The Culture War Parties: What they stand for, why they are here and what we can do
It was announced last week that the actor, Laurence Fox, and London Assembly Member, David Kurten, are launching new political parties. Mr Fox’s ‘Reclaim’ party, launched on the back of £5 million of donations, while Mr Kurten’s ‘Heritage Party’ is said to have attracted substantial investment too. That two political parties so similar in outlook should be launched within days seems significant and raises questions. What do they stand for, why are they here and what can we do?
Fox’s party aims to “preserve Britain’s culture”, “reform the BBC” and “free education from political bias”, while Kurten’s manifesto points at “defending our heritage”,”standing up for “traditional family values”, and defending “liberty and free speech”. Of course, Reclaim and the Heritage Party offer nothing new – both are based on traditional and socially conservative ideology – and so seek only to capitalise on what already exists but isn’t (they would argue) being catered for in the public sphere. So have they got a point?
It is rightly said that the Conservative Party is a broad church and Reclaim and the Heritage Party’s values are well-established within it. Indeed, one only has to look at the Parliamentary Party to appreciate just how well these values are catered for. The Blue Collar Conservatives Caucus of MPs is 160 strong and state their values as, “fairness and freedom”, “country and community”, and “letting people get on”. Likewise, the Cornerstone Group of MPs is 90 strong and emphasises,”the Monarchy; traditional marriage; family and community duties; proper pride in our nation’s distinctive qualities; quality of life over soulless utility; social responsibility over personal selfishness; social justice as a civic duty, not state dependency; compassion for those in need; reducing government waste; lower taxation and deregulation; our ancient liberties against politically correct censorship and a commitment to our democratically elected parliament.” The hymn sheets seem the same. So why are they here?
Traditional and socially conservative values are alive and well among the electorate. It was the patriotic and libertarian sentiments of voters, in the Midlands, the North and the Counties, that drove the Leave vote and won this party a majority at the General Election, however, it was Brexit that provided the cause and a vehicle for their expression. Indeed voters didn’t unite behind any blue-collar, traditional or socially conservative manifesto policies, so much as they voted to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ’Take Back Control’. In this respect Brexit shone a light on the depth and scale of support for these values, but also brought them to the surface and provided a democratic channel for them. Indeed to attribute the result of the referendum or general election with any success in catering to traditional and socially conservative values beyond leaving the European Union would be a mistake. Mr Fox and Mr Kurten and their backers know this and see an opportunity; our party must understand it and step up to the challenge.
Causes – even those as large as Brexit – come and leave public consciousness quicker than values do. One only has to look at the length of time between ‘New Labour’ and ‘Corbynism’ on the left or between ‘Thatcherism’ and John Major’s style of leadership to get a feel for that. Brexit is on the wane – COVID and the end of the transition period will continue to see it decline as an issue – but the traditional and socially conservative values unearthed by Brexit haven’t gone anywhere. Recent developments in relation to singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’; the push-back against statues being torn down; appointments and bias at the BBC; protests for civil liberties against lockdown restrictions; and the continued disapproval of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decisions, all examples of these values finding expression in causes taken up ‘at home’.
In this respect Mr Fox and Mr Kurten and their backers understand that taking back control from the European Union was just one aspect of voter sentiment; the other was anti-establishment and anti-‘woke’. Indeed, the parallels between Brexit sentiment and anti-woke sentiment are plenty: value and protection of tradition; value and protection of liberty and freedom of speech; value and protection of national institutions; value and protection of national culture; and value and protection of UK markets. Where it was once to take back control of their money, laws and borders from the European Union; the new parties are here to encourage voters to take back control of their heritage, their speech, their BBC, their culture and their economy from the PC establishment in the UK. The cause has shifted from an international ‘other’ to a domestic one but is driven by the same traditional and socially conservative values. Reclaim and the Heritage Party are there to mop up and redirect sentiment by stepping into the Brexit vacuum, mobilising the consensus and filling the democratic void.
So what is being done? On the face of it the Conservatives seem alive to the mood music with Tim Shipman indicating last week that Paul Dacre and Charles Moore are being lined up as head of Ofcom and the BBC. Indeed, Oliver Dowden has been in front of the cameras a lot recently and has published guidance against schools using anti-capitalist material and cultural organisations against removing statutes or items of heritage or face the risk of a reduction in funding. These appointments would signal much and the noises from No 10 should continue in such a vein. Indeed the Prime Minister stepping into the debate on ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ being sung at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ proved popular. But traditionally and socially conservative communications are few and far between and there hasn’t been any substantive policy to appeal to these values from this Government yet. So what to do?
If we are not going to fragment the basic conservative position, the Conservatives need to take a strong stand in the “culture wars”and Dowden seems to have made a good start, but the answer may also lie in our approach to the economy and taking a position in favour of free markets (but prioritising those issues which tend to be most attractive to those on lower incomes – who are not, in favour, for example, of unconditional welfare). In the US, both Reagan and Bush Senior won because of an alliance of voters which fell into two camps. Some put free markets high up the list and were either traditionally and socially conservative or did not care too much about social issues, or others, who were traditionally and socially conservative and believed in free markets but did not care too much about them. The basic truce position was that the state would not liberalise socially and that bound people together quite well. Adopted here this might lead to the loss of some support of people who are economically and socially very liberal. However, with most socially liberal causes becoming virulently anti-capitalist and some increasingly violent this is a group that is falling in support.
The Conservatives won’t build a big enough coalition out of being anti-free-market and traditionally and socially conservative or pro-free market and not traditionally and socially conservative and, if they are not anti-woke and do not take a strong stand in the “culture wars” they will lose their red wall seats. The interesting question should be how the Conservatives should build their new coalition and, looking to the state of social cohesion in the US today and with new No.10 press conferences soon to start, how they should not.