“But we didn’t start this culture war,” one cabinet minister routinely protests. In a sense, he is right. Not only did the Tories not start the fight as they define it, they have come close to losing it by default. Even now, this conflict needs to be understood less as a war than a rearguard action.
Conservative enthusiasm for a fight with any cause they can label “woke” is clear. But this week saw Tories scrambling to get in line with the England football team, whose taking-the-knee protest they had dismissed as “gesture politics”. The home secretary drew extra fire for having failed to denounce jeering during the protest. It was a useful reminder that Tory culture warriors can be very blinkered. Pitting yourself against the national team before a major tournament is just bad politics.
This display of fallibility highlights the fear beneath the braggadocio. Hence the myopia which left Tories unable to see that taking the knee did not mark the endorsement of an anti-capitalist agenda by millionaire footballers.
For even though, after their Brexit win, Tories may seem to have the upper hand, their strategists can see an uncomfortable reckoning with demographic destiny. This is why there are actually two culture wars, one immediate and electoral, the other long term and strategic.
The first is a calculation of electoral advantage. Where they can make the debate about civil disorder, the silencing of mainstream voices or apparent lack of patriotism, they are on strong ground. These value issues bind the new Tory Brexit electoral coalition and disorientate the Labour party.
A sign of the second approach came with the efforts of Sir Robbie Gibb, a former Tory press chief and new member of the BBC Board, to block the hiring of a senior journalist considered hostile to the government. His direct intervention illuminates the more strategic goal.
For the keenest combatants, the core realisation is that the conservatives have lost the establishment and with it many of the shapers of society’s values. The BBC was long seen as hostile but as they survey the media, the church, the arts, but also the judiciary, educationalists, the civil service and big business, Tories see many of the drivers of opinion embracing progressive values. One Tory MP jokes that his constituency is so old-fashioned that “the lawyers and doctors still vote conservative”.
The broader point is that while the Tories won the economic battles, they neglected cultural issues allowing progressives to shape social policy. Today’s conservatives see this as the key error which has fostered a climate in which heritage institutions like the National Trust start collating lists of stately homes with historic links to slavery. For Tory culture warriors, highlighting the iniquities of the empire is an attack on the national pride which is at the core of their own electoral appeal.
Partly this is the influence of graduate culture. The scale of university expansion in the past two decades means colleges now set the cultural compass for up to 600,000 new students a year. (It is not entirely coincidental that the Tories want to cut the number of arts degrees.)
Scrutinising the ranks of what was once called the Great and the Good, they see few sympathisers. One government ally says: “When you are looking for people to put on public bodies there are just not that many qualified like-minded souls. We simply did not pay enough attention to public appointments and the left did.”
Speaking at the Tory think-tank, Policy Exchange, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, defended his determination to wade into cultural appointments noting: “The left has been quietly making these decisions for years, pushing these cultural institutions.”
From the sudden interest in even minor jobs on public bodies to the proliferation of non-executive directors of Whitehall departments, there is an attempt to create an alternative establishment, a new great and good. All governments make political appointments. But this is a recognition that much of what shapes society happens outside of government and in places where conservatives feel outnumbered.
Brexit has also taught Tories to believe in a long war. It took 30 years to move from the first stirrings of Euroscepticism to Brexit. That victory emboldened Tories to go after the existing elite. Now they see a new long march, to reclaim the establishment, appointment by appointment.
For now, the culture war may seem an electoral asset but voters under 45 skew heavily against Brexit and the party. This is one reason why ministers are so keen to target cancel culture on campuses and the teaching of history in schools.
Boris Johnson himself is cautious of culture war rhetoric. He is rarely first into the fray and often resists the urges of warriors in his own ranks. As the football row shows, his caution is wise. Voters are not seeking more division so Tory targets must always seem to be militants and the party’s positions mainstream rather than reactionary.
The current calculation is that outside cities and elite institutions, public sentiment is on their side. But they also see the demographic danger and the need to tilt the landscape of social norms.
This is an existential fight for traditionalist culture warriors. And that is why those hoping this week’s missteps over the England team may ease hostilities are going to be disappointed. This is a long war and it has barely begun.