By Graham Vanbergen: Today’s media landscape in Britain is deliberately littered with linguistic landmines designed to foster engagement in culture wars and the resultant social division that many of us seem to get dragged into on a regular basis. This pernicious strategy is designed to create an atmosphere of belonging, without people really knowing they are being manipulated into political battlefields. To make it simple for everyone to understand and fall for, it is focused on the tactics of deeply embedded emotions with the intention of driving people into camps of belief. For instance, you’re either a ‘remainer’ or ‘leaver,’ and therefore highly likely to vote for or against a party on this issue alone. The reality is that one-third of the electorate did not know which way to vote in the referendum just one week before it. Three years before the referendum, neither immigration nor sovereignty were in the top ten most important issues facing the country but were the battlegrounds for votes in 2016.
Then there’s the growing list that everyone seems to have an opinion about – Harry and Megan, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, trans-rights and climate change, which then leads onto the broader matters of socialism versus capitalism and so on. The reality is that it’s a fight between non-existent sides about what our society should be and what’s threatening it. And let’s not forget, the culture wars are an import that was conceived in, and for the most part (in the last decade especially), fought in the Disunited States of America.
Many people now feel that Britain is in rapid decline without us really knowing why or how.
This landscape of open hostility is exacerbated by illiberal outlets such as the Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Express on the one hand, whilst the government mounts its censorship on truth and transparency and stokes animosity through its many supporting disinformation channels funded by ‘dark money’ – much of which is undisclosed (source). All this is then amplified by the toxicity of social media.
The battle for free-speech and civil liberty in this toxic environment emerges – another emotional free-for-all for verbal sniping. At the very heart of these divisive battles, the same characters keep emerging.
The real truth is this – the government, this government especially, wants to encourage a poisonous, antagonistic, finger-pointing and febrile atmosphere because social division is about percentages and 51 to 49 is good enough to win. It doesn’t care about the fallout between families, communities or the country – just the result. It’s how Brexit was fought and won and within it, a pass is given to unacceptable behaviour and outcomes.
For instance, who thinks that Tony Blair or John Major would have even been in the running for PM had they been caught out having an illicit affair, accused of lavishing well over £100,000 of taxpayers money on her, whilst his own wife was undergoing cancer treatment? Or would Margaret Thatcher have been able to stand for election having been caught taking campaign ‘donations’ from a Russian with deep connections into the very heart of the KGB? The answer to those questions are obvious – but somehow Boris Johnson has got away with it. Not only that, Johnson is openly sexist, racist and homophobic. Frankly, he is a man of highly dubious character with no moral authority at all. And like Trump, the only way he can get away with it all are distraction tactics. But that will change.
In Britain, people have not only got quickly bored of the culture wars, the evidence actually suggests that they are far less likely to be dragged into political arguments than the media reports.
Twitter is a political frontline but let’s not forget that 80 per cent of tweets come from 2 per cent of the population. And there are only two platforms (as far as the normal general public are concerned) when it comes to social media and politics – Twitter and Facebook. Everyone who is politically aware knows that Facebook is a platform for disinformation, lies and propaganda. Twitter is a place that literally hands the megaphone to those people down at the back who are not normally heard, who spend all their time heckling everyone else they don’t agree with.
In a recent Times article on culture wars – Professor Bob Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, which publishes its Culture Wars report next month says we aren’t like American’s. “The dynamics in the UK are quite distinctive. Brits aren’t as ideological.” His conclusion is that British people are “moderators and look for common ground. They don’t take pride in taking the strongest view.”
British people do believe the country is disunited, but it’s also true that they almost universally blame politicians and social media for it.
A study published in The Times (source) makes the point that – “In the UK there is common ground on a huge range of issues: love for the NHS and the countryside; commitment to gender and racial equity; desire for economic equality and action on climate change; desire for a balance on immigration, less centralisation and more compromise between political leaders. A majority dislike both hate speech and political correctness. On average, 79 per cent are proud of our advancements in gender equality, 73 per cent think inequality is a serious problem, while 77 per cent think racism is. These numbers do not add up to a culture war.”
