Liubov Popova, “Untitled”

This essay, on changing public attitudes and the culture wars, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 25 September 2022, under the headline “Britain is becoming a more liberal and open society. But we are ever more divided too”.

“The ‘woke’ outlook on national identity, national sentiment and immigration now tends to be the more popular”; and “whereas it might once have represented a widespread view, now the ‘anti-woke’ position on ‘culture war issues often appear to be more of a minority one.”

It’s a striking conclusion from Sir John Curtice and Victoria Ratti in the latest edition of the British Social Attitudes survey, published last week. The gold-standard annual survey of public opinion has tracked public views on a host of issues for almost 40 years and is invaluable in tracking changes in attitudes over time. The new edition, on “Public Attitudes in an Age of Crisis”, explores attitudes to issues ranging from taxation to constitutional reform. The most fascinating insights came, however, in the chapter on the culture wars.

The immediate takeaway from the survey is that Britain is a nation that has become more liberal, more supportive of immigration and minorities and more inclusive in its understanding of national identity. The proportion of Britons who view immigration as having a positive economic impact has steadily increased from around one-fifth in 2011 to a half 10 years later, while the proportion thinking that immigration was bad for the economy has halved to 20% over the same time. Similarly, those who think that immigration enriches the nation’s cultural life has increased from 26% to 48%, while those believing that it undermined it has again halved to 21%.

Far more people think that equality has not gone far enough for women and for ethnic minorities (and, to a lesser extent, for lesbian and gay people) than think that it has gone too far. And far more people support a greater push for equal rights for minorities than they did three decades ago.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Britain is more liberal, the survey suggests, but also more polarised. Brexit remains one of the key faultlines in British society. Around two-thirds of remain supporters regard the economic and cultural consequences of migration in a positive light, compared with only around a quarter of those who back leave. Almost 40% of leavers (as compared with 9% of Remainers) think that immigration has undermined British culture; and while two-thirds of Remainers think that immigration has enriched Britain’s cultural life, just one-fifth of leavers do. Fifty-nine per cent of leavers insist that “British ancestry is important for being truly British”, as compared with 23% of Remainers. And while two-thirds of leavers think of themselves as “very strongly British”, fewer than half that figure of Remainers do.

There is a clear divide on these issues, not just along the leave-remain faultline but also in terms of other boundaries, such as education and age. However, does it make sense to view these issues in culture war terms? To see, for example, a more liberal attitude to immigration or a greater willingness to explore the darker recesses of British history as signalling the advance of “wokeness”? To answer that, we first have to answer why it is that the fiercest public debates today seem to be around questions of culture, identity and history.

The culture wars are primarily the product of the demise of old-style class politics and the disenchantment with possibilities of social change. One of the striking features of the past half century has been the liberalisation of social attitudes towards minorities and women, and the fact that it has coincided with an assault on working-class organisations and increasingly restrictive laws on trade union activities.

Society has been more willing to tolerate economic inequality, even as it has sought to reduce racial and gender discrimination. In many ways, last week’s “mini-budget” symbolised this trend: a budget presented by Britain’s first black chancellor who sits in a cabinet hailed for its ethnic diversity but the consequence of which will be to greatly increase economic inequality.

In any struggle for equality, both sides of the equation are important; both the expansion of political rights for minority groups and women, on the one hand, and the demands for decent pay, good housing, sound social infrastructure, on the other. Not least because disproportionate numbers of black and minority populations are working class and poor. In separating the two strands, not only has it become more difficult to advance either kind of equality, but in the eyes of many of us, the two have seemingly been set one against the other.

The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class in Britain has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. It has also transformed the language through which we understand social problems, from one that is rooted in class and politics to one that emphasises identity and culture.

People find their place in the world today less through categories such as “liberal” or “conservative” or “socialist” than ones such as “English” or “European” or “Muslim” or “white”. Even when people talk of being liberal or conservative, or a Brexiteer or Remainer, they are often talking as much of cultural identities as of political viewpoints.

Accompanying these changes has been a shift from movements for material change to demands for symbolic gestures and representational fairness. Too often today, for instance, anti-racist campaigning has become reduced to little more than a kind of public performance or the policing of boundaries. At the same time, conservatives have become adept at exploiting the symbolic value of issues such as immigration or national identity to win support for regressive policies.

The end point of all this is the culture wars, in which society becomes polarised less along lines of politics and class than of culture, history and identity, and where symbolism has come to take the place of real change. One’s attitude to issues such as immigration or national identity is often shaped by their symbolic meaning for one’s place on the culture wars map.

Britain, contrary to what many suggest, is a more liberal, open society than it was 30 years ago; indeed, more than it was even 10 years ago. But the growth of liberal social attitudes is often trapped in the social fractures of the culture wars and in the separation of different struggles against inequality. The shift in attitudes revealed in the BSA survey is both welcome and a warning.

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