strategy in which permanent campaigning acts as a substitute for debate, policy and genuine engagement with any opposition. To be clear: the general election campaign is now on. A culture war is a difficult place for opposition politicians to be. Any equivocation is quickly branded as unpatriotic.

These are the elements that make a culture war a winning electoral strategy:

– It operates via proxies or actors who are loyal but one step removed from government. Thus if a story become too hot, the government can distance themselves from it. So, the main agitators in the culture war by proxy will be the press (now overwhelmingly right wing in terms of newspaper editorial stance) and the multiple right-wing columnists, websites and retweeters. These constituencies are already highly sophisticated and have been emboldened by their Brexit victory. Many taboos of offending people have been broken. How many times has there been a 48 hour outrage against racist comments by newspaper columnists … who are still in their jobs?
– It costs next to nothing to run a culture war. This does not require billion pound initiatives. Instead, it relies on word of mouth and retweets. Certainly there are multiple shady political operations out there – especially online, but a culture war relies primarily on stoking pre-existing prejudices.
– It taps into the cultural knowledge and vocabulary of white England. The culture war is not about some abstract or far-away notion (quantitative easing, even Brexit). Instead, it is relatable if it stick to British comedy TV programmes and the basics of history (Churchill statues and Dunkirk. Anything about WWII really. Anything history beyond that is unknown);
– A culture war is about fear – fear of losing something (privilege, identity) and of something being taken away. So it feels immediate and threatening and thus strikes a chord;
– Finally, there will be a lot of equivalence. This tactic is straight out of the Trump playbook but it works. Thus White Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter are painted as the same: each deserving of attention, each with a legitimate point of view. If things get too hot, government ministers can appear to be even-handed. They appear as neutral arbitrators who are above the fray.

If you want to see what a culture war looks like, read the Fox News website on a daily basis. It rarely reports news. Instead, it is permanent spin that politicises stories along racial and partisan lines as a default option. The future isn’t pretty.

Welcome to Britain in 2015. The Minister of the Environment denies that climate change is linked to human activity. The Minister for Health outlaws abortion. The Minister of Education decrees that creationism (that the world was made in seven days) is taught in all primary schools.

5 Jan

You might think that this is some sort of weird fantasy. But there is a possibility – after the May 2015 UK general election – that the Democratic Unionist Party (a Northern Ireland group of hard-line social conservatives) goes into coalition government with the Conservative Party.

There has been much commentary and speculation on the forthcoming UK General Election and the likelihood that either of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – will be unable to form a majority. Much of the commentary has been on possible coalition partners and the deal they would extract in exchange for keeping a government in power. Commentators have mainly focused on two scenarios. In the first, the United Kingdom Independence Party – a Eurosceptic group of Britain-firsters – would form an alliance with the Conservatives. In return the Conservatives would hold a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. But since Prime Minister Cameron has already said he would hold such a referendum, he would have to give something more to appease UKIP – possibly just a straight exit.

The second scenario that has been mooted in the media has been the Scottish Nationalist Party holding the balance of power and extracting promises linked to their independent Scotland agenda. The SNP are on something of a roll, having marshalled an amazing 45 per cent of Scottish voters into voting to leave the UK in the September 2014 referendum. The SNP is widely expected to make serious gains in the Westminster election at the expense of a Labour Party that is seen as remote and London-orientated. So, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP could hold the balance of power in the UK after the May 2015 general election.

But let me introduce a third scenario – one that is rarely discussed in the UK media: a Conservative-Democratic Unionist Party coalition. The DUP are Northern Ireland’s largest political party and currently have eight seats. They will probably gain a few more seats in the general election. If the election is as close as many commentators believe, then it could be that just a small number of additional seats are required to allow one of the main parties into power. The Conservatives are the natural bedfellows of the DUP: right wing, unionist, unsympathetic to the state as a provider of welfare, Eurosceptic …

So what would a Conservative-DUP coalition look like? Well, the Conservatives have been steadily shifting to the right over the past few years. In part, has been as part of an attempt to outflank UKIP. It is also a reflection of candidate selection of right-wingers – essentially Thatcher’s children who believe in rolling back the welfare state, killing off the National Health Service, and allowing their friends in the City of London to exploit a low-wage economy. So the Conservatives are a known quantity.

The DUP, however, deserve scrutiny. They are well known in Northern Ireland but with the peace process largely out of the headlines, many people in the UK know little about them. They were founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley, boycotted the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and now their leader – Peter Robinson – is the First Minister of Northern Ireland’s powersharing Assembly.

Rather than give a political history of the DUP it is probably best just to highlight a few beliefs of their representatives. Then leave it to your imagination to think through the possibilities if these people were in power in the UK:

– The DUP Mayor of Ballymena said that Hurricane Katrina in the American South was an act by God to prevent a gay parade that was due to take place in New Orleans two days after the hurricane struck. He also blamed AIDS on the ‘filthy practice of sodomy’.

– A senior DUP member, Sammy Wilson, regards climate change debates as ‘a con’ and ‘uninformed hysteria’. He is sceptical that humans are responsible for climate change. Mr Wilson is an MP in the Westminster Parliament and a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

– Iris Robinson, the wife of the DUP leader and herself a former MP, believes that homosexuality is worse than child abuse. She was quoted as saying: ‘There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

– First Minister Peter Robinson was forced to make a bizarre apology when he defended a Belfast Pastor who called Islam ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’. As part of his apology, Mr Robinson said that he would trust Muslims to ‘go to the shops for him’.

Presumably the real concessions that the DUP would seek to extract would be related to their Northern Ireland agenda. The vast majority of citizens in the UK would not care about this so the DUP would be able to extract a hefty price in terms of their agenda over parades, policing and the administration of justice. But the real fun would start when a Conservative-DUP coalition was faced with issues of conscience, sexuality, morality and medical ethics. Many DUP members are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century in terms of their social outlook. Would the Conservatives be prepared to enter into such a bargain to get their hands on power? The answer, I suspect, would be yes.