"A culture war is, quite simply, a struggle over identity that is fought via the institutions and cultural icons of that identity"
Not that long ago on my own site, I wrote that our politics was facing what I called an existential split, arguing that there existed a liberal Britain and a conservative Britain. It was my belief that the two Britains are each having legitimate conversations, but not with each other: the liberal Britain rightly points out the injustices of discrimination in all its forms; and the conservative Britain speaks of the importance of community, tradition and caution; and it is the conversation between the two that progresses society, not because progress is an inevitable consequence of history moving in one direction, but because progress means society moves forward together.
This progress has ended, and Progress has taken its place. This idea of Progress has legitimated the marginalisation of dissenting voices to the Progressive vision, to the extent that liberal Britain marches ever onwards, whilst conservative Britain feels as though its (still valid) questions are yet to be answered – questions like, do we not risk losing the good things we have in pursuit of the better things we were promised? And the answers to these questions come all too late: as the Brexit debate revealed, inevitably, promises of globalisation have only come true for some; the economic prosperity that a globalised world was trusted to bring have not been shared fairly amongst our citizens, and the ranks of the ‘left behind’ have swelled as a result.
For a time, the conflict between these two Britains was referred to as the ‘culture war’, itself a cultural import from America where the right and the left have been engaged in struggle. This struggle is, I believe, born out of America’s own youth as an historical entity, and is a contest over its identity; each side’s answers to the question of ‘who are we?’ are highly contingent, unique to the American circumstance, shaped by the 250-year old search for a settlement that fits that circumstance.
Britain had no such identity crisis; who we are has been shaped by a continuity far older than the American polity, reaching back into the darkness of history as a single chain – a chain with many links, of course. What this means is there is no fundamental British identity, as my friend Rievaulx has rightly pointed out, but a continuously evolving constitution, reflexive to the problems that we are faced with as they arise. Sometimes those problems fade away, or at least from our immediate awareness, whilst the answers to those problems persist – the core origins of what we call tradition – but the conversation between the liberal and the conservative, the forward-minded and the nostalgic, the agitating innovator and the settled dogmatic has always gone on. Instead of the ‘war’ that America experienced (and continues to experience), Britain has had a conversation; sometimes heated, sometimes dangerous, and sometimes downright violent, but considerations were always made to the other side of the conversation, symbolised in the principles of a Loser’s Consent, and the Institutionalised Opposition of the British Parliament.
This changed. Instead of seeking reconciliation, the Marxist Left of the mid-twentieth century recognised that such mediated agreement would not suit their ideological goals; they brought the culture war here. The goal of this war was not revolutionary Marxism, but radical evolutionary socialism; when Antonio Gramsci recognised in the 1920s that the reason the ‘radical right’ of Fascism (an association that is questionable) had taken power so vociferously because of their willingness to morph the institutions of Italy from inside, he argued for the Left to adopt such a strategy. He called it the ‘war of position’; it later came to be known as the Long March Through the Institutions. It is often what we call the Culture War.
A culture war is, quite simply, a struggle over identity that is fought via the institutions and cultural icons of that identity. This would typically be education, religion, sport (yes, even sport), and so on. What this means is that the Left aims to be ‘in power’ long before it walks into a place of governance. When the radical Left wins an election, it is usually the last institution to fall, not the first. This culture war has been divisive; some have denied its existence, others have advocated for its escalation, but the reality is plain to see: the Right has control of none of these institutions.
And nor should it. Politics as a place of a left-right struggle ought to belong in the halls of Westminster, in the same way boxing belongs in the ring, not in the stands. Institutions of a social entity (what we often call a nation) ought to not be left or right, but should represent only those interests for whom they were established; I’m certain people calling for the expansion of the Bishopry to women were not really religious, for instance. But the Left chose to march into those institutions and change them to fit the desires and program of a radical vision designed to tear them away from their roots, and suspend them in animation, where they can be dissected and judged in the light of reason, loyal to no one but the ideas of a radical few. This isn’t just the whining of a cranky conservative; taking an institution away from the roots of its birth, takes it also out of communal possession, because then the reason against which that institution is judged becomes also the benchmark for ‘inclusion’ – a term that often actually means exclusion of diverse thought.
The Right didn’t fight this war because it refused to accept its existence. Well, the sad reality is, this war is over, and the Right lost. What was worth conserving has gone, and the conservative’s raison d’etre went with it. There is nothing left to conserve. Maybe now it is time for a counter-revolution. Either way, the culture war is over, and the Right needs to recognise this – as they say, the first step in dealing with a problem is recognising it. Our culture is not ours any longer.