Are we really THAT divided? Welcome to culture wars in the UK
What are the culture wars?
As recently as perhaps two years ago, the term ‘culture wars’ was probably something you had never read or heard anybody say. For pretty much everyone in the UK, the idea simply did not exist. However, like all great ideas, it has made its way across the Atlantic from our friends in the US and is now firmly planted at the heart of many national conversations on social issues. This includes religion, race, LGBTQ+ rights, and just about anything else you might imagine. So where exactly did this idea originate from? What form does it take in the UK? And what is its impact on our lives today?
Let’s dive in.
Where did the culture wars come from?
The origins of the culture wars are traced back to the great social transformations that started in the US in the 1960s, in particular, the civil rights movement (in a tiny nutshell, the civil rights movement was the struggle for black Americans to be treated equally). Since then, many people have moved in opposite directions in terms of how they view the world, in what can loosely be defined as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ directions.
(of a person or idea) favouring social reform.
(in a political context) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas.
Adam Ramsay, special correspondent for openDemocracy, has described how many of the ‘issues’ that culture wars are fought over tend to be on matters where a large majority of people actually think in the same way, and in the UK this is very often in the progressive direction (2).
Now, when we consider people’s opinions on some more long-running political questions, such as nationalisation of certain services, they tend to be pretty unified. 84% of people believed the NHS should be nationalised (as it currently is), and 60% of people believe that railways companies should be nationalised (like they used to be) (3).
But these aren’t what would be described as culture war issues, which tend to consider social issues over economic ones.
And while it is true that in the UK we are still less divided than in the US on the issues that culture wars are fought over, events in the last two years have triggered some of these conversations. For example, the response to the murder of George Floyd and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol have meant that the same kind of debates on social issues that are fought in the US are now taking place in the UK too (4).
So, what do we think of the culture wars in the UK?
The Policy Institute at King’s College London have published some excellent public opinion data on the culture wars, so let’s explore the contents of it here (5). Firstly, they report that 54% of people in the UK believe that the country is now divided by culture war issues, while a whopping 78% believe that the UK is divided generally.
They also report a much greater awareness of the terms ‘cancel culture’ and ‘culture wars’, with their usage in tabloid newspapers increasing dramatically throughout the last two years. Another interesting piece of data from this research is that 36% of people now see the term ‘woke’ as an insult, compared with 26% who would see it as a compliment.
And how exactly does this new data stack up against public opinion in the UK on what culture war issues are fought over?
Let’s start with ‘conversion therapy’, where its usage seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 65% of adults polled think it should be banned with respect to changing someone’s sexual orientation, and 62% think it should be banned with respect to changing someone’s gender identity (6). Only 14% and 15% of people believe that the practice of conversion therapy should not be banned in those two contexts respectively. Pretty conclusive.
How about race?
Polling by IPSOS MORI in 2020 found that 89% of Brits would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group, up from 75% in 2008 (7). Further, 93% of people disagreed with the statement ‘To be truly British you have to be white’, up from 82% in 2006.
It is clear, at least in these two examples, that the suggestion of people being divided in the UK does not actually align with public opinion on given issues, which as these two statistics show, tend to have large majorities for the progressive responses.
We should note that some opinion polls do offer contradiction to this trend. Polling from June 2020 found that only 40% of Brits agreed that a transgender woman is a woman and 41% agreed thats a transgender man is a man, while 36% of peoople polled disagreed with both statements (8).
So where does this all leave us?
The sociologist who is credited with creating the term ‘Culture Wars’ in his 1991 book of the same name, James Davison Hunter, has recently described how in the US these issues are now hugely important for those in the minority opinion. He says that they have taken on the form of a class-culture conflict that is able to lead to events like the attempted coup on January 6th 2021 in the US (9).
Alarming as this may be, he says that the US is particularly vulnerable to this kind of polarisation when compared with European countries, such as the UK, due to their lack of regulation around how many is spent by organisations with charity status, but that largely act as political donors. These are known as ‘special interest groups’, and they often spend a lot of money advocating for very specific causes.
To wrap things up, it might seem like the contradictions we have discussed should encourage us to simply ignore the conversations around the culture wars. We are told that we are divided, and often then believe it to be true, but our opinions on given issues are often very similar.
However, Georgetown University academic Olufemi Taiwo argues that we should instead “build a political culture built around mutual goals that address concrete problems head on”, particularly in the context of real threats to human society such as the climate crisis, global pandemics, and escalating conflicts involving nuclear-armed states (10).
The culture wars have increasingly made their way into conversations in the British media, having spread from the US. While public opinion states that the UK is increasingly divided, polling on specific social issues shows that we are largely unified on major social issues.