Britain’s descent into the culture wars has been swift, but it doesn’t have to be terminal

There has been an extraordinary transformation in the way the media talks about cultural change in the UK in recent years, and it is beginning to infect public opinion.

In 2015, there were only 21 articles in UK newspapers that spoke of a “culture war” in the UK. Our new survey shows that by 2021 there were nearly 1,500.

“Cancel Culture” didn’t exist at all in the UK mainstream media in 2017, but in 2021 there were a staggering 3,670 articles using the term.

And the public is beginning to notice. In 2020, 47% had never heard of cancel culture, but it had halved by 2022. More generally, most people now agree that the UK is divided by war cultural groups, compared to our last study in 2020. This increase affects demographics and political identities, but it is older groups and conservatives that have moved the most.

This changing terrain is also seen in how people view that other key term in the culture wars discussion: “awakening.” In our 2020 study, the most common response when people were asked whether “waking up” was a compliment or an insult was “I don’t know what it means,” while those who did have a view were evenly split between thinking of it as a compliment and think of it as an insult.

Mentions of the ‘culture wars’ increased rapidly.
KCL Policy Institute

But many more now know what it means, and people have been strongly inclined to see it as an insult. That’s not surprising when you see our analysis of the context in which “awakened” is used, which is overwhelmingly derogatory: language like “bitter,” “blinking,” “puritanical,” “ridiculous,” “insidious,” even “terrorist.” . ”, are all linked to the term.

This leaves us in a deeply worrying position.

Some say these debates don’t matter, or are fabricated by the media and politicians rather than a genuine concern among the public. Admittedly, we don’t see culture war issues at the top of people’s lists of the biggest issues facing the country – the cost of living crisis, the strains in the NHS, the war in Europe and the pandemic are considered most important priorities. As Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy put it, this culture change debate doesn’t come “on the doorstep”.

First page to front bank

But this misunderstands the importance of the culture war story. Who controls the cultural narrative of a country is important because it sets the tone for politics in general. And, as research by think tank UK in a Changing Europe shows, the cultural instincts of Conservative MPs are much closer to the average voter than Labor MPs. There is a clear incentive, therefore, for the current ruling party to maintain focus on these issues.

When there was first talk of a culture war in the US in the 1990s, it was described as a “war for the soul of America.” It can become powerful, not because of the great national importance of the individual issues addressed, but because that process creates tribes, as more and more cultural issues are incorporated into their political identity.

However, the United Kingdom is not the United States. The country has very different historical, cultural and political contexts, so it is not inevitable that the same scenarios will unfold. But on the other hand, complacency could lead the UK down an equally bad path. Analysis of political manifestos in 21 countries, including the UK, over the last 50 years shows a long trend towards a greater focus on cultural issues over economic ones in party promises. In the UK, this has been exacerbated by Brexit, which was essentially about different views of the country and its values.

A graphic showing that the British media suddenly started using the term 'cancel culture' in recent years.
The use of the term ‘cancel culture’ has skyrocketed.
KCL Policy Institute

One of the defining characteristics of culture wars is deep suspicion of the motives of the “other side.” One group believes that it is engaged in a legitimate battle against cultural institutions captured by a worldview that does not reflect the values ​​of ordinary people. The other sees this purely as a cynical political gambit.

Debating which of these is true misses the point. What matters most is the sense of conflict that sets the tone of the debate, that establishes identities in warring tribes and means that compromise becomes impossible. Our culture and values, and how they are changing, are completely legitimate, in fact essential aspects of political discussion, but how we do it is important. The speed and scale of the adoption of culture war rhetoric in the UK is a dangerous game.

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