Scott Benton: Why we must win the culture war – and deliver a Blue Collar programme for the economy

8 Sep

Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South.

Whilst the left-wing inspired anarchy which has afflicted cities in the US has not been repeated here, make no mistake that the political flashpoints of the summer (the BLM protests, the ensuing “statues debate” and the BBC’s decision regarding the Proms) are undeniable proof that Britain is in the midst of its own “culture war”.

This is scarcely something that a Conservative government, dealing with the biggest health and economic challenges in a generation, would have chosen to fight. But whether we like it or not, how it chooses to respond to this battle will shape the political landscape and our chances at the next General Election.

The increasingly-evident cultural divide in Britain was unmistakeable throughout the Brexit debate. The defining moment in that battle, December’s election, confirmed the seismic political consequences of this divide for both main parties as the historic class-based voting pattern was shattered in favour of a values-based realignment of British politics.

This spectacularly allowed us to knock down the so-called “Red Wall” and to gain seats that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The reasons for our success (Brexit and the intense loathing of Corbyn) were obvious, but with neither of these pull factors in play at the next election, it remains to be seen whether we can build our own “Blue Wall”.

If we are to do exactly that, we must understand the instincts of those who switched to us from Labour. The evidence suggests that they are economically more left-wing than the average voter, but considerably more right-wing than average on social issues: in fact, they are more socially conservative than loyal Tory voters and Tory MPs.

As December’s election was a “values election”, predicated on Brexit, we were able to break through and convince many of these socially conservative, life-long Labour voters to support us for the first time, and to abandon the Labour Party whose social values are a world away from their own.

The leap of faith that many of these voters took should not be taken lightly. Many of these people have long had (and continue to have) doubts about our party’s economic values and commitment to public services, and have far more in common with Labour’s values on these issues. Such was the lure of Brexit, however, helped by our sympathetic positioning on public spending and levelling up, that they entrusted us with their vote.

If the next election is fought on traditional issues of the economy and public services (particularly if a post-Covid economic recovery is sluggish), a moderate Labour Party may tempt back some of these same voters who naturally gravitate leftwards on the economy. On the other hand, the social and cultural values of the contemporary left could well be the means by which we keep those voters’ support.

Whilst the Government does not wish for a “culture war”, then, it may well be the determination of many on the left to engineer one which paradoxically allows us to demonstrate that we share Red Wall voters’ values and are truly on their side.

Throughout the summer my mailbag has been full of correspondence on issues such as the lawlessness of some of the BLM protests; the revulsion of seeing the Union Flag set alight on the Cenotaph; the absurdity of those wanting to rewrite our history by tearing down statues, and the alienation felt by many at the actions of the BBC in wanting to chip away at our national culture.

The vast majority of my constituents in my Red Wall seat are sick and tired of those who are embarrassed by our culture, and who want to apologise for Britain’s past. They are yearning for the Government to stand up and be courageous in dismissing this nonsense that is directing the national conversation and political narrative.

Sentiments like those expressed by the Prime Minister on the Proms are very welcome and we need more social commentary and reassurances from the Government on issues such as these, but ultimately, ministers are judged on their actions.

Take the situation on the south coast: if the Government cannot use the current legislative and diplomatic tools at its disposal to stem the tide of illegal immigration then it must completely redesign our asylum and immigration policy so that it can.

Likewise, if the BBC cannot get its own house in order and demonstrate that it is able to occupy its privileged position as an impartial national broadcaster, then the Government must embark on reform, starting with scrapping the licence fee.

The emotive reach of social issues means that they will remain politically pivotal for as long as they dominate the conversation, but if we are going to retain the confidence and support of our new voters on these issues, we must do more than merely sympathise with their deep concerns.

A Conservative Government with a large majority should not shy away from having the political and intellectual confidence to lead the debate on cultural issues and to deliver reform on law and order, sentencing, immigration/asylum and the BBC. These are all policy areas where our new and traditional supporters alike demand a tough approach.

Although social values are increasingly likely to drive voting patterns longer-term, the upcoming autumn budget will dictate the short-term political weather. There was a collective sigh of relief in my Red Wall constituency when the Prime Minister ruled out a return to austerity: we simply have to fulfil our spending commitments on the NHS and schools, which were so instrumental in reassuring those former Labour voters who switched to us.

Whilst I think it would be a mistake to break our manifesto commitment on the triple lock, slashing international aid would be met with almost universal acclaim in constituencies such as mine.

