Why Conservatives love the culture war

I bet Dominic Cummings did a little happy dance when someone scrawled graffiti on the Cenotaph during a Black Lives Matter protest. He probably opened a bottle when the Archbishop of Canterbury announced a review of statues in churches. These are the sort of things that annoy people, capture headlines, cause a storm on social media and thereby get him off the hook. One minute there was outrage from lockdown-fatigued voters over his flouting of the rules and the preposterous stories he made up to justify it. The next, everyone was talking about statues and there was fighting in the streets over which ones should be dumped and which ones defended.

Right-wing politicians love a good culture war. It’s no coincidence that the terms ‘political correctness’ and ‘woke’, both originating on the American left, have been eagerly seized by the right. They know it is an ideal way of stirring up indignation and deflecting attention from things they’d rather not discuss.

Some research published by UK in a Changing Europe earlier this week throws some light on why these tactics work. Using data from the British Election Survey and plotting voters’ views on two scales –  the economic left v right and the social/cultural conservative v liberal – they show on one simple chart why the right loves the culture war.

Labour and Conservative MPs, councillors and activists fall more or less where you would expect them to on both the social and economic scales. Labour fall into the socially liberal and economically left-wing quadrant while the Tories in the opposite one. The voters don’t split that way though. As we have seen from a number of studies, British voters tend towards the economically left-wing and the socially conservative. In general, they are more aligned with Labour on economics and more with the Conservatives on social issues. It’s no wonder, then, that the Conservatives like to fight on the cultural front.

The other interesting piece to emerge from this research is the gap between MPs and voters on the same side. Labour MPs are more socially liberal than Labour voters but on the same scale, Conservative MPs are way adrift of their voters. In fact, they are more socially liberal than the average voter.

So, if they are that liberal, what are they doing in the Conservative Party? The clue comes when you look at the positions on the economic scale. Here the Conservative MPs are some way to the right of their councillors and activists and well to the right of their voters.

The right-wing, free-market, shrink-the-state libertarianism that gained the upper hand in the Conservative Party during the 1980s has always been an eccentric viewpoint. It looks mainstream because it has a number of well-funded think-tanks pushing its agenda and its adherents are over-represented in politics and the media. We are used to hearing about radical deregulation, state shrinkage and privatisation because these ideas are espoused by some very wealthy, powerful and influential people. The voters are really not interested though. They never have been. Despite relentless propaganda, all the small staters have managed to do is increase the proportion of the population that thinks taxation and spending should stay the same and reduce the proportion that thinks it should increase. Even that is shifting the other way again now. Support for cutting the size of the state has never gone above 10 percent.

Attitudes towards taxation and public spending, 1983-2017

Chart by NatCen Social Research

The voters, then, are not that keen on right-wing economics. So why do they keep voting for politicians who are? That’s where the culture war comes in. Get people worked up about political correctness, persuade them that woke liberals will take the country to hell in a handcart and at least some of them will vote for you even if they don’t like your rich men’s economic policy.

For Conservative politicians, the culture war is also an incredibly cheap way of getting votes. People still think you are socially conservative even if there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, which means you don’t actually have to deliver anything.

That most right-wing of prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, did very little for the socially conservative voter. As James Ball noted after her death:

The legacy of Thatcher’s social conservatism is modest: Britain is, by and large, a nation marrying less, more accepting of homosexuality, and more accepting of people of other races.

In the 1980s the Conservatives even shied away from illiberal legislation that would have been overwhelmingly popular, such as the re-introduction of capital punishment. The liberal policies initiated during the 1960s, and the social changes that went with them, continued apace. Conservative politicians may have railed against ‘political correctness’ but they didn’t do much about it. Racist and sexist language that would have passed unremarked in 1979 was considered unacceptable by the time John Major left office. Margaret Thatcher might have talked tough talk on immigration but she did little to change the existing laws. Corporal punishment in schools was abolished by her government in 1987.

I’ve had some interesting arguments about that last one. People still find it difficult to accept. It must surely have been the Labour Party and its PC policies that did for corporal punishment. Which brings me to the other reason the right likes the culture war. It works even when you are in power. You can persuade people that a rising tide of wokeness has driven the country to ruin even when you have been running the show for a decade.

Being able to gain votes from social conservatism without having to implement any socially conservative policies suits Conservative MPs just fine because most of them don’t believe in it anyway. When it comes to crime and punishment, for example, they are, on average, to the left of Labour voters. As the charts above show, the money side of things is far more important to them. It has been for decades. In the 1980s, it was almost as though a tacit deal was done; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts. Breaking the unions and selling off the state was always what mattered. Who cared if your company had to have an equalities policy and you couldn’t watch Love They Neighbour any more?

Could the Conservatives pull off the same stunt in 2020? The Daily Mail seems to think so, as it gleefully reports a Tory plan to declare a ‘War on Woke‘. Would such thing work now? After all, as Kenan Malik said just after the last election, the idea that there is a mass of reactionary working class voters has probably been overdone. Voters have become less socially conservative in recent years. The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey bears this out.

