This essay, on how the fog of culture wars can obscure the degree to which societies have become socially liberal, was my Observer column this week.  It was published on 21 June 2020, under the headline ‘Culture wars risk blinding us to just how liberal we’ve become in the past decades’.

‘Prime minister Boris Johnson stirs culture war over Churchill statue.’ So ran a recent New York Times headline. The Washington Post agreed. As ‘counter protesters’ took to the streets to ‘protect’ statues and as controversy erupted over foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s comments on ‘taking the knee’, many British commentators, too, saw a nation divided and a prime minister stoking the flames of a culture war.

Yet an Ipsos Mori poll, published last week, paints a different picture. Nine out of 10 Britons, it showed, would be happy for their child to marry someone of another ethnic group. Just 3% thought someone had to be white to be ‘truly British’. ‘The British public,’ the pollsters observed, ‘have become avowedly more open minded in their attitudes towards race.’

There is a similar puzzle in America. Two months ago, had you asked academics or commentators about the consequences of American cities burning in the wake of protests over the killing of a black man by a white policeman, most would probably have agreed that polarisation would be exacerbated and Donald Trump strengthened. The opposite has happened. The president seems more politically isolated and even demographic groups seen as significant to the Trump base, those without higher education, for instance, show sympathy towards Black Lives Matter.

How do we explain this paradox? Why are societies both fractured by culture wars and yet, Britain certainly more than America,united, and unitedly liberal, over some of the most fractious aspects of those wars?

From one perspective, liberals have already won the culture wars. Attitudes on race, gender and sexuality have changed so much over the past 40 years that we’ve almost become blind to that transformation. Between 1989 and 2019, the proportion of the population that thought that gay relationships were wrong fell from 40% to 13%; the numbers opposed to abortions halved, as did those who thought it wrong to have a child outside of marriage. When the first British Social Attitudes Survey was published in 1983, more than 50% of whites would not countenance a spouse of a difference race, a figure that barely declined throughout that decade.

Britain in the 1980s was another country. Racism was vicious and visceral and woven into the fabric of British society in a way difficult to imagine now.

Racism has not disappeared, but the context is very different. Racist attacks or workplace discrimination today take place in a society in which virtually no one, unlike 40 years ago, views them as acceptable. (The major caveat is that attitudes to Muslims remain illiberal.)

At the same time, though, the traditional left/right divide has eroded, so the ways in which we view ourselves and our social affiliations has changed and not necessarily for the better. Culture and identity play a bigger role in how we define ourselves politically. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are as often ‘white’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘European’ as they are ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’. And when people talk of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative – or ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ – these are seen as cultural identities as much as political viewpoints.

The coincidence of these two trends has created societies more liberal and yet more fractious. Consider attitudes towards immigration. Most polls show that Britain has become more relaxed about the issue, leading some commentators to suggest that Brexit has made people less worried about immigration. The reality is more complicated. The shift in attitudes began well before the Brexit debate. And polls show that almost half of Leave voters think immigration has a negative impact compared with 12% of Remain voters; fewer than a third of Leave voters think immigration has a positive impact. A majority of the public still wants numbers reduced.

The complexity of the response is not surprising. The public has become more liberal and less racist. Immigration has, however, also become symbolic of unacceptable change. Working-class lives have in recent decades been made more precarious through the stagnation of wages, the rise of the gig economy and the imposition of austerity. The power of labour movement organisations has eroded, the Labour party has drifted away from its traditional constituencies.

Immigrants are not responsible for these changes. But the very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. As the language of culture has become an important means through which to understand one’s place in society, so many in the working class have come to see their marginalisation as a cultural loss. Immigration, viewed as a key reason for cultural change, has come to bear responsibility for that loss.

Those challenging racism similarly often view their problems through the lens of identity politics and their targets, too, are frequently symbolic. Debates about racism in recent years have often revolved around issues such as language and cultural appropriation. What began as protests about police brutality has, for some, morphed into a campaign against racist statues and controversy over an English rugby anthem.

The ‘cultural turn’ of recent years has encouraged people to repose political problems as issues of culture or identity. Rather than ask ‘What are the policy reasons for the lack of housing and stagnating wages?’ or ‘What are the social roots of racism and what structural changes are required to combat it?’, we look to blame the Other, demand recognition for our particular identity and tussle over symbols.

Many white working-class people accuse immigrants of stealing jobs and scamming the benefits system, while anti-racists often deride ‘Karens‘ and ‘gammons’ and finger working-class people as bigots. The growth of liberal social attitudes, far from being a base from which to build a movement to tackle both racism and the marginalisation of the working class, itself becomes lost in the social fractures. We should beware that we don’t get trapped in our own blindness.


The image is Mark Rothko’s ‘Light Red over Black’.


