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’.