The Culture War Raging Inside the Conservative Party

Number 10 loves a culture war, but MPs inside the UK party sound weary.
September 14, 2020, 9:15am
Boris Johnson wearing a face mask
Photo: WPA Pool/Getty Images

If there is one thing the Conservative Party enjoys doing, it is wading into culture wars. From the BBC now being run by communists to Black Lives Matter and transgender people threatening to destroy the very fabric of society to all universities also being run by communists, they have spent the past year gleefully pouncing on any topic they could be irate about. Maybe it is because No 10 finds it convenient to move attention away from its own failings; maybe the whole party has just found a new favourite hobby.

If there is one thing the Conservative Party does not enjoy doing, it is talking about why they keep wading into culture wars. They may be happy shouting about whatever the topic of the day happens to be, but if you ask an MP’s office for a chat about the reason why they do it, they will demur, and say something like: “Whilst he thinks it is an extremely interesting topic and will be interested to read the feature when it is released, he believes it is probably best he does not take part.”

Still, some of them did agree to talk, but only if they could remain anonymous. What they said went some way towards explaining why, like sex, the culture wars are seemingly something one should do but not discuss in polite society. For a start, they do not accept the premise that their party started it.

“I'd really rather not have culture wars,” said one Tory MP who has been vocal about BBC impartiality recently. “What I don't quite get is why the left seems quite so keen to have a culture war, because certainly sat where I am in my constituency, it doesn't look to me like they're going to win it. I'd rather just get back to doing what we said we wanted to do in government.”

As far as one former special adviser is concerned, Conservative MPs furiously attacking the BBC have essentially been played by right-wing broadsheets who encourage this type of discourse. “It's not a weird media conspiracy, it's a straightforward business interest," they explained. "They benefit if the BBC's wings are clipped and they struggle because the BBC is so pervasive. So anything they can do to undermine trust in the BBC obviously helps their business case.”

Another former special adviser had a similar theory: according to them, the way the press covers politicians makes it easy for said politicians to start obsessing over quite benign issues. “I do believe that there is a dominance in journalistic coverage of some of these cultural issues that make them to be much bigger problems than they are in general,” they said. “When you're looking at a section of journalists within SW1 who are incredibly insular, who never really go off and do other beats, who do want to go for gotcha moments, that has a balanced impact on the other side – which is a government then looking for gotcha moments.”

On a relative note, they added that “the discussion about trans rights that's going on at the moment is just one of many arguments that are going to rumble on; while the progressive left have access to social media and to 24 hour news, these issues are not going to go away”. 

Finally, the Tory MP concluded: “We keep importing these arguments from America, and I think Trump losing would be a massive benefit to be perfectly honest, because I think Trump is such a lightning rod for all of this.”

So, in short: not us guv, we’re just playing the cards we were dealt with. Culture wars are started by the left, by the media and by the US, and poor old Conservative MPs have no choice but to reluctantly fight back. There is some truth to it; arguments do not take place in a vacuum, and Britain is not the only country in which every issue is now polarising. The point about the media was also astute. If a random backbencher tweets something incendiary about a cultural issue and a newspaper decides to turn it into a prominent story, the latter is arguably responsible for the issue gaining national prominence, as the MP could have been easily ignored otherwise.

We saw it happen quite clearly in the Brexit years, when certain journalists would complain about the hostility of the proceedings one day, then seek out the obscure MPs they knew would provide uncomfortably aggressive quotes the next. If an MP no-one usually cares about has an offensive opinion and no-one turns it into a piece, did he even fuel the culture wars?

That being said, a certain portion of the Conservative Party has been especially vocal in the past few months, and more than willing to lean into paranoid McCarthyism. According to Tim Bale, professor of politics and author of several books on the Tories, this is not necessarily new. “There is a strain in the Conservative Party that almost overdoes Atlanticism,” he said, “so much so that they move towards the quite evangelical right-wing agenda which in some ways is quite foreign to the Conservative party.” 

A very straightforward example of this is  John Hayes, the Brexiteer former minister, recently posing in the parliamentary estate doing the thumbs up next to a “Trump 2020 - Keep America Great!” flag. If that’s not triggering the libs for the sake of it, what is? Interestingly, it is not entirely clear how the parliamentary party splits on the question of culture wars. Not all MPs have been at it, but the ones who have don’t necessarily have a lot in common; it doesn’t seem to be linked to age, wing of the party, or anything else.

