17 August 2023

In Sadiq Khan’s world everyone else is a ‘culture warrior’


There’s no event so horrific that Sadiq Khan won’t try to mine some kind of political capital from it. So it proved with the awful homophobic attack outside a south London nightclub late on Sunday night.

True to form, the Mayor of London tweeted that ‘those who stoke up hate and vilify LGBTQ+ people’ bear some responsibility for the attack. ‘Your culture war has real-life consequences,’ the Mayor added, with quite breath-taking chutzpah.

For starters, it is supremely irresponsible to try and impute motives to an attacker when the police are still in the middle of an investigation, and next to nothing is known about their background, or indeed mental state at the time of the attack. Unfortunately, politicians offering a running commentary on tragic events for their own partisan purposes is hardly new, and Khan is far from the only offender.

In this case, Khan’s claim makes very little sense, even on its own terms. Not only is it all but impossible to draw a link between some kind of broad ‘culture war’ and an individual incident, but the grim reality is that there have been homophobic attacks in London since long before the media became fixated on the contents of JK Rowling’s Twitter feed.

In 2008, a 20-year-old was stabbed seven times in the back and chest by a gang of youths outside a gay-friendly club in east London. Back in 2011, gay rights campaigners urged religious leaders in east London to ban homophobic clerics from using their premises – referring to institutions such as East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre. In 2009, 62-year-old Ian Baynham was fatally attacked in Trafalgar Square after being subjected to homophobic taunts – an attack for which two people were jailed for manslaughter.

Where Khan’s comments on ‘your culture war’ do have some value is in illustrating the mindset of a certain brand of self-satisfied social liberal, according to which the ‘culture war’ is not a clash of different beliefs, but the imposition of one worldview on another. Of course, in their view that equates to knuckle-dragging rightwingers forcing their bigoted, reactionary views on the rest of us. To raise objections to any of the socially liberal agenda is to invite the charge that you are, in Khan’s words, ‘part of the problem’. In the Khaniverse, there are good people on one side, and an array of Brexiteers, Terfs and Trump apologists on the other.

It’s doubly ironic to hear a politician like Khan railing against culture warriors, given what a divisive figure he is himself. When he was re-elected as Mayor in 2021, Khan noted that the ‘scars of Brexit’ had ‘yet to heal’, with a ‘crude culture war…pushing us ever further apart’ – seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was among those campaigning most vociferously for a second referendum. Presumably those in favour of Brexit were ‘culture warriors’, whereas the People’s Vote crowd were simply expressing their democratic opinion?

He shows the same divisive streak when hijacking what should be inclusive, political neutral celebrations – using London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks to promote Black Lives Matter, or greater integration with the EU, are cases in point. Even more shameless was his recent attempt to tie opposition to his hare-brained Ulez scheme with far-right political activism. And that’s before we come to Khan’s irritating tendency to wade into issues well beyond his brief as Mayor, from Donald Trump to exclusions policy in the capital’s schools (as Mark Lehain details here).

Perhaps this accounts for why Khan is actually pretty unpopular among London’s voters, despite the capital being very favourable territory for the Labour Party. Indeed, as several Conservative-leaning commentators have noted, if the Tories had put a bit more effort and organisation into their operation in the capital, they could have given him a run for their money at the next mayoral election.

Homophobic violence has no place in a modern, tolerant and genuinely inclusive country like Britain. That it still does deserves serious examination – not the deeply unserious point-scoring we’ve seen from Sadiq Khan.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust. His latest book is 'Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong About Ethnic Minorities'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.