There has been an unusual shift in the way the media is talking about cultural change in the UK only in the past few years – and it is starting to affect public opinion.
In 2015, there were only 21 articles in British newspapers that spoke of a “culture war” in the UK. Our new survey shows that by 2021 there were nearly 1,500.
‘Cancellation culture’ never existed in the mainstream British media in 2017 – but in 2021 there were a staggering 3,670 articles that used the term.
The audience began to notice. In 2020, 47% have never heard of abolition culture, but that has been halved by 2022. Overall, most people now agree that the UK is divided by culture wars, compared to our last study in 2020. This increase includes Demographics and political identities, but it is the older and conservative groups who have moved the most.
This shift also appears in the way people view the other key term in the culture wars discussion – ‘wake up’. In our 2020 study, the most common response when people were asked whether “waking up” was a compliment or an insult was “I don’t know what you mean,” while those with a viewpoint split evenly between thinking of it as a compliment and thinking of it as an insult .
But many now know what that means – and people have turned firmly to taking it as an insult. This is not surprising when you see our analysis of the context in which the word “wake” is used, which is overwhelmingly derogatory – language such as “bitter”, “flashing”, “puritan”, “ridiculous”, “malicious”, even “terrorist”, They are all related to the term.
This leaves us in a very worrying situation.
Some say these debates don’t matter, or that they are made up by the media and politicians rather than being a real concern among the public. It is true that we do not see issues of culture war at the top of people’s list of the most important issues facing the country – the cost of living, the pressures on the NHS, the war in Europe, the pandemic are all considered bigger priorities. As Shadow Secretary of State David Lammy said, this discussion of culture change is not coming “on the doorstep.”
Front page on the front bench
But this misunderstands the significance of the culture war story. Who controls a country’s cultural narrative matters because it sets the tone for politics in general. As research by the UK think-tank on a changing Europe shows, the cultural instincts of Conservative MPs are much closer to the average voter than Labour MPs. Therefore, there is a clear incentive for the incumbent party in government to maintain focus on these issues.
When talk of a culture war first appeared in the United States in the 1990s, it was described as “a war for the soul of America.” They can become powerful things, not because of the great national importance of individual issues being drawn in, but because this process creates tribes, as more and more cultural issues are integrated into your political identity.
However, the United Kingdom is not the United States. The country has very different historical, cultural and political contexts, so it is not inevitable that the scenarios themselves will unfold. But, on the other hand, UK inaction can lead to down a path to an equally bad place. Analysis of political data across 21 countries, including the UK, over the past 50 years shows a long-standing trend towards focusing more on cultural issues over economic issues in what both parties promise. In the UK, this was honed by Brexit, which was, at its core, about the country’s different views and values.
A characteristic feature of culture wars is a deep suspicion of the motives of the “other side”. One group believes they are fighting a legitimate battle against cultural institutions that are captured by a world view that does not reflect the values of ordinary people. The other sees this as just a cynical political tactic.
Arguing which of these things is right misses the point. What matters most is the sense of conflict that the tone of the debate creates, which places identities in warring tribes and means that compromise becomes impossible. Our culture and our values, and how they change, are perfectly legitimate, in fact, essential aspects of political debate – but how we do it matters. The speed and scale of cultural war discourse adoption in the UK is a dangerous game.