How the left lost the fight for Englishness | Suzanne Moore

The first rule of culture war is you don’t talk about culture wars, even though they are two a penny – we are having culture wars over abortion rights, sex education and legalising cannabis. Meanwhile, talk of a Tory “war cabinet” has been criticised on the grounds that we are not having an actual war. It is disrespectful, apparently, but I am ambivalent. We have been having an unacknowledged culture war for a long time – it led to Brexit and this administration.

Those who want to see this as a rightwing coup lost the culture war, because their cultural horizons were so limited. Many of them worked within the culture industry, so were doubly enraged by the leave vote and are not used to being on the losing side.

If your job is to produce culture and you didn’t see what was happening to half the country, or despised those who didn’t share your views about that country, then it is tough indeed. Having always believed that culture precedes politics, that artists, musicians and film-makers are the canaries in the mine, I still feel enraged at what didn’t happen. There were honourable exceptions, of course – I will come to them – but every day in 2016 one notable or another told us to vote remain. It was patronising. None of these people seemed to be in touch with anything except other people who went to private views and mused over rubbish conceptual art.

Every time I tried to talk of Englishness as a demon and a premonition, I was told that I wasn’t internationalist or left enough, that to discuss Englishness as the Scots had discussed their identity was verboten.

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It is happening again now. On the anniversary of the start of the 2012 Olympics, some people have been saying: “Wasn’t that all lovely?” to which the militant miserabilists of the “real” left reply: “It was terrible – bits of London were militarised and poor people got nothing from it.” This is stupid, because we should be allowed to think two things at once. We can celebrate the fact that the opening ceremony was great; that multiculturalism was no longer an idea, but medal-winning; that George Osborne was roundly booed; and that some people had a really great time. But also we can understand the bad stuff: the riots the year before; the bedding in of deep impoverishment; the deliberate breaking up of communities.

We can’t go back to lovely 2012, just as we can’t go back to 2016. But we can begin to understand that, to have a dog in this culture fight, one may have to be creative. Jeremy Deller has wondered about national identity in his wonderful show English Magic, drawing new maps of England based on the routes of David Bowie tours. Grayson Perry has asked difficult questions. Shane Meadows always does. Jez Butterworth has given us Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a pagan deviant. PJ Harvey has sung of blood and bones and white chalk and what makes England shake. Billy Bragg has long been looking for a new England. Young guys in council blocks have made music that really was a new England. Most of the cultural establishment, meanwhile, have been going to events in big cities with new galleries for which the natives should remain grateful.

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This same cultural establishment reigns. In response to Brexit, it has produced some of the worst art ever seen, such as Anish Kapoor’s gaping gash. The establishment doesn’t do provincial, but then is deeply shocked when people feel no investment in it because art is meant to be good for us. The ungrateful gits don’t get that, do they? No-deal Brexit is also very bad for people; don’t they get that, either?

I dislike the ascetism of Corbyn because that is also a cultural stance. Johnson’s amoral hedonism won him the London mayoralty and then the prime ministership. In an election, Labour has to do the very thing Corbyn seems unable to do – be attuned culturally to all the places that exist between the Almeida theatre in Islington and the Durham miners’ gala. Places of English magic.

Yet because the left has long assumed it owned the culture – and in many ways it did – it has become comfortable and self-satisfied. It failed to notice it was losing the biggest cultural war of all.

Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist



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