16 July 2021

When it comes to the culture war, the Tories are in it for the long haul

By Ed Dorrell

Almost since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister speculation has been rife of an imminent and significant Cabinet reshuffle.

Such rumours have now subsided. Johnson’s decision last month to simply sub Sajid Javid in for Matt Hancock – thereby ducking a golden opportunity for a proper government refresh with the Great Unlocking just days away – suggests there won’t be a revamp of the top team any time soon.

All of which means several things for the Government’s direction of travel, including its continued prosecution of a culture war. The PM may have claimed this week that he doesn’t “want to engage in a political culture war of any kind”, but his government’s approach to date strongly suggests otherwise.

Indeed, confirmation that the Cabinet is going to be left pretty much as it is means that the two most important protagonists in the Government’s war on woke, Gavin Williamson and Oliver Dowden, will remain in their roles at least for the time being.

Their jobs – secretaries of state for education and culture – are integral to the Conservative strategy of driving a wedge between those they characterise as a liberal metropolitan minority who are likely to vote for Labour come-what-may, and the culturally conservative majority outside the big cities.

And drive it they have, working together in a co-ordinated fashion. I reserve judgment as to whether they are doing the right thing, but there can’t be much doubt as to the effectiveness with which Williamson and Dowden have aligned their attacks.

Those on the receiving end of their ire – be it universities, who have been regularly taken to task over free speech on campus, or broadcasters, who are seen as pushing an anti-Tory, anti-Brexit agenda – can’t claim that they didn’t have any forewarning. Barely a week goes by without either Williamson or Dowden taking aim at an Oxbridge college for taking down a picture of the Queen, or criticising the National Trust for its latest clumsy attempt to tackle its relationship with our colonial history.

Williamson and the team around him have been incredibly open about their frustration with what they see as universities’ unwillingness to take on their most left-wing academics, their student unions’ penchant for no-platforming, the general predominance of liberal views (which ministers see as far more left wing than in the country as a whole), and growing intolerance of those who dissent from the dominant orthodoxy.

Vice-chancellors were warned time and again that ministers would legislate to force them to respond to these issues. It is worth noting that most universities have tried to tackle the perceived problems, but many have had their hands tied by constitutional issues and student union independence. There are also suspicions that some doubt the true scale of the problem.

Whatever the truth of the matter, legislation is coming. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has its second reading on Monday and any residual hope that this would be quietly shelved if Williamson was reshuffled is now for the birds. Indeed, the Education Secretary used the latest parliamentary hurdle as an excuse to set out his position yet again in The Sunday Telegraph.

To be clear, this is a Conservative government, with Williamson and Dowden in the vanguard, on manoeuvres. Theirs is a co-ordinated approach, which in the medium and long term will force Britain’s civic institutions to better reflect the people of this country (the voters who fund them). Detractors, of course, counter that it is a deeply cynical and divisive tactic designed to strengthen the bonds between Johnson’s administration and its new provincial Tory voting base.

Whichever analysis is right – they probably both are – ministers will be happy either way. Expect Williamson and Dowden to double down in the months to come now they have been informally confirmed in their jobs. For better or worse, the culture war has only just begun.

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Ed Dorrell is a Director at Public First.

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