Wednesday 26 August 2020

Rule Britannia and Tory Culture Wars

Coming in more tedious than the centrist-right obsession with Jeremy Corbyn has been the entirely contrived controversy over the Last Night at the Proms. If your news sources are The Express, The Sun, and other fonts of Tory talking points, you might have suffered palpitations thanks to the BBC's decision to ban Rule Britannia. Cue "it's political correctness gawn mad" takes from the very worst people paid to have opinions. It doesn't matter that the truth is the banning of all singing thanks to Covid-19 restrictions. The right saw an opportunity to whip up Britain's victim status, and they ran with it.

One should never pass up an opportunity to get a dig in at the Buggers Broadcasting Communism and delegitimise the BBC that little bit more, but you'd think some of the pushers of the latest lie in the Tory culture war might show a bit of decorum. Andrew Neil built his reputation as TV's toughest politics interviewer on, you guessed it, the BBC. Isabel Oakeshott became a personality on the right thanks to repeated guesting on Sunday morning politics shows. And who would have heard of Nigel Farage had BBC not given him his safest seat of all: a regular slot on the Question Time panel. Such ingrates. And yet, perversely, those on the the receiving end of (wilfully) distorted BBC reporting tend to be those who are duty bound to defend it as an example of pubic broadcasting, however degenerate it may be. Funny old world.

The Rule Britannia outbreak, like all other outbreaks of right wing hysteria, do have political consequences. And those stoking the fires are fully conscious of what they're doing. This is the big picture: Brexit is presently holding the Tories' pensioner-dominated electoral coalition together for reasons discussed many times round these parts. For people who predominantly occupy a fundamentally insecure location, their anxieties sublimate into scapegoat condensers of their fears and totems of uncertainty, such as the young, wider culture, technology, etc. Brexit offers illusion and delusion as a means of finding a passage to a more secure, fixed past they find comfortable and knowable: a place they more readily see themselves in than the confusing, seething, unknowable mess they watch (but crucially, tend not to directly experience) on the television or read in the papers.

The problem the Tories have is Brexit can't last forever. Time's up at the end of this year and we can look forward to the future and a new and less-than-optimal relationship with the UK's largest trading partners. Where do the Tories go then? How do they keep their people together? Being seen as a reforming, activist government is actively positioned for by the very top of the Johnson government, but this can only go so far. Spreadsheets and tractor production figures might have cut it with Tory voters in 2015, but faced with the sheer incompetence and deliberate cruelty of these people party strategists and what passes for its "intellectuals" are casting around for the special sauce that can maintain the polling lead. The only thing that makes sense is something nationalistic, but dripping with victimhood, a new populism (looking a lot like the previous populism) opposing the good honest folks of the United Kingdom England to evil elites and ne'er do wells who want to ban Britishness. In other words, expect a constant barrage of poor little Britain moaning and whingeing.

What are the chances of keeping their coalition together? These efforts will carry on motivating the core components of Toryism, but what about the fringes who voted "tactically" last December to see Brexit done? Will they too fall down the rabbit hole into a wonderland brimming over with Benny Hill, oversized Wagon Wheels, and fantasies of empire? It's unlikely. Brexit populism made sense because there were elites determined to stop it, and nullify people's votes. But a sing-a-long called off because of Coronavirus? Panics about Marxism taught on every university degree apart from Maths and Computing? The danger of face masks? They might have a certain potency now, but with Brexit off the table and the people's will seen to be done, their urgency and vitality could drain away with culture war investments offering only ever-decreasing returns. Could.

Under these circumstances, it behoves the left to properly understand the interplay of right wing rhetoric and the cohering effects it has on its intended audience. And it's down to us to come up with strategies that can disrupt their messaging, make their clarity fuzzy, and present compelling stories and critiques of our own so we intersect better with the lived experiences and concerns of older workers and retirees. Easier said then done, but them's the breaks. No one's going to do it for us.


Anonymous said...

The intention is a shift toward a more Trump-like generalised culture war. However, it is arguable if even England matches perfectly with the American situation - the northern 'red wall' is not made of stone, and population density is too great even in the south for right-wingers not to be confronted by dissonance, not least when they use the NHS.