It is only through wealth creation and economic growth, however, that we will make a significant impact on the deficit. We must deliver our commitment to levelling up by prioritising regional growth through a meaningful industrial strategy which aims to reduce the north-south divide through a laser-like focus on transport investment, incentives to locate in “left-behind areas” (including enterprise zones and freeports), training and skills.

Real investment, however, at a time of huge pressure on the public finances, doesn’t come cheap. If we are serious about levelling up, there will inevitably be difficult decisions about taxation, which will present some unpalatable choices for colleagues.

Rather than shy away from these choices, we should relish them. The current situation (as well as Brexit) affords us with a once in a generation opportunity to deliver an economic strategy which can tackle the inherent structural weaknesses that have hampered the UK for decades: an approach which makes political as well as economic sense, as it repositions the Party’s economic policy far closer to the public (and our new and traditional voters).

The cultural and economic challenges facing the UK have changed, as has the political geography. Conservatism must adapt to face these challenges and not only reflect the nation’s mood, but also demonstrate that we are the only party which is able to protect the values that people cherish, and provide the means through which their lives can be improved. The economic orthodoxy and social liberalism of the past (Cameron’s “Notting Hill” modernisation) is not what our core voters, and especially our new converts, want. Indeed, it never was.

Repositioning our party to meet these cultural and economic challenges, and in doing so, striving to ensure that we maintain our recent gains, will challenge the ideology of many colleagues.

The prize for successfully doing so, however, is enormous. By building a lasting coalition of our new and traditional supporters, based on their shared cultural values and a blue collar economic programme, we can create a truly one nation party that is able to occupy the common ground for years to come – and in doing so cement our own “Blue Wall”, thereby locking Labour out of power.

Ed West: So far, 2020 has proved my most pessimistic expectations to be horribly true. How very satisfying.

7 Aug

Ed West is the deputy editor of UnHerd, and author of Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Constable).

As anyone who takes an obsessive interest in politics will understand, there’s nothing more satisfying than being proven right, even if it’s to confirm your original prediction of unending, doom-laden misery.

Pessimism is rooted in my political philosophy, the belief that humans have evolved to have a wildly unrealistic idea of their own capabilities, and are therefore prone to invest in utopian schemes that end in failure.

I spent years writing a book about how pessimism informed my politics, called Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, and the very week it came out, we were hit by the worst pandemic in a century, all the bookshops were closed, and people retreated into their homes. Sure, they were still buying books, but as with the 1930s it was mostly fiction and escapism – people want to read stuff like Gone with the Wind during a depression, or fantasy stuff about wizards and dragons – not Ten Reasons Why You’re Going to Spend the Next Decade Queuing Outside a Soup Kitchen Before Getting Shot by a Nazi.

When the Coronavirus hit, politics seemed irrelevant but then, after the death of George Floyd and the general insanity that followed, it seemed to have returned, more depressing than ever.

Pandemics have often accelerated huge cultural changes; back in the 3rd Century the Plague of Cyprian led to a religious transformation in the Roman Empire. Pagans who had seen Christianity as a fringe movement of a few city folk suddenly found that the new faith was everywhere, and previously upstanding Jupiter-worshippers were joining in the excitable rituals of the new faith. They must have felt bemused, and worried, that all of a sudden tradition had given way and something alien had taken its place. These Christians were everywhere – who knows, maybe even their children could be turned by the cult?

I’d certainly empathise with how these conservative Romans felt, watching the new Woke religion suddenly all-dominant; seeing huge crowds across the world getting down on their knees in collective rituals to protest something happening in a city 5,000 miles away. That they were doing so during a deadly pandemic, when the smallest gatherings were banned for everything else, added to the general apocalyptic air.

But this was one argument of my book: that the decline of Christianity simply results in progressivism becoming most people’s moral lodestar, a process that is seamless because progressivism is a sort-of heresy of Christianity, a point made by a number of writers before.

The almost-complete submission of conservatism in the face of this, even with mobs violating the Cenotaph or targeting a statue of Churchill, also confirmed my previous belief that we were losing.

One conservative response is to say that “there will be a backlash because young people will rebel against the new woke intolerance”. But they won’t. It’s a myth that the youth are rebellious – they’re among the most conformist section of society, which is why secondary school is so awful for so many. Young people have always been enthusiastic enforcers of orthodoxy, from the wars of religion to Mao’s China.

