The culture war is a box of matches the UK government can't help playing with | Marina Hyde

Classical liberal, thought leader, guitar-bothering divorce meme Laurence Fox launched his campaign to be London mayor this week, standing for the Reclaim party. What’s he reclaiming? Probably not his deposit. Remarkably, the actor read his big launch speech off some paper, which is surely the equivalent of not being off-book for opening night. You can’t help feeling it would have taken the edge off Laurence Olivier’s Henry V if he’d had to get a couple of prompt cards out before addressing the troops at Agincourt.

Still, I expect we get the Laurences we deserve. “I am here to reclaim your freedom,” read Fox. Again, learning his lines for Braveheart allowed Mel Gibson to make a similar promise, at the same time as controlling the skittish horse he was riding and still having a fist free to raise in the air at the end. Not being word-perfect sadly closed off that avenue to Laurence Fox. Any British politician raising a fist full of crumpled A4 looks like they’ve just appeased Hitler.

It used to seem unutterably lame, the lengths to which David Cameron’s Conservatives would go to avoid being outflanked by a man of the calibre of Nigel Farage. That now looks like an era of lofty idealism, given that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives look like they’re trying to avoid being outflanked by a man of the calibre of Laurence Fox.

But this is where we are. Every time some cabinet minister rushes eagerly to the frontline of the culture wars, they are espousing a politics indistinguishable from that of a preposterous tit having a midlife crisis. Yet still they rush. It is beginning to feel as if the government wants a culture war more than anything.

This week’s race report appears a case in point, with the manner in which its release was seemingly deliberately designed to produce the least conciliatory or even thoughtful headlines on a hugely sensitive issue. This, it turned out, was also the moment Samuel Kasumu – Boris Johnson’s senior adviser on ethnic minorities – confirmed his resignation to colleagues.

Despite Downing Street’s attempts to jolly this news up, there is no way to read it other than unfavourably. Kasumu had previously sought to resign over his belief the government was pursuing a “politics steeped in division”; and confirming he was doing so just as they were playing their big race report in the divisive way they chose is never going to look like the seal of approval.

Needless to say, housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, was straight out of the traps to explain that racism was something that happens on social media, not in Britain’s institutions. Perhaps he was thinking of equalities minister Kemi Badenoch instituting a Twitter pile-on against a black journalist, which predictably drew the writer in question huge amounts of racist abuse. As Kasumu had written in his earlier resignation letter: “I believe the ministerial code was breached. However, more concerning than the act, was the lack of response internally … I waited, and waited, for something from the senior leadership team to even point to an expected standard, but it did not materialise.” Clearly it never did.

Expected standards have never bothered Robert Jenrick either. The first rule of the government’s culture war is that it has to be fought by the ones who look like their earliest relationship with the flag was being given a wedgie with it at school. Jenrick, Oliver Dowden, Gavin Williamson, Milhouse Van Houten – this is the pool from which your generals are drawn.

These are chaps intensely relaxed about giving the appearance they care more about statues than women bringing in new laws to make the penalty for defacing the former worse than the average sentence for raping the latter. Reminder: precisely one statue in the country, itself long contentious, has been toppled in the past year. Those accused of felling it are already due to stand trial under existing law. So when the furlough ends in the autumn, and the scale of the UK’s road to recovery becomes clear, let the record show that the actual secretary of state for communities chose to spend on such total nonsense. Let the record show that the actual culture secretary turned his thoughts away from a collapsing arts sector to pick some fantastically babyish and irrelevant fight with the National Trust. Dowden even went on the telly to demand that TV drama The Crown carry a disclaimer saying it is fiction. Is the culture secretary honestly saying that it isn’t the real Princess Diana up there in my tellybox? Like every other viewer he apparently regards as a complete imbecile, I refuse to believe it.

The trouble with culture wars is that the entry requirements are so low but the stakes are so high. For a government supposedly big on the past, this one fails to understand even recent American history. To simplify, for their benefit: turning everything into an insanely polarised binary ends badly. Whether you play with this box of matches because it’s cheaper than real policies, or because it “energises your base”, or for some other reason, it always ends badly. Do you remember the orange man? It ended badly. It remains a mystery quite why Britain’s politicians should be stoking culture wars mere months after just one of their logical conclusions was laid bare for the world to see. Absolutely no good comes of this stuff, and governments should be bigger and better than it.

If they aren’t, then perhaps a disclaimer ought to preface every minister’s increasingly unhelpful and incendiary forays into the culture wars: “The following scenes do not contain public service.”

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist


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