  1. I certainly agree that the underpinnings of a Liberal Society haven’t eroded but over the last few decades have been enhanced, specifically through the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. As such the culture war best mirrors a fracture between the positive rights and responsibilities dimension and the negative rights and responsibilities dimension of Liberalism, with the Left largely representing positive rights and responsibilities, largely through the State apparatus and civil and civic institutions and the Right largely representing negative rights and responsibilities largely through State driven national policy, including EU policy and EU austerity rules.

    Regarding population growth, which is the deeper concern of the multi-racial/multi-ethnic working class (the major caveat being the attitudes of working class Traditional Muslims), population growth within a relatively stabilised economic capacity means a reduction in living standards generally and population growth within a reducing ecological capacity means a reduction in living standards generally.

    Hence, far from being symbolic of immigration, undesired social change is symbolic of ecological science and in particular population ecology and rather more contentiously, the protection of an environmentally adapted gene pool which provides a population with resilience against disease and other environmental shocks.

    Hence, it is the Left that predominantly deploys immigration as a totemic label/symbol to justify their anti-ecological science. However, there is some amount of justification to divert attention away from ecological science since firstly International trade enables the fulfilment of the import dependancies that arise from transgressing the national safe operating ecological space and secondly, there is the reality and danger that ecological science can be used to justify the persecution of ‘ethnic minorities’ and therefore, to some extent, need the protection of the positive rights biased Left.

    Therefore, cultural conflicts are occurring at multiple levels, but within the framework of Liberalism, the most apparent conflict is between the

    Left’s protection of positive rights and responsibilities to counter the effects of socially determined randomness and genetically determined unevenness under the label Unjust Inequality

    and the

    Right’s protection of negative rights and responsibilities to essentially protect the effects of socially determined randomness and genetically determined unevenness under the label Just Inequality.

    In a sense then, the Liberal culture war is a reckoning between Equality and Inequality and how best to balance the two in order to create a sustainable, sufficient and resilient future for All.

    The way through this I think, is for the Left to focus on basic needs fulfilment (positive liberal humanism) and for the Right to focus on ecological needs fulfilment (negative liberal ecologism) with both scrutinising each other for the Highest Good 😊💞💮

  2. FormerGuardianReader

    You are right to point out the paradox of culture wars taking place in societies that have become more liberal but I don’t understand why you can’t explain the paradox. You referred to “the public” but the culture wars are largely not being fought by the public. They are being fought by small, narrow and unrepresentative groups of people and some of them make money or even a career out of fighting a particular culture war. Your essay was primarily about racism which is understandable given recent events but the culture war which best illustrates why these culture wars are happening is feminism.

    The last decade has seen the rise of fourth-wave feminism which emerged from the blogosphere and social media and moved into newspapers and book publishing. Some of the leading figures of fourth-wave feminism studied English at university and they became feminists during or after their time at university when they realised that there was money to be made in feminism. They started by writing blogs in the hope that they would be noticed by editors of newspapers or magazines and they would be commissioned to write articles, if they managed that the next step was going from writing occasional articles to getting a regular column and if they managed that the ultimate objective was getting noticed by book publishers and being offered a large advance to write a feminist book.

    Many people may believe that they are living in a society which is less sexist than it was fifty years ago. However, if some people are offered £320 to write 1000 words about sexism they will find an example or two of sexism and write 1000 words about it, if some people are offered tens of thousands of pounds to write 1000 words about sexism every week they will find examples of sexism every week and if some people are offered £100,000 to write a book about sexism they will find enough sexism to fill a book. However, they will only write about the sorts of sexism that their editors want them to write about because their editors decide what they are willing to publish and what they are willing to pay for so the fourth-wave feminists have ignored some sorts of sexism because it is none of their business and what they do is a business, their line of business being making accusations of sexism for money.

    When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014 black writers suddenly found opportunities opened up for them and some of them took those opportunities. Some of them eventually became disillusioned with their new employers when they found that they weren’t committed enough to the cause of racial equality to give them well-paid permanent jobs, especially when American police forces failed to keep killing black people in contentious circumstances often enough to keep Black Lives Matter in the news. The killing of George Floyd in 2020 brought the Black Lives Matter movement back to life and now editors who had spent years commissioning hundreds of articles about Brexit or #MeToo are pretending to be interested in racial equality again. In time some other outrageous event will happen which will bring another culture war to the top of the news agenda and other sets of people will fight it online, in print and on TV and radio for as long as editors want them to and will pay them to be outraged.

    So the explanation of the paradox you describe is that culture wars are taking place because war is good for the outrage economy. Living in peace and harmony is good for people who want to live in peace and harmony but if you have invested in conflict and disharmony you need a war, even if that war is just arguing about someone saying something you disagree with on Twitter and some of the people who are fighting in that war are mercenaries.

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