From putting tea-towel folder extraordinaire George Osborne in charge of the economy in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis in decades, to allowing “totally fucking useless” Matt Hancock to help his friends turn a profit instead of devising a competent strategy to manage the pandemic, the Conservative government has perfected the art of putting inept people in vital roles and allowing them to drive policy via ideology, instead of expert advice, facts and compassion.
Despite this flood of incompetence, the Tories continue to poll highly. A significant factor in this is their pushing of a ‘culture war’, which relies on a rejection of facts, focusing on prioritising soundbites and hagiography over actual historical analysis.
One of the most recent Tory attempts to fan the flames of this culture war and draw attention away from the government’s widespread failings comes in the form of would-be NHS chief Dido Harding’s vow to end the NHS’s “reliance” on foreign-born workers.
This itself is an impossible task, given that over 13% of an already overstretched NHS staff are foreign-born. But it also betrays the complete lack of historical understanding that permeates many claims in the Conservative-led culture wars.
The UK healthcare system has always been reliant on migrant workers, even prior to the creation of the NHS, when Irish nurses helped to fulfil the need for nurses in a Britain that had been ravaged by two world wars. Within a year of its formation, recruitment campaigns had been launched across commonwealth countries in an attempt to source NHS workers, who were primarily nurses from the Caribbean. Less than a decade later this push focused on doctors, taken mostly from the subcontinent. In fact, the Willink Committee on Medical Manpower found in 1957 that 12% of doctors in a random sample taken from medical directories between 1953-55 were trained overseas.
This is all to say that, like many Tory culture war shibboleths, Dido Harding’s insistence on making the NHS less reliant on foreign-born workers isn’t just impractical, but literally makes no sense from a historical perspective. If anything, the number of foreign-born workers in the service has remained steady, even with increasing levels of immigration.
This did not happen by accident. Nearly every facet of the culture war is ahistorical, focused on soundbites and slogans over careful research and academic rigour.
One of the most obvious examples of this is the current rightwing obsession with blocking attempts to move forward on the recognition and rights of trans people. Often hidden behind the guise of traditionalism, the Conservative-led moral panic around transgender people belies the wealth of evidence we have about the commonness of gender fluidity in ancient cultures, as well as ignoring the early 20th century work of scientists like Magnus Hirschfield. His pioneering studies on transexual people were banned and burned under the Nazi party for fear of ‘corrupting the youth’ – a charge we’re seeing repeated by many rightwing commentators today when they parse out their alleged concerns around trans activism.
Statues are another big ‘culture war’ favourite, which requires a complete misunderstanding of history to get riled up about. The purpose of statues is to lionise those being cast in bronze, while pushing a certain historical narrative. This is most obvious in the US with Confederate statues, the vast majority of which were erected during the height of Jim Crow, as opposed to following the US Civil War. However, it also holds true in the UK, which still displays statues of controversial figures like Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, who, contrary to what many on the right argue, were recognised in their time as being particularly savage and morally corrupt.
One of the more famous contemporary critics of Rhodes was Mark Twain, who claimed he ought to be hanged, but there were numerous others including economist J.A Hobson and writer G.K Chesterton. Rhodes was well aware of the criticism surrounding him, and as such used philanthropy to whitewash his conception in popular culture – something that has clearly worked. Attempts to topple or remove his monuments go back as far as the 1950s. By this logic, the current push to reckon with his legacy can’t simply be dismissed as a modern fad, or part of a newfound attempt to ‘rewrite history’.
Of course, one of the most egregious rewritings of history we see in this context is the beatifying of Winston Churchill. Any criticism of the former prime minister is met with fervent anger and hateful retorts, despite there being countless evidence showing his incompetence and predisposition to follow his gut instead of expert advice – a tendency which led to 46,000 British deaths at Gallipoli and which ruined the British economy after WW1.
And that’s before we even get onto the more harrowing controversies, like his role in the Bengal famine – something pro-Churchill hagiographers (our current prime minister included) always seek to downplay.
In fact, throughout the first half of the 20th century, Churchill was known for his incompetence and anachronistic views that were considered hateful and dangerous – and that did not need even need the benefit of hindsight to be seen as morally wrong. Even his greatest accomplishment in leading Britain during the war has been airbrushed to ignore the countless times he made mistakes in managing it, as was noted in accounts by then foreign secretary Anthony Eden and other staff during the war.
In pushing a controversial soundbite designed to stir up fear, anxiety and resentment, Dido Harding has joined the long line of Tory culture war generals, happily spewing out hateful and easily refutable ideas in order to boost the bigot vote that the Conservatives have mostly monopolised since the fall of UKIP – as well as radicalising their voter base to care more about niche social topics than the fact that the country is in tatters.
It’s clear the Conservative party has made pushing this culture war a crucial electoral strategy. If we allow the Tories to continue on this path unchecked, all we’ll have left in the UK is cronyism, a shredded social security net and client journalists praising this exploitation as freedom. These are the real ‘British values’ the Conservatives are fighting for.
Sandeep Sandhu is a writer based in Edinburgh.