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Conservatives can't win on culture wars

Sir Liam Fox MP
June 21, 2023

Margaret Thatcher used to say that conservatives do the hard things, by which she meant the big issues of the day, such as the economy or defence and security. The implication was that the spheres of culture and the arts belonged to the left.

It's a theme that's been echoed by her successors over recent decades, that the ‘soft’ issues can be put aside or, at least, on the backburner. The trend has tended to be replicated by conservatives across the free world. Yet, it is a mistake. The assumption is that politics makes the weather from which social attitudes flow. The opposite, however, is true.

Culture is not downstream from politics. Politics is downstream from culture. If the latter is ignored, it can create an extremely difficult political environment, especially when the cultural agenda is captured by the left.

Before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, many of my American friends said it would be impossible. I pointed out to them that if Bill Clinton was the President for the Jerry Springer generation and Barack Obama was the President for the X Factor generation, then why wouldn’t Donald Trump be the President for the reality TV generation? 

While this was somewhat tongue in cheek, there is more than a grain of truth in the general picture.

While the political right in Britain has been fighting on the economic and security fronts, the left has dominated media, education (especially higher education) and, latterly, social media. There is some pushback in the United States, where the right has recently challenged on social issues such as abortion, but the general analysis holds elsewhere.

Here, in Britain, the most recent cause célèbre of the left has been the gender debate. Some are bemused at the intensity with which the hard left has adopted the cause, not least since it affects a tiny proportion of the population. Yet, every gender march is liberally laced with socialist worker banners and virulently anti-Conservative sloganising.

The most recent cause célèbre of the left has been the gender debate Quote

Why, then, do they regard this as such a crucial political battle? The answer lies in the institutions it undermines, most importantly family and religion, two of the great enemies of state communism in the 20th century.

Why listen to your biological family when you can feel more comfortable with your extended trans family? Why let the traditional views of Christian, Jewish or Islamic teaching interfere with your own non- (or even anti-) religious view. 

The gender extremists seek to drive a coach and horses through both institutions. Iconoclastic views against the traditional institutions of our country are meat and drink to the revolutionary left.

The battle is made more difficult when there is no counter narrative on the political right. As a classical liberal (not libertarian), I believe adults should be able to live as they please as long as they do not impinge upon the rights and safety of others, especially the vulnerable – and that especially includes children. It is a view we should propagate with vigour.

There are some conservatives who do not want to be involved in the battle of social politics at all and I agree that it should not be allowed to become a political obsession to the exclusion of the “bread-and-butter” issues that matter more to most voters.

A “war on woke” will not matter enough to a wide enough electorate to be an election winner, while issues like gender teaching in schools remain of low salience to voters.

This may change, of course, when parents recognise the extent to which this agenda is being forced on their children in today’s state schooling. The next generation are not simply being asked to think critically or question traditional stereotypes but are being fed a rigid leftist agenda which is rejected by many groups who are not traditional conservative allies, including the more mainstream LGB groups who feel their hard won social progress of recent decades is being undermined.

Nonetheless, it is incumbent on ‘small c’ conservatives to resist the cultural tide that will increase, not decrease, social stresses. The defence of family and resisting indoctrination of the nation’s children in an adult centric, minority debate is hardly a right-wing crusade.

So, there needs to be a balance. Too much emphasis on cultural issues could alienate voters whose main concerns are economic security and the cost of living.

Too little, and the generation could be created antipathetic to basic conservative values. What is clear is that Conservatives cannot afford to shy away completely from a crucial political debate simply because it is out of the comfort zone of some.

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Sir Liam Fox is the Conservative MP for North Somerset and is a former defence and international trade secretary.

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