In the UK, we are far more moderate and tolerant than America in areas such as gay and transgender rights (source). Polling by Opinium Research suggests a majority agrees that political correctness has gone too far – and that’s really about it. And because 49 per cent of the voting population regard themselves as moderate and only 15 per cent engage with political content sharing on social media – the supposed culture war has a long way to go before it really does become one.
The message here is clear. The vast majority of tribal sniping, aimed at garnering a response, to divide people into camps is, in fact, all done by a minority – and also by the current government. People like Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson all know how to stoke binary responses. For instance, the government, in a midst of the worst crisis since the Second World War are proposing a law that to alter a statue, monument or plaque – any council or local authority must first seek full planning permission to do so. Officially, the government is acting to make them – “safe from the revisionist purge” (source).
“Faced with a moderate electorate, what does the government do? It commits to elements of a culture war. Tell people we have war and you can get away with anything”
There is no revisionist purge going on up and down the land. Britain has nearly 262,000 miles of roads. There are nearly 7,000 high streets (source) and Wikipedia lists 66 pages of statues (source) within them. Since the “unprecedented public reckoning” with Britain’s slavery and colonial past, an estimated 39 names – including streets, buildings and schools – and 30 statues, plaques and other memorials have undergone changes or removal since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The total amount of changes to high street (not other road names, villages, universities, etc) names, plaques or statues made by local authorities actually represents around one-tenth of one per cent of the total. And there has only been one application to a town council (Plymouth) to remove a statue (source) – and that was refused.
A recent and extensive report of culture wars – firmly blames the Tory government. “Faced with a moderate electorate, what does the government do? It commits to elements of a culture war. Tell people we have war and you can get away with anything.”
Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, plans to install a “free speech champion” inside the regulator for higher education. He announced the plans last month as he warned against the “chilling effect” that “unacceptable silencing and censoring” has on university campuses. However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted an inquiry in 2018 and concluded there is no free speech crisis on campus (source).
The truth about the claim that speakers across university campuses were being ‘cancelled’ is another lie – fabricated by the government to enrage people. Research shows that in 2019-20 less than 0.1 per cent of meetings with external speakers were cancelled in British universities (source).
To ram the message home that the ‘revisionist movement’ is attacking what it means to be British, the government announced plans to give the police more power to shut down protests, including those deemed too noisy or a nuisance. The legislation would include measures to protect monuments and statues, with damage punishable by up to ten years in jail. It caused exactly the type of response that ministers knew it would – riots and arrests in the battlespace of nothing more than public opinion.
An illustrative example of the new culture wars emanated from our own PM. Shortly after Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, he described veiled Muslim women as resembling “letterboxes” in a Telegraph column. We were then graphically shown how culture wars play out. With condemnation from all corners – even from sections of his own party, it split the country down the middle according to a Sky Data poll: 45 per cent said Johnson should have apologised, while 48 per cent said that he shouldn’t. The actual result was that there was a 375 per cent increase of Islamophobic incidents (recorded) aimed at Muslim women in Britain (source). In the three weeks after that column was published, 42 per cent of incidents – “directly referenced Boris Johnson and/or the language used in his column.”
The reality on the ground is that the culture war in Britain has been waged largely on the sidelines but it does get the headlines, especially in the right-wing press. In reality, it is the reserve of provocateurs who deliberately stir up emotions just for votes.
In the background and out of vision, there are countless legal battles going on over the many failures of government in the pandemic. In the opposite direction, libel cases are mounting against news outlets, journalists and political commentators that have found yet another scandal to add to what appears to be an ever-growing mountain of political malfeasance or to put it plainly – corruption.
So the next time you see comments made within the culture war battlespace – ignore it and ignore the people who engage in it. They do not represent the majority. Numerous research, studies, reports and polls say the same thing, the British people are not that ideological and don’t normally engage in culture wars. What you are seeing is misinformation, disinformation and propaganda spewed out by a government, aided by their client media that don’t have good arguments to support a particular position – so they resort to spiteful strategies designed to disunite us.