Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.
Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the Conservative Party is waking up to the importance of the ‘culture wars’. These struggles over meaning will only grow in significance as the UK charts its post-Brexit destiny, itself intimately bound up with questions of culture and identity. How can a nation know what it wants if it does not know what it is?
On the Left, ‘woke’ politics, with its binary worldview of moral certainty, sin, guilt and deconstructive redemption through Western self-erasure is more akin to a secular theology than a programme of political transformation. It offers little to the vast majority of the British people who are sick of its banal virtue signalling, and the open contempt of its high priests in the media, universities and throughout British institutional life.
The Labour Party now faces a likely irreconcilable balancing act, insofar as it must bring together its hyper-woke graduate middle-class activist base and the socially conservative and now ‘Blue Wall’ former Labour voters. Keit Starmer will have to learn to do the impossible: to bend his knee whilst climbing walls.
For its part, the Conservative Party should plant its flag firmly within the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom and equality of opportunity. Coupled with a progressive patriotism, this would be a winning cultural formula, and essentially pushes at an open door. Moreover, it would bring together its ‘levelling up’ agenda with a collective story that binds and unifies and links the past with the present to map a future.
There is both a party political but much more important existential element to the increasingly ‘hot’ culture wars. In party political terms, if the Conservatives fail to grasp this nettle, a new party to its right may well do so. At the moment, there is a political vacuum, amplified by its flaccid response to Black Lives Matter riots and continued assaults on the nation’s heritage and history.
Of more pressing existential import is the dangerous game being played by leftist ‘woke’ theologians. From what is little more than anti-white racism peddled by ‘critical race theorists’ and their ‘white privilege’ useful idiots in our universities, media and boardrooms, new forms of divisive thinking predicated around racial interest articulation are beginning to emerge. Preaching to gullible white liberals about their alleged privilege is an easy sell, and this seems to be the underlying gamble: guilt-tripping will help lead to political change.
However, beyond the BBC, lecture halls and other privileged islands, guilt will likely not go very far. It is hard to see how the woke priesthood’s catechism of privilege and self-flagellation will be received in such places as Rotherham. Failure to contain this genie, released by the explosive assault on British identity, places our valuable multicultural dispensation in grave peril. The twin crises of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic have justifiably meant the party has been slow off the blocks in recognising this, but it must not linger for much longer.
At the moment, we are living through a unique structural moment in British politics. Strategically, the party should restructure elements of our legal-institutional matrix, much of which underpins the left’s culture war arsenal. Failure to do so will mean that whilst the Conservatives are in power, its exercise will be stymied time after time, and in the culture wars at least, conservatives will suffer a death of a thousand cuts.
What are the elements of this matrix? On the one hand, the party faces a largely left-hegemonic institutionalised ‘fifth column’, composed of quangos and assorted charities. Despite their hyperbole, the UK remains one of the most socially progressive societies on earth, as even a cursory glance at most data metrics show very clearly.
However, these entities have both a bureaucratic and economic self-interest in evidencing ‘forever’ grievance narratives that feed the left’s culture war. For over a decade, various Tory chancellors have pumped billions into these bodies. Why?
Crucially, in a market of diminishing inequality, these ‘social justice’ organisations and theorists have evolved and adapted to new market realities with often Orwellian conceptual innovations to evidence injustice and thus drive political change and their continued funding. From junk science mandatory tests for unconscious biases in corporate boardrooms to students being paid to police alleged unintentional micro-aggressions in our universities, forms of embedded egalitarianism are often illiberal and increasingly authoritarian.
A ‘grievance industrial complex’ exists to evidence the above, but in a market of diminishing inequality, the complex must adapt with ever more bizarre and illiberal conceptual innovations to make sure demand for one’s services is maintained in the context of a diminishing supply of injustice.
Philosophically, this grievance industry deliberately conflates equal outcomes with equal opportunities. The script is familiar. If there’s an unequal outcome, anywhere and at any point, likely explanatory variables are ignored in favour of an amorphous ‘systemic’ conspiracy to reproduce a system of discrimination. It does not matter that this ‘systemic’ conspiracy is totally at odds with readily available data on the incredible financial, educational and cultural advances of the UK’s diverse population.
Conveniently, ‘justice’ is achieved by a redistributive agent of technocrats to intervene to impose equal outcomes in the name of social justice and to combat this ‘systemic’ conspiracy. Similar to the USSR, this conception shifts debates from an examination of underlying processes that allow humans to participate equally to one of top down imposition to achieve outcome parity, usually by a self-interested elite that has a self-interest in mission creep and the maintenance of their power.
The Conservative Party must reboot its philosophical thinking around this crucial distinction: there has been a dangerous and lazy drift across British institutional life from equality of opportunity that is entirely consistent and optimal for a functional market democracy to one of equity or equality of outcomes.
To the extent that the latter conception wins out over the former, conservatives will keep losing battle after battle in what is in fact an ever hotter and ongoing value-conflict raging within the anglophone West.
Of far more strategic significance however, is the foundation upon which this grievance industrial complex sits. It is quite shocking that, after ten years of Conservatives in government, the Equality Act of 2010 has been left totally unreformed.
Although this legislation was intended to safeguard access to equal opportunities, it has in fact morphed into the central juridical weapon of the left. In particular, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the Public Sector Equality duty – has breathed into being an army of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officials across huge swathes of national life.
Through mission creep, this has imposed huge costs on our public sector, helped shift social discourse to one of outcome equality as being the central metric and weaponized the duty to ‘foster good relations’ to transform organisational cultures in often highly illiberal ways.
No doubt the ‘optics’ of reform will be seized on by political opponents, but this is why the party should bundle this up within a much broader cultural offering: a reassertion of the primacy of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom of speech and conscience and equality of all before the law, regardless of creed, class or colour.
It is these values that have helped challenge dogma, champion freedom and defend those gains once made. These are now under radical assault, with those questioning the orthodoxies of the ‘great awokening’ often targeted for harassment and censure. The Conservative Party should lay a firm claim to the enlightenment tradition and let that be its lodestar in the culture wars. Failure to do so will place our current dispensation in deep peril; it is time to wake up.