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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The battle over the legacy of Winston Churchill shows in miniature what a big chunk of a future British culture war will look like. It will be one which the conservative movement wins decisively because of mass public support. But the fighting and winning of the battle will be unpleasant and divisive. So we should hope a serious culture war never comes to pass.
Left-wing activists could spend hundreds of millions on campaigns to attack Churchill over many years, but would make no dent in public support for him. Without doubt, his resolute opposition to Nazism and his brilliant war leadership saved Britain from a successful invasion and shaped the global effort to defeat Hitler. The respect that the British public have had for Churchill since at least mid-way through the war is completely ingrained.
Footage of his funeral, at which working class dock workers lined the Thames to pay their respects is extraordinary to watch. What’s true then is true now. All these years on from his death, serious and sympathetic Churchill books are published; he’s depicted heroically in film; queues still form to see where he lived and worked.
There are many things to dislike about Churchill; his record as a politician pre-war was patchy at best, with some catastrophic errors of governance. More relevant to this debate, as Andrew Roberts has pointed out, his views on other countries and races were unpleasant for the time and therefore breathtakingly unpleasant now. And he wasn’t universally loved by the British public, either during the war or after it. On the contrary, many post-war Northern families (some of mine, included) were brought up with terrible stories about Churchill’s failures.
But the mass of the public sees Churchill overwhelmingly through the prism of the Second World War and the moral, political and military leadership he provided in the country’s darkest hour. It’s not that they share the same cultural views as Churchill – indeed, most would be horrified by them – but that they have chosen to honour him for his massive achievement in war time. Trying to make the public revile Churchill is like trying to make them feel bad for Britain fighting the Second World War at all; it has no point.
And this is the issue: it’s a pointless battle which the conservative movement (I can’t think of a better term) will win decisively, but in doing so risk opening up old and new wounds between different groups. Because, in doing so, Churchill’s record and views must inevitably be put into context – how could they not be? – and ultimately deemed to matter less on balance than his role as war leader and national saviour.
In turn, those that revile Churchill will be able to claim that most people don’t care about his views, and therefore that Britain is an unenlightened, intolerant country. On this narrow point, this will not be true – people will simply not be able to view him as anything other than a war leader – but there’s a logic to this position.
What’s true of the battle over Churchill will be true too of many other cultural battles too. The public will likely come to support the removal of those historical figures linked with atrocities abroad, but it’s hard to see how they could come to see Sur Francis Drake as anything other than the man who saved England from the Armada. The public will strongly support further efforts to make sure the police better reflects and better serves minority groups, but they will not support anything that looks like “defunding” the police, or which sees them pull back from making streets safer.
Voters will support a balanced narrative about Britain’s past in our schools, but they will want children to mostly feel pride in our past. (Such is public reverence for Churchill that a problem for those campaigning for social and cultural change, is that more palatable changes that the public understand and are happy to get behind, end up being obscured by a debate around Churchill, which they most certainly will not get behind.)
The mass of the public will demand that politicians stand firm on these issues – and will give these politicians strong support as they do so. And as these debates are played out, left-wing campaigns will accuse politicians of fostering intolerance and many in the public of “falling for it” – because, as with Churchill, people will expect politicians to put things in a wider context.
In the public mind: yes, Drake was one of those responsible for the aggressive expansion of England, but he saved England from a successful invasion; yes, the police should be more diverse, but they do a good job in difficult circumstances and limited cash; yes, Britain has done things for which it should be ashamed, but it has also been a force for good.
As all this is played out, as with Churchill, the conservative movement will win these battles, but division will emerge.
Emphatically, this is not to say that campaigns shouldn’t demand social or cultural change. Nor is to say that the public are hostile to such change. As we’ve seen consistently in the last few decades, campaigns have fostered and secured public support behind a range of morally just causes. Rather, it is to say that some harder-left campaigns are seeking battle with the mass of the public on areas where they won’t ever shift, and where the only outcome is victory for the conservative movement, but with division following in its wake. What would ultimately deliver electoral advantage to the Conservative Party would be damaging to the country.
Jeremy Corbyn went full throttle for culture war and it blew up in his face. Those that care about building a more united country, regardless of their party allegiance, should hope that Jeir Starmer steers the Labour Party back to mainstream values – with a focus on practically solving cultural and social problems (as well as economic ones). It’ll make for a more competitive electoral environment, but surely a happier place.