23 February 2021

Stoking the culture wars isn’t just unhelpful – it’s unpatriotic

By Tim Dixon

There are few things so resoundingly British as visiting a property of the National Trust. From the fierce conversations about the cost of parking, to queues for scones and jam at the café, via historic homes, lush gardens and countryside – it all bellows Britishness. Little wonder, therefore, that the National Trust is again part of efforts to stir up the ‘culture wars’.

The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has this week summoned to a meeting the leaders of Britain’s heritage institutions, including the National Trust. This has been briefed as a warning to these institutions not to be “driven by ideology” or dominated by a “noisy minority of activists”. It is the latest in a series of newspaper briefings from government sources playing up the threat of woke warriors among cultural elites, seemingly intent on tearing down statues and denouncing the country’s past.

Those fears are overblown. The National Trust, for instance, is not proposing to remove anything. It has merely published the findings of a study it commissioned to better understand the historic links of its portfolio to colonialism and the slave trade. If anything, that’s following to the letter the Government’s recommendation to ‘retain and explain’.

The political calculation behind efforts to stoke ‘culture wars’ is that there are votes to win in framing British society as a battle between cosmopolitans and patriots, or – as David Goodhart describes them – the ‘Anywheres’ and the ‘Somewheres’.

But if you look at what people in Britain actually think, the real difference is between those highly engaged and assertive voices always spoiling for a fight on culture and identity, and the solid majority who are fed up with artificial conflicts based on false choices. More in Common research shows that three in five British people say they feel exhausted by the division they see in politics. The public appetite for a more unifying approach to politics – harnessed so effectively by the Biden campaign in 2020 – is often underestimated by political and media elites in Britain, as in the United States.

It’s far from clear that playing up these conflicts will pay dividends. It’s true that there is a small but vocal population segment with a critical view of Britain’s past. From surveys and conversations with more than 10,000 people over the past year for the Britain’s Choice project, More in Common has found seven groups in Britain, defined by different core beliefs. Progressive Activists, the group defined by concern about injustice and racism, are just 13% of the population, but they are highly vocal.

Progressive Activists are outliers on many issues of culture and identity. Asked last month whether they felt British history is something to be proud or ashamed of, they are the only ones to feel ashamed: just 22% of Progressive Activists expressed pride in British history, compared to 66% of the population overall. In contrast, a strong sense of pride is shared by the four groups that account for 9 out of 10 Conservative voters: Established Liberals, Loyal Nationals, Disengaged Traditionalists and Backbone Conservatives.

That suggests the political logic in stoking culture wars. But national pride is also shared by majorities of the two other groups which make up Labour’s base, the Civic Pragmatists and Disengaged Battlers. Progressive Activists represented only 10 percentage points of Labour’s national vote in 2017 and 2019 – barely a quarter of the voters Labour would need for an election win. Keir Starmer’s instincts on patriotism reflect the views of those voters.

But more important than those political calculations, pursuing a ‘war on woke’ is bad leadership. Britain’s choice is not between a flag-waving jingoism or throwing its history into the river, and political leaders fail us when they frame debates in those terms. 

The culture warriors on either side want to divide us into us-versus-them: patriots versus anti-racists. But after listening to Britons from all backgrounds over the past year, I’m convinced both sides are out of touch with the reality of public attitudes, which are so much more nuanced than a playground fight between two sides. 

For example, among black and ethnic minority Brits we find a greater awareness of racism in today’s Britain and wrongs in Britain’s past, but also higher levels of pride in British identity than average. Across the whole population we find that a significant source of national pride is the progress we have made in embracing diversity – a pride shared by 68% of Britons.

While most do not want us to become bogged down in debates about the Empire and slavery, we find across the population an open mind about tackling difficult questions about Britain’s past. This is true even among the tough-minded, patriotic group called the Disengaged Traditionalists, who were the largest source of Conservative voters in the 2019 election – two of whom remarked:

Kids in school need to be taught the history… hey need to know how Britain became an empire…Then they will understand that they need to probably appreciate each other. Because some people still have this belief that some people are superior over others and it has to be so, but when you really understand more of what happened then I think part of the problem is solved.”

“History is a very strange thing because it’s the history of the winners…And it’s only when you hear both sides that then you can potentially draw a line under things and move forward. Whether it’s race or slavery or whatever…you learn from both sides and then you move forward.”

National Trust members likewise hold nuanced views. Almost 1,500 people in the Britain’s Choice study are National Trust members, reflecting its astonishing 5.6 million national members (all benefiting, of course, from free parking). Far from being on one or other side of cultural debates, on questions of Britain’s past they almost exactly reflect the feelings of the country as a whole.

Of course cultural and heritage institutions won’t always get it right, but the answer lies in them adopting a nuanced approach that respects both history and their audiences. With that approach, they can be a strong bulwark against polarisation, and can strengthen our common ground. Stoking divisive cultural conflicts that disrespect the distinctively British respect for nuance is not just unhelpful – it’s unpatriotic.  

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Tim Dixon is co-founder of More in Common.

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