It would be interesting to see the genesis of this 'storm' - reading what I could of the Times story (paywall) it links the decision to leading figures in the classical world lining up to criticise the songs. In a sense, it could be said the Beeb walked straight into this culture war, whatever the facts may be.

What's interesting about the poor BBC is that it is caught between two stalls - its right wing news agenda, and its progressive culture. It is being pulled in two directions, and effectivey pulled apart, in a reflection of our polarising culture. The UK is on an accelerating downward spiral of self-absorbtion and irrelevance. Although this is a process that has been decades in the making (if not a century), since the 2016 'tipping point' events have moved so quickly it is hard to keep up with them. In another century the former-UK will be oft cited as a salutory example of the long tail of imperial decline.

Blissex said...

«present compelling stories and critiques of our own so we intersect better with the lived experiences and concerns of older workers and retirees.»

But as per my usual argument the “concerns of older workers and retirees” are not uniform: some of them are irreducible tories as they know that their living standards depend very much on governments pushing up asset prices and pushing down other people's wages, and some are not, because they hardly have any assets, or their assets are depreciating, especially if they are in the north or lost their jobs in the 1980s-1990s.

The better distinction is not between “older workers and retirees” and others, but between those who vote their pre-eminent rentier interests, and those who don't have big rentier interests, whatever their age.

Because if one does not do that distinction, then the claim becomes credible that the only way to get the vote of “older workers and retirees” is to offer them more competently managed thatcherism.

BCFG said...

As a communist I would be more than happy, no delighted, to see the BBC disbanded, defunded.

Actually allow adverts on the BBC and watch how SKY squirm when they lose all that advertising revenue!

The right wing would never allow it actually!

Jim Denham said...

I note, weaerily, that you still feel obliged to indulge the "Lexit" fanatsy that opposition to Brexit was primarily driven by "elites", rather than socialist internationalists who (correctly) saw it as a harbinger of a carnival of reaction that had to be opposed regardless of the short-term electoral consequences. When will you "left " Brexiteers admit that you tried to play the right wing's game ... and - inevitably - lost?

Anonymous said...

"only way to get the vote of “older workers and retirees” is to offer them more competently managed thatcherism."

I would conclude there is no electoral road to socialism.

Unknown said...

Great piece- didn't there was much to extract from all that, but you did so very acutely

Blissex said...

«"only way to get the vote of “older workers and retirees” is to offer them more competently managed thatcherism."

I would conclude there is no electoral road to socialism.»

That's BTW no my argument, but the Mandelson Tendency one, and indeed their conclusion is that there is no electoral road to socialism, so New Labour must be a “quasi-Conservative” thatcherite party instead of a social-democratic one.

But my argument is that there is an electoral road to social-democracy if not socialism, and it is to get the votes of the many “older workers and retirees” whose interests are not predominantly those of rentierism. Many of them, especially in "the north" (of Watford), but also in the "pushed behind" areas of the south, have negligible assets or depreciating properties, and would benefits from more jobs with better wages in their areas.

Then there is also a small minority of “older workers and retirees” who are primarily rentiers who wisely would choose to vote against rentierism if it were replaced by a good safety net, as rentierism eventually must implode, as debt bubble fueled upward redistribution has to stop at some point, and then it will unwind catastrophically, beyond the ability of any government to backstop asset speculation.

BCFG said...

" rather than socialist internationalists who (correctly) saw it as a harbinger of a carnival of reaction that had to be opposed regardless of the short-term electoral consequences."

Now that is fantasy on stilts, Noddy had more of an affect on the Brexit debate that revolutionary socialists. Brexit and Lexit were driven by different sections of the ruling class and each section appealed to the masses, because they had to, it was put to a vote after all.

I am willing to accept that Denham, in his very very small way, has contributed to Brexit by his continued support of Rule Britannia, his steadfast support of the Royal Armed Forces (he after all wanted Assange locked up because it put Britain's secret service personnel in danger!)

And Denham accuses others of being nationalist!

Socialism in One Bedroom said...

There is no road to socialism in Britain period, socialism will come like a sledgehammer from the outside.