That you or I might find modern progressivism irrational, based on completely utopian and untrue ideas about human nature, makes no difference either. Plenty of 3rd Century polytheists were pretty confident that the people wouldn’t stand for worshipping a common criminal from Judea, or the myriad supernatural claims of his followers. The backlash will come any minute, I’m sure. And when was the last time you met someone who worshipped Jupiter?

There won’t be a backlash, because – and this was my argument – the Left now controls almost every institution in Britain. It doesn’t matter who’s in government, because the generation growing up – including my children – will be bombarded with progressive messages and signals, all equating Left-wing social ideals with morality, and conservatism with low-status, bigotry and failure.

There is no “moral majority” anymore, there is no backlash; the generation born after about 1975 are not moving to the Right as their predecessors did, and those born much later are way more progressive than previous cohorts; younger women in particular are overwhelmingly Left-of-centre, and historically faiths that attracted females tended to predominate through “secondary conversions”, people joining the religion of their spouse. The first Christian Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kings both converted to follow their wives – they were on the right side of history.

And so the most depressing thing about 2020, and in particular June, was how it confirmed all my prevailing beliefs. It was not just that the Left would win, because they had the religious dynamism that ensured victory – the other plaguey historical comparison is obviously the Flagellants, who went around Europe beating themselves to atone for humanity’s sins. It was also how politics trumps everything; on the one hand, there were medical officials declaring that it was fine to protest during an epidemic because racism is a worse disease, or something. On the other, people on my side turning the whole miserable event into a political-tribal issue, even to the point of not wearing a mask to own the libs.

And so my basic thesis that political tribalism has become a second Reformation, and Britain as much as America is in for years of tedious conflict, doesn’t seem to have been proven wrong.

The crisis has also further deepened my belief in conservatism. So for example, while various columnists tried making the argument that “populists” handled the crisis badly, both Hungary and Poland – led by the two most effective national conservative governments – did well, with death rates at one-tenth and one-thirtieth of the British respectively so far. Sure, they still face the problem of keeping the disease out, but as we learn more about the virus we’ll get better at tackling it, and it’s never a good idea to be the first one with a new disease.

What these critics meant was that Boris Johnson’s government had done badly, but the Prime Minister is not a populist, he is at heart a (right-wing) liberal optimist who was aghast at the necessarily authoritarian measures that needed to be taken early. In contrast, true conservatives like Orban see the world as a place of danger, something I’ve increasingly come to think these past few months (you can imagine how much fun lockdown has been for my wife).

The crisis has reinforced my social conservatism in other ways, too. Firstly, small countries are much better at handling this disaster because they can control their borders more easily, and government is closer to the ground. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the virus has reminded us that what we do doesn’t just affect us but those around us, too. That obviously applies on a life-or-death level to a virus, but even in our everyday choices our behaviour is viral. Most forms of action – marriage, divorce, even suicide – are contagious, as are political ideas and beliefs. Looking at the world of viruses leads to a more communitarian worldview.

Likewise with messaging, which this Government has also been criticised for. Some people really do need to be told clearly what to do, for the good of society in general; cultural as well as political leaders need to distinguish between what is good advice and bad advice.

We’ve sort of come to assume there’s a marketplace of ideas and that impressionable young people should be presented with a selection of choices. In reality, lots of people – even quite intelligent people – are unwise and will make terrible decision that will make them miserable and damage them and more importantly those around them, especially their family. The marketplace of ideas is rubbish, because the worst options are often superficially attractive.

Then there is the enforced slowness of life, which many people have found quite rewarding, especially in cities, allowing more time with the family. Maybe we should have an enforced lockdown once a week from now on – we’ll call it, I don’t know, “the Sabbath”.

Finally, there is the ritual; I thought at first that the Clap for Carers would be very cringey, but it was actually quite moving and beautiful. My kids loved it, and it gave them something to focus on, a heroic ideal and the lesson that others – strangers – care for us. It was also a reminder that we have lost something deep and profound in our culture with the erosion of communal fasts and feasts.

We weren’t designed to live lives of independent loneliness. To paraphrase E.O Wilson: libertarianism – wonderful theory, wrong species.

I’ve also come to grow stronger in my belief that our economic model, which depends on London being the financial centre of the world, is not much benefit to the average British person, who can no longer afford to live in their capital city, and who are also made more vulnerable to the downsides of globalisation.

But most of all, I suppose, it’s deepened my pessimism. While we’ve had 1,000 different takes on what the post-Covid world will look like since March, I’m inclined to agree with Michel Houellebecq when he says that it will be “the same, but worse”.