If your politics involves frequent attacks on beloved national institutions, no matter how much you claim to be defending them from subversion, you risk looking like you simply dislike them. That is a problem for rightwing culture warriors who purport to stand up for a patriotic, socially conservative majority, against a tiny liberal elite that maintains an iron grip on the levers of power.
After several years of increasingly outlandish rhetorical assaults – on the BBC, the National Trust, the England football team – it has begun to seem as if the culture warriors are starting to run aground.
Nigel Farage’s recent criticism of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – for allegedly providing a “taxi service” to people crossing the Channel in small boats – rightly drew attention for its demagoguery. His choice of words was resonant. In Italy, in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis, accusations from populists and the far right – that humanitarian charity ships were providing a taxi del mare, a “sea taxi” service, to migrants escaping the hell of Libya – smeared the reputations of volunteers and helped pave the way for a government crackdown on rescues.
Yet it was notable that most rightwing talking heads did not join in Farage’s attack. Several ministers, perhaps wary of colleagues who ended up looking like shameless opportunists during Euro 2020 – failing to condemn England fans who booed the team for taking the knee at the start of the tournament and then draping themselves in red and white by the end – were quick to show their support for the RNLI. They were wise to: the fact that the volunteer lifeboat service has received a 3,000% boost in donations since Farage’s comments shows that it has broad public support.
It’s too early to celebrate yet, however. The attacks are likely to keep on coming because they have become essential to the political tactics of the right. Committed ideologues, for one thing, genuinely believe the liberal elite, out of step with the values and beliefs of the British population, continues to hold power, despite Boris Johnson’s thumping election victory in 2019.
If you are unwilling to accept that historical shifts such as the spread of liberal social attitudes – or the fact that young people, increasingly shut out from stable careers and housing, are more amenable to socialist ideas – reflect changes in society at large, then it follows that these must be the product of underhand influences: of “wokeness”, or “cultural Marxism”, or a biased establishment.
Watch: Donations to RNLI jump by more than 28 times after CEO defends rescuing English Channel migrants
To compound this, there is a thriving media economy founded on rightwing outrage. Attacks on the “loony left” and moral panics about issues such as migration are hardly new to the rightwing press; indeed, the Daily Mail included the RNLI in a recent report on “migration madness” in the Channel. Stories about asylum seekers being accommodated in supposedly plush hotels, with the implication that British people are being short-changed, have become a tabloid staple.
But for newer rightwing media outlets, hysteria about the great liberal conspiracy is even more essential. The travails of GB News are a case in point. After the channel’s ratings flopped, it drafted in Farage as a presenter in an effort to reverse its fortunes – showing how reliant this section of the media are on populist provocation.
For the government, meanwhile, culture war politics may prove essential if it is to keep its current electoral coalition together. The exact meaning of the term “culture war” is often disputed, but it’s best thought of as a political technique for gathering a disparate group of people with conflicting, even contradictory, interests into your camp. Pick a divisive social issue, make your position on it a badge of identity, and try to make other people do so too.
The polarising effect of the Brexit referendum, which – in Westminster discourse at least – divided the country into two rival camps of leavers and remainers, was skilfully deployed as a culture war battle by the Conservatives in the 2019 election.
Since then, and given the claim that Brexit is now “done”, the right has been searching for other issues to fulfil a similar role. As tensions in the Conservatives’ new base come to the fore – between, say, voters in the north of England who are keen to see the government “levelling up” through investment in infrastructure, and traditional Tories in the south who want a low-tax, low-spending state – the search will most likely continue. The party may find it gains diminishing returns, since poll after poll reveals that the public is not naturally divided along culture war lines.
But culture wars, even when they fail to take root, are more than just harmless noise. Although much of the right has steered clear of attacking the RNLI itself, boats in the Channel are being used as a litmus test for the government’s commitment to a hard-right agenda. The cover story of last week’s Spectator declared we were fighting “Britain’s new migrant crisis”. If Johnson meant “all that stuff he said in recent years about ‘taking back control’,” thundered Douglas Murray, “he must get control of this country’s borders. In the realm of sovereignty, nothing matters more.”
Even if this doesn’t push the government further to the right, it ends up taking the attention away from its existing policies – which, one might say, are extreme in their own right. The borders bill currently making its way through parliament is only one of a series of hardline law and order measures (along with the heavily criticised policing bill) that Johnson’s government is rolling out. The rightwing outrage machine does real damage to politics even when its demands aren’t met, because it narrows debate and makes it harder to challenge the decisions taken by people with real power.
To see what I mean, think about the questions we could have been asking over the past few weeks when instead we’ve been debating the extent to which it’s acceptable to save lives at sea. Why are people so desperate to reach the UK that they will step into dinghies, and what is our role in creating those conditions? Why does one of the world’s richest countries have an asylum system that forces children to sleep in disused offices and leaves cases unanswered for up to a decade?
Who gains from playing British citizens off against migrants? The public defence of the RNLI is heartening, but it needs to be the beginning of something, rather than the end.
Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right
Watch: Old Sheerness Trent class lifeboat is retired after 27 years of service in Kent