When the Conservative party returned to power in 2010 after 13 years of Labour rule, there was a deep anxiety amongst Tories that winning elections wasn’t enough. Labour had supposedly conquered Britain’s cultural citadels as well – from schools and universities to the broadcast media and the civil service – and so needed to be purged beyond parliament. “The Tories must be prepared to launch a reverse march through the institutions,” The Spectator’s James Forsyth cautioned in 2009. (The phrase “march through the institutions” refers to a communist slogan from the 1960s, inspired by Antonio Gramsci.)
Over a decade later, the Tories enjoy a unique and unsettling ascendancy over Britain. They have won the last four elections in a row, each with a larger share of the vote, and are favourites to win an unprecedented fifth. Yet an even wilder version of the same cultural paranoia still persists. Despite Labour’s losing streak, “the left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up,” claims Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home. In this feverish vision, the right continues to neglect culture while the left is given a free-run to indoctrinate the nation’s children, denigrate its statues, and fuel division.
This is the root of today’s so-called ‘culture war’. Polls suggest few voters actually know what this war is, but nevertheless the Conservatives have made it the centrepiece of their governing strategy. Britain is under attack, the story goes, and finally the right is fighting back. The BBC, universities, protests, the civil service and leftwing comedy shows are all in the firing line.
In many ways, the culture war belongs to an age-old Conservative tradition of stoking animosity towards an ‘enemy within’ – whether it’s the left, ethnic minorities or other marginalised groups. Yet Boris Johnson is waging these battles with particular zeal. While protesters have frequently defaced the statue of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament, for example, only now is this prompting new legislation criminalising the offence with up to ten years in prison (rather than the original maximum sentence of three months). Similarly, the Tories have always been a party that have sought to drum up patriotic feeling – but only now are they requiring every government ministry to fly the national flag year-round.
Given the Tories’ ascendancy, the anxiety driving these new announcements may seem puzzling. The party’s record of victory, and its comfortable parliamentary majority, suggest that the culture already leans decisively in their favour. What’s all the worrying about?
On one level, the confected culture war simply offers Tories an entertaining escape. Rather than addressing the deeper problems facing Britain, often of the party’s own making – the repercussions of a pandemic that has claimed more than 150,000 lives, a third of children living in poverty, and the legal and economic fallout of Brexit – Conservatives can put on their Union Jack capes and cosplay as Britain’s brave defenders.
On another level, however, we are looking at a more serious ambition: Johnson’s desire for total control over the terms and conditions of political debate in Britain. To this end, any sphere still outside the party’s control – universities, the civil service, broadcast media (which, unlike in the US, remains protected by impartiality laws) – must be actively antagonised. But to justify the government’s heavy-handed treatment of these institutions, the Tories must show that the future of the nation – rather than merely the future success of their party – is at stake. Enter the culture wars.
Under the guise of facing down phantom threats like ‘the woke mob’ or ‘cultural Marxism’, the Tories’ grip on society is tightening. The government plans to appoint a “free speech champion” who will police the shape of academic debate and funding at universities. The new chair of the Office for Students, Lord Wharton, is Johnson’s former campaign chief, with no experience of the higher education sector. Paul Dacre, the notorious former editor of the Daily Mail, is favourite to become chief of Ofcom, the state regulator of British TV and telecommunications. Under his likely remit will be two new rightwing stations that will steer national conversation even further to the right. The civil service is under continuous attack from ministers. And so on.
James Forsyth will be particularly pleased about this “march through the institutions”: his wife, Allegra Stratton, is the new Downing Street press secretary; the best man at their wedding, Rishi Sunak, is chancellor of the exchequer, and Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs, Richard Sharp, is the new BBC chair. But this is hardly a “reverse” on Labour’s time in power. One of Tony Blair’s major failings was that he made very little attempt to change the culture of British politics. Labour is now paying the price.
While Blair’s hat-trick of election wins was unprecedented for a Labour leader, he was much more an expression of the Tories’ dominance than a break from it. The key tenets of British politics – the stigma of state welfare, the elevation of the private sector over the public sector, the refusal to confront the darker sides of British history – remained in place. As The Observer columnist Nick Cohen noted at the time: “The existing economic order is beyond question: it’s just there as if it were the will of God. Benefits are slipped out of the back pocket in the embarrassed manner of a man throwing coins to a beggar.” Margaret Thatcher famously claimed Blair and New Labour as her “greatest achievements”: “we forced our opponents to change their minds,” she said.
The result was that the more progressive sides of Blair’s government were easily swept aside: they never had deep enough roots to endure an opposition government. Thatcher’s legacy, by contrast, was the opposite. “Economics is the method,” she declared, “the aim to change people’s souls.” As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed in 1988: “Thatcher always aimed, not for a short electoral reversal, but for a long historical occupancy of power.” Her government “entered the political field in an historic contest, not just for power, but for popular authority, for hegemony.”
Johnson’s government, emboldened by its resounding win in 2019, is picking up where Thatcher left off. While Johnson lacks any kind of political vision – one of many ways in which Brexit was a gift to him – the desire to dominate is the same. And with a rabble-rouser like him at the helm, there is apparently no intellectual void the national flag can’t fill. The cumulative effect is to cement the status of the Tories as the party of the flag and nation, and of Labour as the party of enemies within.
To challenge this narrative, Labour will have to do much more than flagellate itself with an even bigger Union Jack. Hall mocked Labour’s “softly-softly, don’t-rock-the-boat, hoping-the-election-polls-will-go-up way” of winning back power, warning that the party would become “historically irrelevant” if it didn’t raise its horizons. He called on Labour to instead realise that despite the Tories’ dominance and all the forces allied against the left, progressive sentiments continue to exist within British culture – and it is Labour’s task to harness them. This call still resonates today. But as the march of Johnson’s government continues apace, Labour’s time is running out.
Samuel Earle is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review Books and elsewhere. This piece is part of a series on the Tories and how they hold on to power.
Part one: Even Without the ‘Vaccine Bounce’, Boris Johnson Would Still Be Winning
Part two: Being an Opportunist Has Worked Well for Johnson. Why Not for Starmer?