As former Downing Street pollster James Johnson said, most voters in what used to be the Red Wall couldn’t care less about statues:

Some have suggested that No 10 is actively looking for a fight on cultural and identity issues, seeking to drive a distinction between Tories and Labour for red wall voters – whether on statues, trans issues, or the right to tell offensive jokes.

On the surface, this approach feels like it might work. Paula Surridge of Bristol University has shown that 2019 Conservative voters are united in their social conservatism, while Labour is more vulnerable as its voters are split.

But polling on these issues sets up a divide that might not be at the front of people’s minds. Britain is not the US, where polarisation among politicians has translated into polarisation among the public. In focus groups I have conducted over the last few years, statues, transgender toilets and no-platforming barely register. Most people do not know what “woke” even means.

He’s right about voters not caring much about these issues but they tend to blame the left when such things make the news. A few left-wing activists can usually be relied upon to give the right-wing press the ammunition it needs by doing or saying something silly. Even a poorly considered comment or rebuttal can lead to stories that run for years, like Baa Baa Green Sheep and Winterval. On the basis of one person writing ‘racist’ on Winston Churchill’s statue, Boris Johnson has been able to cast himself as the defender of a monument that is not under any serious threat. He was at it again yesterday, attempting to spice up his lacklustre speech with a promises to defend the “statue of our greatest wartime leader” from, well, no-one really.

The problem for the left is that some of this stuff lands. It makes otherwise quite reasonable people cross. And it doesn’t need to make many of them cross. There were only 330,000 votes between Theresa May’s humiliation and Boris Johnson’s triumph. All it needs is enough people in the right places.

Anand Menon, one of the authors of the report, says that Labour would be well advised to avoid getting embroiled in the War on Woke and should, instead, maintain a laser focus on economic issues. As he says, whoever gets to set the ground on which the next election is fought will be at a distinct advantage. This isn’t just about winning the arguments, it’s about deciding which arguments you are going to have in the first place. A government already on the ropes over coronavirus and with very little idea about what to do afterwards should be an easy target. From what I have seen of Keir Starmer so far, my guess is that he won’t fall into the trap of fighting the War on Woke but that won’t stop the government and its allies from pushing it whenever they are given the opportunity.

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16 Responses to Why Conservatives love the culture war

  1. william says:

    It’s a good report, though I’ve seen stuff like it before.

    My main complaint is that in Figure 8, “Voters” shouldn’t be a single dot, but a massive splodge, to give some idea of the *range* of opinion they hold, which could be considerable. In fact, I’m sure in some previous studies like this, that’s what the researchers did

  2. P Hearn says:

    Love these cosy management reports. They feel credible and look suitably technical, but always miss a simple truth or two. That’s because examining oneself for faults is difficult and tough to take, whereas a consultant who brandishes a colourful report saying “it’s not your fault…” seems much more palatable.

    We’re all guilty of this in one way or another.

    As long as Labour thinks like this, the Conservatives will keep winning.

  3. Dave Timoney says:

    Re “It makes otherwise quite reasonable people cross”. If you get cross at culture war nonsense, you’re hardly reasonable.

    So-called “values” issues are often employed to excuse voter’s real concerns and priorities. These tend to be economic, but many people are still shy about admitting their self-interest. For example, a lot of supposedly reasonable people willingly believed the nonsense about the national economy being equivalent to a household budget (and therefore a moral issue) in order to justify voting for public spending cuts in preference to tax rises. Likewise, the confected defence of statues is a pretty obvious attempt to change the subject away from structural racism (something the FLA were only too happy to make overt).

    The problem with these biaxial analyses is that they assume the axes are of equivalent weight. But if that were really so, we’d expect elections to be decided on cultural issues as much as they are decided on economic matters. But that clearly isn’t the case. Even those momentous decisions that are cast as cultural turn out to be essentially material in nature – e.g. the anxiety of “left behind” towns that was given voice by Brexit was really about industrial decline and subsequent inequality, not gay marriage or a nebulous concept such as sovereignty.

  4. Oscar C. says:

    Great post, something that I have always sensed.

    Thomas Frank dissected it perfectly for the US in his book ‘What is the matter with Kansas’: Republicans weaponize Christian resentment of liberal elites of both coasts but end up not delivering barely anything.

  5. Antiq Nz says:


    One thing to correct: As per European School of Thought, and the general place where Liberalism was born in the 19th century, you must understand that there is no such thing as Liberal social values in contrast with Authoritarian values. What you mean is either Anarchist or Libertarian values, rather than “liberal”.
    For example, there is a thing called Liberal-Autocracy (Authoritarian) that was basically the most spread Liberalism back in the 19th century, like Hong-Kong until 1997 or Austro-Hungarian Empire until 19th century. Generally every autocratic authoritarian regime that respected individual rights was LIBERAL and Authoritarian in the same time.

