Sunday 21 June 2020

Conservatives can't win the culture wars while Blair and Brown's legacy remains intact: Nick Timothy

Dogwhistle bombast at its finest by Nick Timothy, the man who buggered Theresa May, covering everything in the Tory book of hate bar foxhunting.

Prime ministers and chancellors can sometimes boast an influence over their country so strong that it lasts long after they leave office. Such was the dominance of William Gladstone's economic policies, it used to be said that the Grand Old Man occupied the Treasury from 1860 to 1930. More recently, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown enjoyed 10 and 13 years in office respectively. Yet their influence lives on in government.

Increasingly, many conservatives are scratching their heads and wondering why, in the words of Prof Matthew Goodwin, the Tories are "winning elections but losing the culture war." Of course, some dispute that language: after all, unlike America, we do not suffer interminable political battles over issues like abortion rights and gun ownership. Mercifully, we have so far been spared the misery of Trump-style political debate, into which the US appears to be sinking ever deeper.

But who can doubt we are engaged in a culture war of our own? The Brexit referendum not only revealed a cultural chasm in Britain, it also helped to widen it further. It demonstrated that many millions of citizens thought very differently about their identity compared with the governing classes, and it polarised the country even further, as many MPs spent the next three years doing everything they could to thwart the result.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that Britain's culture war is limited to departing the European Union. As academics and opinion researchers attest, Britain's political divides are no longer defined only by economic issues, such as taxation and spending on public services. They are defined at least as much by attitudes to cultural issues, such as sovereignty, immigration and human rights.

And on these issues, many conservatives feel like they are losing. Immigration has been sky-high for approaching a quarter of a century and showed no signs of stopping pre-Covid-19. Criminals and illegal immigrants often evade the law by citing their human rights. Extremists can spout their hatred and recruit and radicalise their followers without intervention. And this is a serious problem: who will have been surprised that the suspect in Saturday's stabbings in Reading turned out to have been known by the intelligence agencies?

For public information campaigns about cervical screening, the NHS has refused to address "women", instead preferring "people with a cervix", for fear of offending transgender campaigners. The police, who rarely miss an opportunity to act tough with soft targets, stand and watch violent protesters desecrate war memorials and vandalise national monuments. The Archbishop of Canterbury - reflecting a tendency to assert that white people are unavoidably racist simply because of their own skin colour - has prayed for "white Christians [to] repent of our own prejudices".

These examples show why conservatives feel they are losing the culture war. It is possible to believe in tackling racial injustice without having to accept that white people are by definition "the problem". It is possible to respect those with gender dysphoria, without believing that a woman's right to privacy and safety should be sacrificed. It is possible to believe that everybody has the right to protest and demonstrate, while also believing that the police should uphold the law.

So why, when Tories have been in government for more than a decade, does it seem that cultural liberals and Left-wingers are in the ascendancy?

In part, it is because a culture war is precisely what its name suggests: it is about culture as much as what governments do with the levers of power. There is little ministers can do when celebrities, or businesses, use their platform to make arguments that conservatives reject.

It is partly because we no longer have unitary government in Britain: ministers in Whitehall might be Conservatives, but there is, for example, a Labour mayor in London, and if he wants to weigh in on debates about old statues, he can do so.

It is also because some Conservative politicians have little appetite for fighting a culture war. Some are liberals who disagree with cultural conservatives. Some just want to focus on the economy, because that is what they believe is most important. Some find arguments about issues like immigration - and the voters who care about them - terribly embarrassing.

But there is a better explanation. Tories are right to complain about the ways in which the public sector, quangos and the so-called "deep state" perpetuate a Left-wing agenda, but not for the reasons they normally give. It is not simply down to Left-wingers occupying positions of power. Even when conservatives run public bodies, the problem often continues.

The real reason is that conservatives are fighting their battles on ground chosen by their opponents, abiding by rules drawn up by their opponents, and accepting the adjudication of institutions established by their opponents. Laws passed by the Blair and Brown governments - in particular the Human Rights Act 1998 and Equality Act 2010 - are what drive the behaviour of public sector organisations.

Require the criminal justice system to balance the rights of criminals with those of the wider public, and it becomes unsurprising that police officers resemble social workers. It makes sense that they are keener to dance with Extinction Rebellion protesters than on arresting them for blocking public highways, and quicker to take the knee before protesters than on stopping the violent among them attacking the Cenotaph.

Impose a public sector equality duty on every council and public service in the country, and require equality impact assessments before they can get anything done, and it is no shock that bureaucratic zeal leads to ridiculous decision-making and perverse outcomes such as the NHS denying the existence of women and suggesting that men might need to have smear tests.

Conservatives can pretend these cultural battles are not happening. But if they want to win them, they will have to face up to the reality that they must replace the legal frameworks established by their opponents. Unless and until they take on this legacy of Blair and Brown, they are destined to go on losing.


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