27 February 2023

The culture wars are turning into the conservatives’ Vietnam


I’ve always thought of the culture war as the right’s Vietnam. With the Tories in power, conservatives were supposed to have decidedly superior firepower; yet since the ‘great awokening’ began in 2011, the war has not so much progressed as ground on, with increasingly little to show for it. 

In fact, despite an endless air war of Culture Ministers, Telegraph columnists and Mike Graham segments promising to wage ‘a war on woke’, it’s increasingly clear that progressives are not just holding their own, but winning this attritional conflict.

What brought this home for me was a recent visit to Manchester Art Gallery, an institution now entirely overrun with progressive ideology. I came away from its showering of progressive buzzwords and artworks criticising Priti Patel (and the occasional enforcement of British borders) asking myself how, since 2010, successive Conservative governments have failed so comprehensively to prevent a wholesale left-wing takeover of public life.

The answer is that, like William Westmoreland, the general who lost Vietnam, conservatives have been ‘fighting a conflict for which [they are] not only intellectually unprepared but by experience not ready for’. Westmoreland failed because he didn’t understand the war he was fighting. His leadership never changed the situation where it mattered; in the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam, where the covert infrastructure of the Viet Cong was left free to exert control through coercion and terror.

The battleground of the culture war is not hamlets or villages, but institutions. Manchester Art Gallery is not a standalone case. As Matt Goodwin writes, ‘political, cultural and media institutions have been taken over by an elite graduate minority who tend to share the same backgrounds, went to the same schools, the same universities, share the same values’. Those values are largely left-wing, progressive ones.

This viewpoint is largely entrenched inside the powerful institutions that dominate arts and culture – in fact, it is hard to think of a single institution in Britain that has not pivoted towards progressive ideology of one kind or another. Many were formerly politically neutral, but have now been weaponised to advance a particular ‘liberal’ agenda’.

This has prompted a great exodus of conservatives from public life. Faced with a hostile environment, most opt out to work in more profitable sectors. ‘Conservatives are too keen on money’, as Janan Ganesh writes, ‘to win the culture war’. Even those who do serve don’t last long; Sir Roger Scruton, Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young are just a few examples of high-profile conservatives who have been forced to withdraw from public appointments. 

Bewilderingly, Conservative ministers have turned one of the most effective weapons in their arsenal against themselves. A huge amount of the institutions battling conservative forces are, in fact, funded by the Government. 

As a case in point, the Manchester Art Gallery – along with The Whitworth and Manchester Museum – will pocket a cool £4,881,168 over the next three years courtesy of Arts Council England. That’s a Conservative culture secretary allowing taxpayers’ money to be used on art criticising a Conservative Home Secretary.

But that pales into comparison with the ambition of the Arts Council itself, by far the biggest single recipient of arts funding in the UK. 80% of the £1.34 billion in grants it is set to give out by 2026 comes from the taxpayer, yet it too has been ‘captured and degraded by activists’, whose priorities are political, rather than artistic. 

Outside of arts, government funds Stonewall, the organisation at the schwerpunkt of the trans debate, to the tune of over £1m a year. UKRI has spent £27m on ‘wasteful woke’ projects, including ‘research that aims to decolonise collections of music and sculptures and a project that will explore the representation of gender and LGBTQI+ people in castle histories’. The NHS spends over £8m a year on diversity and inclusion jobs; Whitehall spends £12m. That’s not to mention the one million working days a year the civil service loses to equality and diversity training that doesn’t work

The Conservative Way Forward report ‘Defunding Politically Motivated Campaigns’ worked out the total spend across government on politically motivated activities at a staggering £7bn a year. For a Conservative government to be funding an entire sector weaponised against conservative values with nearly £20m every day is not just bad tactics, it’s fragging.

Any future Conservative government that is truly interested in wresting control of the public sphere back from progressives is going to have to learn from Westmoreland’s mistakes and fight where it matters. That means challenging the political consensus that has allowed ‘artivism’ to prosper with government funds. 

Since entering power, the Conservatives have rigidly stuck to the New Labour strategy that Peter Burnham calls ‘the politics of depoliticisation’. He describes it as ‘the process of placing at one remove the political character of decision-making’, in which ‘state managers retain arm’s-length control over crucial economic and social processes whilst simultaneously benefiting from the distancing effects of depoliticisation’. But with organisations like the Arts Council now captured by opponents, this is no longer a viable strategy. Conservatives are going to have to do what Westmoreland couldn’t – adapt.

The artist Alexander Adams, among others, has recommended simply abolishing the Arts Council, with central funding retained for ‘legacy cultural institutions and practices where charitable donation, sponsorship and income revenue are not sufficient or consistent enough for maintenance’. These National Heritage Fields would serve to protect and support the bedrock of Britain’s cultural tradition, without funding also being used to advance political agendas.

This approach certainly has much to commend it. The preservation of traditional and legacy cultural institutions should be important to any conservative, but that’s no excuse for a government-sponsored programme of political propaganda – conservatives cannot allow themselves to be forced to pay for one in order to protect the other. The covert infrastructure must be separated from the hamlets and villages; otherwise, like Westmoreland, we will have surrendered the only battlefield that matters. And before you know it, we’ll be catching the last helicopter out of Saigon.

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Tom Jones is writer and a Conservative councillor for Scotton & Lower Wensleydale

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