    I suggest changing the graphic X-Y graphic above by replacing “Liberal Social Values” with either “Anarchist Social Values” or “Libertarian Social Values” due to their inherited opposition to authoritarianism as philosophical concepts of general freedom, be it social, administrative or economical.

    • I think you are wrong – in 19th century “liberalism” usually meant “written Constitution” (well, perhaps not in UK…), “parliament”, “separation of powers”, “rule of law” (against the absolute kings), not only “individual freedom”. If you look for the “Liberal Revolutions”, they were probably much more about the constitutional arrangement than about strict individual freedom.

      And, btw, I suspect that “anarchist” or “libertarian” have similar problems.

      • jayarava says:

        Nah. Antiq Nz is exactly right. Parliament and all that are the product of thinking about individual liberty a la John Locke (the biggest influence by far on the US Constitution). It was always the philosophy of the bourgeoisie because they saw themselves as beyond the reach of the king and the law by virtue of their wealth. They made their own laws to suit themselves and still do.

        Most of the early liberals (e.g, the founding fathers of the US) where anti-democratic. They wanted to vote, but they did not want women to vote, or men without land, or anyone who was not part of their social circle especially people of colour. Liberalism started out as what it has become again – the philosophy of white male privilege. Just because it grew a conscience in the meantime doesn’t undo these basic facts. Also that same elite have now harnessed fear and hatred of the social conscience of liberals and are stamping it out. This was already an issue for Lewis Powell in 1971 when he wrote his infamous memo to the US Chamber of Commerce titled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise”.

        19th Liberalism was all about laissez faire economics to foster the hoarding of wealth by the political and social elite. Neoclassical liberalism is just the same but with added monetarism.

    • Malamodon Smith says:

      It’s because the two axis political compass is garbage, all these abstracted compasses don’t make any sense when you try and use them to classify the reality of political thought. It completely ignores material conditions and class solidarity (at all levels), which is far more influential on the reality of politics than some abstract terms like authoritarian and libertarianism.

      A right libertarian is perfectly fine with authoritarianism so long as it’s private and used to lethally enforce property rights, so you end up with people who support oxymoronic concepts like voluntary slavery being pegged in the “freedom” part of the compass.

      Political compasses are like astrology for wonks.

  6. Elramie says:

    Small point, but “political correctness” wasn’t created by the Left, it has always been a right-wing pejorative term, like snowflake etc.

  7. Great blog, as ever. However, while I agree that the public at large are not too concerned about the issue, I fear you underestimate the potential of the deeply toxic trans debate to tear the Labour Party apart. If I were Cummings, I’d be seeking to exploit that potential. The forthcoming publication (in the next fortnight) of the Government’s long-delayed response to its farcical consultation on GRA reform should tell us whether my fear is justified. The consultation started as a Tory attempt to be woke. Now it’s a woke nuke with its coordinates set for Labour HQ.

    • Dipper says:

      Yes, great blog and agree with this comment.

      The first question anyone involved in an adversarial contest should ask themselves is ‘What would my opponent least like me to do?’ I’m constantly amazed at how so many politicians fail to ask this, and hence end up playing right into the hands of their opponents. Cummings gets this aspect of adversarial politics.

  8. JT says:

    Whenever parties emerge that are genuinely anti-woke, the establishment go apesh*t and crush them within a few years.


    By wheeling out St. Nigel of Sevenoaks and giving him a monopoly on ‘anti-woke’ media appearances. Then they dump Nige when the storm has passed.

  9. Pingback: Five Things #37 – Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill

  10. Excellent essay. This has sharpened my understanding about a great deal, thanks.

  11. jayarava says:

    I agree with many of the comments here. I think Political Compass have a much clearer rational for their use of terminology. Liberalism is the philosophy behind laissez faire economics. It is the right wing. Socialism is the left. Authoritarianism is a style or an ideology of government (look the word up). It is contrasted with libertarianism. Authoritarianism sees government dominated by a leader and imposing rules on society – it is the characteristic of fascism, while libertarianism resists any imposed rules.

    As for social attitudes, the scale here is conservative (looking to the past, valuing tradition, resisting change, intolerance) and progressive (looking to the future, valuing innovation, embracing change, tolerance). This is the vertical scale being used here but it is labelled incorrectly because almost no one understands these political terms any more (partly, I would argue, by design to sow confusion).

    So there are three political axes

    economic – left/right or socialist/liberal
    governance – authoritarian/libertarian
    social attitudes – conservative/progressive.

    And we can select a position on any axis independently of the other. Unfortunately all three are inconsistently conflated on a daily basis and no one knows what the other is talking about. To the point where “liberal” has come to mean “left wing” the literal opposite of what it actually means, because some liberals, seeing the inequality, corruption and instability caused by classical liberalism aimed to help people to help themselves so that they could become “productive individuals”. Liberal conscience isn’t aimed at making society better, it’s aimed at making individuals better.

    Ironically in America where “liberal” is now used as a slur in the culture war, *everyone is a liberal*, it’s just that most have no social conscience and the politicians have no conscience at all.

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