“I’ll tell you what I want, What I really, really want,” sang the Spice Girls many years ago. A message the people of England have been trying to impress upon their government through strikes by nurses, railway staff, teachers and many other workers. What people ‘really, really want’ are not the government’s fabricated culture wars, but the simple cornerstones of life: good jobs, decent wages, to be able to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s heads; properly resourced schools for their children, healthcare when needed, and to live in a fair and just society. Wants that are perfectly reasonable and perfectly feasible, in one of the richest countries in the world.
Unfortunately, “this sceptred isle, … This other Eden,”, suffers from a class based political system, where the privileged see Westminster as their personal domain, and an electoral mechanism favouring the Conservative block vote. In the 2019 election the Conservatives only gained 44% of the vote, yet ended up with a huge majority. The country has had to endure a government drunk on power, indulging in law-breaking, corruption and lies, which tried to prorogue Parliament, maniacally pursued a damaging Brexit, and has engaged in false, unnecessary culture wars, calculated to sow division, to stop people supporting and valuing each other, and most cynically, deflect from government failures.
In a country where a Panorama programme covered the story of a care -worker unable to afford a light bulb for her kitchen till the next pay-day, where young teachers are skipping meals to make ends meet, and nurses are forced to use food banks, we’ve been treated to the unedifying spectacle of some Tory MPs (who already collect generous MP salaries, expenses, and hold 2nd or 3rd jobs on hefty fees) asking for payments of thousands of pounds to attend meetings, for a non-existent company, in a sting organised by the group Led by Donkeys (motto: ‘Art, activism and accountability’).
Shakespeare, via John of Gaunt, had a few words for such a sorry state of affairs:
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
(Act 2. Scene 1. Richard 11)
Most people are politically middle of the road, shying away from extremes both on the right and the left. Adhering to values of decency, morality and humanity. In my local supermarket the crate for donations to food banks is never left empty, consistently filled by shoppers’ contributions. When lockdown occurred during the pandemic, mutual aid groups sprang up in neighbourhoods, to provide help for those who were alone or in need; the fire at Grenfell occurred during Ramadan, soon after midnight, when many Muslims were awake, who helped to raise the alarm; a group of young Muslim men returning from the mosque, immediately ran into the burning building to help evacuate people. Internationally, whenever a disaster occurs, people from across the UK and the world, respond to charity appeals and donate whatever they can. The majority of people have empathy, compassion and a sense of right and wrong.
The government’s culture wars are a deliberate tactic to coarsen our souls, blunt our senses to injustice, inequality, and undermine common ground between people. It’s that hoary old gambit: divide and rule.
The shameful rhetoric against refugees arriving in boats is a shabby election strategy, and will be amplified as time goes on, as the months pass by, sowing fear and hostility, engendering agitation and probably leading to violence. Conveniently positioning the government as the saviour of the people against the invading hoards. Whilst obscuring the government’s deliberate failure to agree safe routes and process asylum applications within appropriate time scales. Allowing numbers to build up in hotels and creating a false crisis of an increasing refugee population, lack of accommodation for them and rising costs. Someone’s making money out of this contemptuous, repulsive policy, but it ain’t the taxpayer.
In The Happiness Report of 2023 the UK doesn’t even make it into the top ten, barely scraping in at 19. The Happiness Reports resonates a global demand for greater attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy. “The ultimate goal of politics and ethics should be human wellbeing,” said Professor Jeffrey Sachs, President of SDSN and Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Development. “The happiness movement shows that wellbeing is not a ‘soft’ and ‘vague’ idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues, and good citizenship. We need to turn this wisdom into practical results to achieve more peace, prosperity, trust, civility – and yes, happiness – in our societies.”
A new day, a new front in the culture wars. This time it’s the deliberate targeting of a racial community by our dear Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, declaring that white English girls were being “drugged, raped, …. abused by gangs of British-Pakistani men”. Although the notorious grooming cases in Rotherham, Rochdale, and Telford should never be forgotten, research commissioned by Braverman’s own department concluded that “…there was not enough evidence to suggest members of grooming gangs were more likely to be Asian or black than other ethnicities.” As swiftly as a backing group coming in with the chorus, the Prime Minister then stepped in to blame the concept of political correctness (the endeavour to avoid language and actions offensive to others i.e. practising courtesy, common humanity) for the failure to bring grooming gangs to justice.
Professor Tim Bale writes in his new book The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation, “Given all this [problems with the economy and the failure of levelling up], the temptation for Conservative politicians to pursue their ‘war on woke’ against ‘lefty lawyers’, universities, the civil service ‘blob’, the BBC, the ‘remoaner elite’, …… is likely to prove overwhelming. Certainly, anyone expecting Rishi Sunak to eschew such an approach is almost certainly deluded…… Sunak may have refused in the summer 2022 leadership race to simply tell Tory members what they wanted to hear when it came to tax and spending. But when it came to culture war issues and immigration, that is exactly what he did, claiming, for instance, that ‘I want to stand up to that lefty woke culture that seems to want to cancel our history, our values and our women!’, as well as reassuring them he had a radical plan to finally get to grips with illegal migration’ that would ‘stop the boats, restore trust, and take back control of our borders!’ …
Instead of culture wars and the dangerous stoking of people’s fears, what the majority of us really, really want, is for our government to fulfil its democratic responsibilities, deal with the urgent needs of the country, place the economy, the cost-of-living crisis and the looming climate catastrophe at the heart of its policies, and make informed decisions based on research, evidence and consultation.