Boris Johnson is Fighting a ‘Culture War’ to Cling On to Power
The Prime Minister’s divisive comments about trans people are part of a broader attempt to survive rising public anger with his Government, reports Adam Bienkov
Boris Johnson is in trouble. Anger over ‘Partygate’ is combining with frustration over soaring living costs to put the future survival of his Government at risk.
After 12 years in office, the Conservative Party is starting to fear that it could be entering the twilight years of its long dominance over UK politics.
Yet, like all great survivors, Johnson has a plan which he believes could turn things around. And that plan is to replace his losing political war with a winning ‘culture war’.
The Prime Minister’s comments about trans sportspeople last week were the latest in a growing series of attempts to drive a wedge between his party and Labour on cultural issues in order to cling onto power.
Whether it’s university free speech, LGBT rights, statues, Black Lives Matter or lockdown laws, Johnson is increasingly attempting to make the big divide at the next election between a socially Conservative Government and a ‘woke’ opposition.
So far it has had limited success. A study by Kings College London and Ipsos Mori last year found that, while there had been an explosion of interest in these subjects in the British media, the general public hadn’t taken the bait. The study found that British people were just as likely to see ‘woke’ as being a compliment as an insult, with a plurality of people unaware of what the term meant at all.
The Labour Party too has so far failed to take the bait, with Keir Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet concentrating instead on cost of living and other issues, which polls suggest the public are most concerned about.
Unlike in the US, where such cultural battles now form integral parts of the political identities of the two major parties, UK voters don’t appear to yet be willing to head to the culture war frontline.
“Most of the discussions [of culture war issues] that are played out on social media, and the media more generally, are just from the very extreme wings [of public opinion] and most people are just much more nuanced or conditional, or not that bothered,” Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at Kings College London, told Byline Times.
As a result, some of the recent endeavours to ignite culture wars in the UK have gone nowhere.
Attempts to form new political parties and movements based on resistance to Coronavirus lockdowns fell flat, with most voters remaining supportive of public interventions to prevent transmission of the pandemic. Similar attempts by Johnson’s Government to ignite a divide over the Black Lives Matter movement failed to take off, with most voters saying that they were supportive of England footballers who took the knee.
Is Johnson’s Culture War Starting to Take Off?
But, while the public may so far have failed to bite, that could be changing.
The same study by Kings College found that there had been an exponential growth in discussion of these topics in the press over recent years. Byline Times‘ analysis of press and broadcast coverage over recent months suggests that this trend has massively increased in the year since the study.
So could the relentless push for a UK culture war ultimately work and could Boris Johnson succeed in igniting the sorts of divisions already seen in US politics?
Bobby Duffy suggests that, while individual attempts to stoke culture wars will have varying levels of success, the strategy could still succeed in forging what he calls new “mega-identities” among voters, which political parties will ultimately be able to exploit.
“The really important feature of a true culture war… is that it’s not really about disagreement over specific cultural issues or even fractious disagreement,” he said. “It’s about two fundamentally different views of the world where compromise is not possible.
“And the thing that comes through in the US experience with this is the idea of conflict extension – where you start with one issue, or small collection of issues, and then it slowly builds other issues into that in order to form these kind of mega-identities.”
To Duffy, these mega-identities “get more and more caught up in your own political identity [which] reinforces that sense of division”.
Looked at this way, it becomes clear that Johnson’s push for culture wars over issues such as taking the knee or trans rights, is less about the issues themselves and more about creating a ‘wedge’ between one bloc of younger, socially-liberal, Labour-leaning voters; and another bloc of older, socially and politically Conservative voters.
Once that wedge has been driven, it then requires very little effort to raise other issues which then help to deepen that political divide.
“The point is that once you activate one of those identities, and you’ve got these really big identities that cover all sorts of social and cultural issues, then they strengthen each time you activate them,” Duffy told Byline Times.
The Casualties of Johnson’s Culture Wars
The problem with this strategy is that culture wars, like all wars, normally have real-world casualties.
At the end of last month, Boris Johnson used a dinner with Conservative MPs to make a joke about trans people and the Labour Party.
Yet, within hours one of his own MPs, Jamie Wallis, came out as a trans woman. Wallis’ dignified statement forced Johnson into a brief U-turn, as he praised his colleague’s “courage” on the issue.
But far from discourage Johnson from pursuing this particular incursion of the culture wars, he was back on the nation’s screens within days calling for a blanket ban on trans women taking part in women’s sports events.
A leak to ITV News also revealed that he had removed trans people from his planned ban on conversion therapy. As a result of Johnson’s decision, which was reportedly made in order to ‘trap’ the Labour Party on the issue, dozens of LGBT groups withdrew from the Government’s planned international LGBT conference.
Broadcasters too have played their part in this new culture war.
News channels, including the BBC, interviewers have regularly asked senior politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, about changing rooms and whether women have penises.
The net effect of all this has been to massively raise the issue of trans rights up the political agenda. And where previous polling has suggested that the public is broadly liberal and tolerant on the issue, Johnson’s comments and the constant coverage of the issue over recent months could change that.
“I think that if you if you went down any street in the UK and spoke to people and said ‘do you think that trans people should have access to quick healthcare, do you think that trans people shouldn’t be disproportionately made homeless, disproportionately discriminated against at work and targeted with street harassment? I’m pretty sure everyone would say yes,” Labour MP Nadia Whittome told Byline Times.
“But what the Government is trying to do is stoke a cultural war for for two reasons. Firstly I think, it’s to distract from their own failures with the cost of living crisis, but also because this will be a useful divide and rule tactic in the same way as migrants and refugees and people of colour have been in the past, and still are.”
Just as Boris Johnson’s past comments about Muslim women were followed by a reported spike in hate crimes against them, Whittome fears that Johnson’s comments about trans people could also risk placing them in harm’s way too.
“I think it’s extremely dangerous… given that there’s already a hostile environment for trans people facing hate crimes, then stoking this actively puts people in even more danger,” she added.
It is too early to know whether Johnson’s attempts to create a new cultural divide in the UK to replace the waning Brexit divide, will work. MPs Byline Times has spoken to in recent weeks say that such cultural issues are still not major concerns being raised on the doorstep during campaigning for the upcoming local elections.
However, similar attempts to stoke such cultural divisions have had some success in the US and, like many other cultural imports, this may be one that Britain eventually takes wholesale too.
But even if Johnson is successful in stoking a culture war, it may be a war his party ultimately loses. Increased levels of university education and decreased home ownership among younger generations could ultimately deprive the Prime Minister of the numbers of troops he needs to win any future cultural battle.
Yet whatever the outcome, this new culture war will have real-life consequences. For trans people, it already means the removal of planned protections from the barbaric practice of conversion therapy.
In the future, Boris Johnson and his successors could be tempted to see the rights and safety of other minority groups as necessary collateral damage for their culture wars too.