In a week of “campaign” launches the candidates for Prime Minister all spoke broadly along the same two themes: tax cuts and culture war. While the first is not controversial, it is a fairly common political fayre. The second is more dangerous. “Culture war” transfigures public debate into a rage-soaked fantasyland and leads to the persecution of the most vulnerable.
To understand “culture war” we must first understand the unreality of our political discourse, in which politicians seek to convince without regard for the truth. This is inherently undemocratic, as public debate becomes free from reality and becomes a race for reaching as many people as possible. The power of truth is in the hands of those with the most resources and platforms.
Boris Johnson is a shrewd misleader, but he’s not the only one. As they kick off their campaigns, his would-be successors have all embraced a particularly vicious form of fantasy: the invented enemy, by which powerful people create a pretend threat (often a marginalised group) that they can win political plaudits for “dealing with”. This involves persecuting the chosen victim, stripping essential rights, or rolling back democratic fundamentals. The term “culture war” seems to trivialise and obscure. It is persecution, plain and simple. It can be life or death for the victims.
The candidates have so far focused on four invented enemies. First, LGBT+ people. Nadhim Zahawi wants to “protect” school children from learning about queer people. It’s an entirely unreal problem. Teaching children that some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans (and that’s ok!) It does not do more than to educate them about the realities of the world. It may help them to be accepted by their peers and prevent years of psychological torture. It doesn’t matter if some people are LGBT+. If Zahawi is to be believed, it means that we must discriminate against LGBT+ people in order to defeat this non-existent enemy.
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Immigration is a common concern. Kemi Badenoch bemoans criticisms of the government as for “enforcing its own borders”.Jeremy Hunt promises to tackle channel boats. Both are artificial problems. Immigration has a net positive economic effect (and social effect – the areas of largest immigrant populations are also where public support for immigration is highest). Channel crossings are a problem of the government’s own creation. Ministers could end them today by re-instating safe and legal routes that previous governments have shut down (ironically to show that they are tough when it comes to immigration). Yet, to defeat this enemy, the Home Office has embraced paroxysms of performative cruelty, persecuting the victims of trafficking, war, rape, and poverty all to prove that it’s tough on this invented “enemy”.
Suella Braverman has turned her fire on human rights, railing against a “foreign court” “obstructing lawful, politically legitimate deportations…” and even blames the ECHR for people trafficking in the channel. This is a completely fictionalized version of ECHR. The Convention was drafted, largely by British lawyers, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials (deporting a hated minority to camps – the essence of the Rwanda policy – was very much in the minds of the drafters). The rights it enumerates are based on our humanity, not our nation, and all states parties serve as judges to the court. The whole point of human rights is to “trump” the will of the majority in certain, limited, situations
Where the fundamental dignity of the individual is at stake (and an essential check to ensure democracy doesn’t degenerate into mob rule). Talking about “foreign judges” or “political legitimacy” is a different debate entirely. Braverman’s “solution”, leaving the ECHR, isn’t really an attack on “foreign judges”. It’s an assault on those who rely on human rights – the vulnerable and marginalised.
All of the candidates (including the, supposedly “grown up”, Tom Tugenhadt) promise to “fix” the Northern Ireland Protocol by breaking it. However, the protocol is popular in Northern Ireland, and has led to unprecedented economic expansion, as I’ve argued before. The “solution” will likely throw Northern Ireland into recession and reignite the Troubles.
A leader who obsesses about fake problems is often ineffective at addressing the real ones. The Johnson government, having defined itself against a series of invented enemies (judges/the EU/the “liberal elite”), failed its first real challenge: Covid-19 (the insistence that it “got the big calls right” crumbles in the face of reality: UK’s death rate and economic collapse both outstripped much of the Western world). The candidates for Johnson’s replacement seem to have relatively little to say about real challenges like the cost of living crisis, inflation, or global heating. Although the contest for leadership is still in its infancy, there is still time for candidates to improve their offerings. However, being victimized by an arbitrarily chosen minority is not a substitute for a plan to improve the country.