Think of Britain like the Palace of Versailles, think of the average Brit as Marie Antoinette, wishing the migrants would eat cake, make cheap goods and die in the sea.

Think that this state of affairs just cannot last and think of Brits as making hay while the sun shines!

George Carty said...

Jim Denham,

It seemed clear to me that hard-core activist Remainers were indeed a considerably older and more "elite" demographic than the totality of Remain voters. That could be because they were more motivated by often personally benefiting from the EU (for example because they'd worked abroad), or perhaps because they were courted by cynical politicians seeking to use them for their own ends – either Lib Dems trying to recover from their 2015 shellacking, or the Labour right (many of whom weren't particularly "woke" prior to the 2016 referendum) seeking to weaponize them against Corbyn. The socialist internationalists of which you speak were probably far more representative of Remain voters in their totality, but they were a lot less noisy.

Perhaps it was because they viewed the anti-Brexit cause as just one facet of the greater anti-Tory cause? Many would have disliked the EU because of Eurozone austerity policies and "Fortress Europe" immigration controls, and voted Remain only because they saw the right-wing Brexiteers as a greater evil.

Or perhaps it was because they lacked leadership, as 13 years of New Labour hegemony meant that socialist politicians in Britain tended to be either very old like Corbyn (and thus likely for historical reasons to be Eurosceptic if not outright Lexiteer), or very young (and therefore lacking in power and/or name recognition)?

Boffy said...


The vast majority of Labour voters and Labour members who backed Remain are anything but elitists, and are predominantly younger, as all the surveys demonstrate. If you were to look for an MP that signified them it would be Clive Lewis, and the slogan that symbolised it was "Love Corbyn Hate Brexit", later displayed as "Love Socialism Hate Brexit", as Corbyn tied himself ever more tightly to the sinking ship of Brexit.

How can millions of Labour voters, be described as an elite? How can over 500,000 LP members, i.e. the 90% of party members that opposed Brexit, be described as an elite? That description is simply further lies from the Stalinists and petty-bourgeois Brexiteers to explain away the fact that the most progressive elements of the working-class do not support their small minded nationalistic ideology, and voted accordingly.

George Carty said...


The fact that I had to look up Clive Lewis (because I hadn't heard of him before) says it all: while you are of course right that the vast majority of Labour members (and a comfortable majority of Labour voters) opposed Brexit (and that most Remain voters supported Labour) those people were not the public face of the campaign against Brexit!

Perhaps that was down to an overwhelmingly anti-left media, with even liberal media like the Guardian being more hostile to the left than they were to Brexit?

I'm not even sure that the pro-Labour majority of Remain voters had any route to success once Leave won the referendum: the Tories could never be persuaded to abandon Brexit (or even concede a second referendum) because they knew that Brexit was the glue holding their electoral coalition together.

This meant that Brexit could only be stopped by defeating the Tories in a General Election, which couldn't be done with Remain votes alone, because of the geographic distribution of Leave and Remain votes. In the December 2019 General Election, pro-Brexit parties got 47% of the vote while anti-Brexit and pro-second-referendum parties got 53% of the vote. The anti-Brexit vote was of course badly split along class lines (with the working class voting Labour and the middle class Liberal Democrat) but even if all the "Leave" and "Remain" votes were aggregated "Leave" would still have won by 327 constutencies to 323.

The terrible defeat for Labour in that election was thus primarily due to Leave voters defecting directly to the Tories (or often to the Brexit Party in places where tribal anti-Tory animosity was particularly strong). This was because Leave voters viewed Labour's concession of a second referendum as a betrayal: the fact that voting Leave in 2016 was a basically negative-sum decision meant that it psychologically functioned rather like a gang initiation (thus cementing loyalty to the Brexit cause): that's why those wanting to leave the EU decided very early on (back in the early 1990s) that they could only succeed by means of a referendum, not through conventional parliamentary politics.

It is also the case that for many traditional Labour supporters who voted Leave for Lexit-type reasons nevertheless ended up drifting to far-right ethnonationalist politics, often due to far-right propaganda distributed stealthily via Facebook.