Boris’s Culture War

Since last summer Boris Johnson has established himself as a committed culture warrior. With his union jacks, his imperial nostalgia, his right wing appointments to media bodies and his denunciations of radical protest, he is clearly imposing an authoritarian nationalist agenda on the country. In effect he is recruiting the machinery of the state to shift Britain’s cultural centre of gravity to the right.

At the outset of his premiership Boris identified himself as a liberal Tory, a believer in a free and open society. He’s talking here about small-l liberalism, not the Lib Dems.

There are small-l liberals in most of Britain’s political parties, so being a liberal Tory is perfectly feasible. But does Boris qualify? To look more closely at this question I shall turn to one of the most distinguished philosophers of liberalism in recent times, the late John Rawls; and particularly to his view on the liberal model of the state.

He said that the liberal state should keep its espousal of cultural and moral values to a minimum, and be neutral on everything else. He was a modern ‘left’ liberal and wanted to confine the state’s commitment to the protection of freedom and justice. However, for more traditional liberals freedom is the only legitimate state commitment, and values relating to all other aspects of life should be left to the choices of individual citizens. Boris aligns with this version of liberalism in his espousal of freedom. Or so he says.


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This does not mean liberalism precludes politicians from having any values other than freedom.  Clearly our democracy – specifically our party system – depends on politicians having values and proclaiming them loudly. It’s mainly by hearing those values proclaimed that we know who we want to vote for, and what to expect of our favoured politicians once they are in power.

So it’s fine for liberal politicians to have value-based beliefs. But they should also be committed to ensuring the existence of a neutral space where other values are debated, but not imposed. And politicians in government should respect the neutrality of those areas and limit their interference to a minimum, whatever their own values. This neutral space would normally include the arts, the media, and universities. And traditional liberals would also expect elected governments to respect the political neutrality of some senior state personnel, including senior civil servants and judges.

Finally, liberals would expect politicians not to interfere in a partisan way with the area loosely labelled ‘culture’. That includes high culture,  popular culture, and what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture; that is, the ways in which we develop our shared values, beliefs and ways of doing things. For the liberal, cultural values should be free from state interference.

So Boris is in serious breach of his own proclaimed liberal Toryism. He is invading this neutral space from several angles – cultural institutions, media, civil service, judiciary, universities – with his nationalist agenda. Does this matter? For nationalists, imperial nostalgicists and others of that ilk, Boris’s culture war is doubtless welcome. But I think there are reasons to worry, not just for small-l liberals, but for anyone who values a civilized society and politics.

Let me call upon another political philosopher, the Canadian Will Kymlicka, to explain why we should be worried. He argues that culture is basic to human identity and freedom, to such a degree that we can’t make decisions or live a self-determined life without a cultural context  to provide meaning to our choices. That’s why, he argues, deliberately or negligently destroying or debasing the culture of a people is a denial of human rights.

His particular concern is with minority cultures – mainly of indigenous peoples – but the same principle applies to dominant cultures also. Deliberate cultural ‘re-education’ manipulates our ability to understand and evaluate everything else in our world- politics, economics, health, the list goes on. It’s dangerous.

I’m not suggesting that culture should be wrapped in cotton wool. Culture exists in a maelstrom of change, and every one of the myriad activities we engage in in our daily lives has the potential to shift and remould the cultural  assumptions we carry in our heads. But that is not a deliberate programme of cultural re-education. All parts of society do their own thing, and the cultural impact is a by-product.

Doing it deliberately is different altogether. In recent times deliberate cultural manipulation by the state has been the speciality of populists, totalitarians and theocrats. The dreadful precedent of Mao Zedong’s great proletarian cultural revolution in China reminds us of the possible human cost of imposed cultural change. But Mao is not alone. There are many others. Islamic State is a more recent example.

Boris is not Mao.  But he could still do real damage. British society accommodates a wide spectrum of cultural values, shown by  recent studies of our politico-cultural ‘tribes’. However, the liberal/authoritarian dimension has emerged as an important predictor of political alignment, with traditionalist, patriotic authoritarians at one end and liberal, multicultural internationalists at the other.

The traditionalists may be a majority at present, but the liberal cluster have demographics on their side. The more of Boris’s culture wars we are subjected to, the more those two tendencies are likely to polarize our multiplicity of tribes into two mutually uncomprehending and hostile silos. And political debate will become coarser, cruder and nastier. Again, precedents are not good. We only have to look at the United States.

I doubt if Boris has actually turned traditionalist in any real sense. More likely he’s intoxicated by his power to generate conflict. He probably sees it as a vote-getting wheeze. And it’s unlikely that he, the greased piglet of politics, will suffer any dire consequences for his destructive games. But in the long run I fear the rest of us may face an unpleasant reckoning for our indulgence of this man.

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