“It's not just between the left and the right of the party but between the party who thinks that it's worth wading in and the party that thinks that it's not,” said one of the former advisers. “These are issues where MPs read one article in The Telegraph and go bananas because they think it's bonkers. And there's a section of the Conservative Party that says that we should leave it all alone, and we shouldn't touch it, and there's a section of the Conservative Party that thinks God, we must fix this, because it's bonkers. It's not just the traditional battle lines.”

Trying to define said new battle lines is easier said than done, but there does seem to be one recurring theme; if an MP was elected in 2019 – or 2017 at a push – they are more likely to be a Twitter warrior. Take the open letter to the new BBC Director General written by Tory MP Chris Loder, himself a newbie. Aiming to discuss “political bias, impartiality, censorship and the licence fee”, the letter named several specific BBC journalists who were Labour activists before getting into journalism, which proved controversial. It was signed by 14 other Conservative MPs, nearly all of whom are first-timers.

Another open letter on a topic adjacent to the culture wars was recently signed overwhelmingly by 2019 intake Conservative MPs. This time, it was on transgender rights, and – perhaps surprisingly – urging No 10 to reform the Gender Recognition Act and do better by trans people. Here is an extract:

“In 2015, Ireland passed an updated GRA which allowed for self-identification – there has been no negative consequences to this decision. There is, however, evidence that improving legal gender recognition for trans people increases their quality of life, dignity and safety […]

As Conservatives, we have made it a central tenet that individuals should be free to live their lives as they choose. It is our duty to follow through on our pledge to increase the dignity, safety and privacy of transgender members of our society.”

Asked what the reasoning was behind the letter, one of the signatories who wished to remain anonymous said: “Its purpose was to make sure that Boris knew, on this and actually all LGBT issues, that he had the party behind him. I mean, the Sunday Times piece a few months ago that said we were going to roll back trans rights – that was bullshit. It was just people wanting us to roll back rights, thinking that if they leaked to the media that we were going to do it, that somehow we would therefore do it. And therefore it was important that the party also had voices saying we are behind GRA reform.”

That last point is an important one: even if battles in political parties are theoretically internal, they are often fought outwardly – through briefings in the press, social media, and so on. It isn’t even a specifically Conservative tradition – just look at the Labour party in the Corbyn years. In short: you can make a private point to your colleagues, but unless you are very senior, it will only take you so far. Attempting to change the minds of the public or at least your supporters is often a better way to try and win an argument.

This is especially true in the case of the 2019 intake: because there are so many of them and because they have spent most of their not-quite-first-year away from Parliament, making noise is the only tangible way they have to get themselves noticed. Throw in a generation that is more likely to have grown up with social media than its predecessors, and it’s no surprise they keep cropping up.

As Bale put it, “the question of intakes is quite interesting. Sometimes you get a very strong sense of people identifying with theirs and sometimes you don't. When you've got a big intake, like this one, it's much more likely that they will see themselves as a cohort. There's a very strong possibility that 2019 is particularly likely to give birth to a group of people who see themselves as a little bit different from the people who were there before, like the Labour intake of 1997.”

Another feature of the 2019 intake is that a lot of them are now MPs for marginal seats which turned Tory either for the first time ever or the first time in decades. The received wisdom on the “red wall” is that the party gained those seats because Labour had become the uber-socially liberal party of “virtue signalling”. By wanging on endlessly about the tyranny of wokeness, it is assumed that the Conservatives will then be able to hold onto these voters. 

Red wall Tories disagree. “There's an interesting view by some within the party that red wall seats will automatically not be as pro-LGBT,” said one of the MPs. “That's nonsense. People in red wall seats in general just want to be allowed to get on and live their damn lives. And they want to live them freely, and they want everyone else to live their lives freely. And they don't want to have a fight about this.”

Another northern Tory, meanwhile, said that though they did get irritated by debates on topics like the spelling of “womxn”, they did not see the voters they knew enthralled by the idea of endless culture wars. So, once again: no one wants this, yet everyone keeps doing it.

This is probably why only a few Tories were willing to discuss the topic publicly. Had they been fighting in the culture trenches with glee, they may have been more amenable to explaining why they are so involved. Instead, the ones that did talk sounded weary and fed up. It isn’t clear whether they are the playthings of malevolent right-wing hacks, easily swayed by what goes on stateside, desperate to hold onto their new seats, addicted to social media fury, or a combination of those things. What we do know is that they’re having a miserable time as well, convinced they are under attack and moved to defend themselves from all quarters, despite having the largest parliamentary majority in a generation.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising; this is the Vote Leave government, and if we have learnt one thing from the Brexiteers, it is that victory can sometimes just lead to crippling paranoia. After all, fighting enemies real and imagined is perhaps more comforting than realising you’ve finally won, and you’re now on your own.

@youngvulgarian