The culture wars have been good for the Conservative party. They were undoubtedly one of the things that helped the Tories win the 2019 general election so decisively. The party was able to paint itself as the guardians of old school British common sense, protecting the country at large from the army of the woke.
Yet this week has exposed the problem with using the culture wars as the main plank of your political strategy. Times change, sometimes very quickly. And that means your positions can look old hat all of a sudden. This week felt like just such a watershed moment.
Tyrone Mings tweeted at Home Secretary Priti Patel on Monday, saying that she couldn’t call out racism as suffered by members of the England football team after her “gesture politics” comment of a few weeks ago. The tweet went viral, in doing so presenting us with the question: have the Conservatives gone too far down the culture war road and exposed themselves electorally as a result? No less than Steve Baker, hardly someone who could be confused with a social justice warrior, said, ‘This may be a decisive moment for our party. Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking a knee.’
The government placing themselves in a PR battle with the England football team was a very bad idea. For millions of people in England, the national football side is a deeply important thing in their lives. This is particularly true in rural and small town England, where there are no big clubs to support locally and thus England is taken even more to people’s hearts than is true elsewhere in the country. They also happen to vote Tory as a matter of course in the areas where this applies, at least for the moment. The party annoys these voters at their peril.
If you want to maintain your position as the party for patriots, creating a situation in which a lot of very patriotic English men and women are left wondering why and how the Tories ended up seemingly attacking one of the most potent symbols of that feeling was a really poor move. I understand the worry from many on the right about the fact that a group calling themselves Black Lives Matter started calling for things like defunding the police on social media last year. Was parts of the far left trying to use the George Floyd moment for its own political ends? I also understand the feeling that taking the knee had been borrowed from American culture and the worry that we were thus unconsciously borrowing even more culture war baggage from the States.
However, there came a point where the taking the knee ritual took on a life of its own in English football; it clearly came to symbolise the players expressing discomfort with the racism that they and their teammates had personally suffered or witnessed, whatever its origins. And so, there comes a point where you have to pick a side. It begins to feel like you’re either with the England players or you’re with those who are racially abusing them. And that shouldn’t be a difficult choice to make, particularly for those who have cheered on the Three Lions all their lives.
For the moment, the Tories are still way ahead in the polls. Starmer remains unable to break out of his funk and steer Labour back to a place where they look like they could win an election. As a result, there is a nailed-on assumption that the next election is in the bag for the Tories. But as I said at the top, things can change in politics very quickly. It must be remembered that Starmer, whatever his faults, isn’t Jeremy Corbyn; he doesn’t frighten middle England in the same way, and the Tories will never convince that slice of the electorate to be scared of the Labour leader like they were of his predecessor.
If the Tories become unpopular enough, Labour could win by default. And while that seems unlikely at the moment, doing more things like picking fights with beloved symbols of English patriotism, particularly at a delicate time in terms of unlocking from Covid restrictions, might just start to swing the polls away from Boris in a meaningful and lasting way.
Of course, this could just be a bad week for the Tories. They can obviously recover from this tussle with a beloved national treasure, particularly if figures like Steve Baker lead the charge. But if they aren’t careful, Boris could become hoist with his own petard – the very stoking of the culture wars he did to win in 2019 coming back to burn him at the next general election.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.