The Culture Wars a-Comin’?

by Peter Smith

Several recent events, both parochial and national, indicate the transformation underway in British public discourse.

Every October since 2004, the Battle of Ideas has been run in London’s Barbican Centre, a trendy arts establishment in the heart of the City. The Battle is a weekend-long series of over 80 debates, broadly following different topical themes such as this year’s sessions on media regulation, the Middle East, the Eurozone meltdown, and the future of social and health care. Each debate lasts 90 minutes and about half a dozen run concurrently at any time throughout the weekend, giving speakers from divergent perspectives the opportunity to present their standpoints, defend their ideas and argue with other panelists and the attending public.

Battle of Ideas at Barbican CentreThe BoI and its backing organisations, the Institute of Ideas and the website Spiked Online, grew out of the rump staff of Living Marxism magazine when that organ folded in the late 1990s. The IoI exists to promote and facilitate debate; its lofty ideals commit it to ‘the legacy of the Enlightenment: scientific and social experimentation, intellectual ambition and curiosity. Embracing change and making history. Freedom, to think, to act, to say what needs saying – even if it offends others. Civil liberties’ and so on. This means that the Institute – and the Battle – has a distinctly libertarian ethos, something wryly pointed out by Raymond Tallis, a distinguished gerontologist, in his opening remarks to the Battle.

This October I attended for the first time, choosing a selection of disputes to my tastes. Some, like ‘Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?’ and ‘Capitalism: kill or cure?’ were fought on familiar ground. The former panel reached a consensus early on – a cynical hope for the futures of the Arab revolutions, tempered by the violence of the incumbent regimes and the failures of the revolutionaries to propose a lasting and just system of peaceful government – whilst the latter disagreed only in the extent to which capitalism, whilst being the best of a bad bunch of alternatives, could sink and destroy the global economy. A debate on abortion was dominated by the usual views – with the honourable exception of the views proffered by the token prolifer, I don’t think a single restriction on abortion was countenanced – and a discussion on whether the law should and could make us all equal found a negligible scope for religious freedom in the face of sentiment supporting gay rights over all others.

Conservative thinking was in a distinct minority in all the debates I attended. Hardly surprising, given the slant of the Battle, and the general rule that those who identified as social liberals, to the left or of a libertarian bent, would dominate the discussion. ‘Religious or spiritual or neither’ gave me pause for thought, however. After the usual ground was covered regarding the collapse of Christianity in Britain, the rise of shapeless spiritualism and the new atheism, audience questions challenged the contention of Andrew Copson, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association and a leading anti-religion campaign, that there was no external thing beyond this experiential, natural universe. I sat with puzzlement as it became clear that this was considered the least likely conjecture by the audience, who preferred even muddle-headed agnosticism and Anglicanism-lite to absolute belief in nothing. There was, it seemed, a ‘God-shaped hole’ in our lives, and a simplistic materialism was not going to fill it.

This beam of sunlight, shining through the dulling darkness of secularity, grew in intensity during one of the set-piece debates, where hundreds packed out the Barbican’s auditorium to hear several academics and writers talk about ‘Lessons from America: the new culture wars’. The premise was that the culture wars have returned to US politics in the run-up to the Presidential election, and that the language of public argument had reached Britain in the repeated attempts to restrict abortion and create the institution of same-sex marriage, which has become something of a cultural marker in contemporary politics.

I shan’t detain you with most of what was said, but one thought in particular struck me as pertinent to what this blog is trying to do. John Haldane, a softly-spoken Scots academic from St Andrews (where Prince William met his future bride) and fellow-traveler Catholic, put forward the proposition that the fundamental cultural debate is between one collection of ideas, called ‘the anti-realists’, and another, those of ‘the realists’, and that this cultural tension is manifest in political and social policy. Real ideas (by which I think he also meant realistic) contained at their core the notion that the universe is natural, objectively ‘out there’, knowable but distinct, and informing views on sexuality, sex, marriage, death, etc. Anti-realist ideas, by contrast, consider everything as human constructs, plastic and malleable, which can be bended and altered but which inherently are unknowable. Realism and anti-realism contain fundamentally different understandings about what is knowable and what is not, what can be change and what cannot, and mankind’s place in creation.


From the Battle of Ideas to the battle over marriage. In Britain, the Coalition Government have recently announced that same-sex marriage will be created in law in 2013, and that, with the exception of the Church of England, SSM will be extended to all religions who chose to conduct them. (The CofE is the established church in England and Wales and thus a state-entity open to human rights’ claims. It would be impossible to allow the church to allow those priests and bishops who want to solemnise SSM to do so, whilst protecting those, probably the mainstream, who do not.) In response, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator magazine, a weekly Conservative (and relatively conservative) review, and a softly-spoken Scot and fellow-traveler Catholic like Haldane, wrote in The Daily Telegraphy about how ‘Britain is getting a glimpse of the crazy world of culture wars.

Nelson decries the culture wars as the splitting of British intellectual and political thought, ‘dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division’. In America, he says, ‘the power of these debates’ – over abortion, gun control or creationism – ‘is astonishing: they can set neighbour against neighbour, while often bearing only a tangential relationship to the issues actually resolved at election time’. Britain is unused to such a cleavage, and to debates citing religious language, he says. I disagree: Biblical language has long been a part of political discourse, and it was only in the 1990s when religious imagery and Testamental quotations dropped out of rhetoric. John Major and then Tony ‘we don’t do God’ Blair resiled from speaking in the overtly Christian tones of Margaret Thatcher, who quoted St Francis of Assisi when she was elected as Prime Minister in 1979. Perhaps it was the end of the Cold War, when ideological certainties disappeared, that triggered this irreligiosity, as well as the mish-mash of economic materialism and social liberalism that has dominated the past two decades.

As religious language returned in the SSM debate, so has simple ad hominem attack. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and the Deputy Prime Minister thanks to Coalition political expediency, issued a press release calling the defenders of (traditional) marriage “bigots”. He was forced to retract the slur after widespread condemnation, but it says something of his mindset and the worldviews of his staff, that such language should be used in the first place. And the Government’s reaction to the results of its consultation on SSM show the extremes to which liberal politicians, chasing perilously few votes at the expense of their core constituency, are willing to go, to rail-road through liberalising measures despite systematic and unfair flaws in their processes and reasoning.

Fraser notes the American sociologist James Hunter, who described cultural conflicts as being manifested by ‘political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding’. I think the word fundamental needs to be inserted somewhere here. But the point stands: the loss of shared assumptions and the sliding apart of worldviews and so only the barest overlap of identities exists, creates the foundations of the culture war that erupts in public battles like that over SSM. As Nelson notes, this pits ‘younger suburbanites, living in an un-religious Britain’ against ‘shire-dwellers, churchgoers and over 50’.

These differences are not new, of course; similar distinctions drove the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s, for instance. But the problem is now, political manifestations of these social clashes are being churned out as policies which upset the balance of tolerance and toleration that kept the cultural peace. Equality legislation is being used to crush dissenters to the new creed that anything goes (provided it does not impact the mind and body of another, of course; I can’t wait to see the clash of environmentalism with socially liberal politics). Those who claim they have a religious freedom to dissent, like Ladele and MacFarlane and the cross-wearing workers, will have to fight hard to protect some capacity for conscious objection. It is fortunate that there are legal vehicles to protect religious freedom, like Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but it remains to be seen whether the courts will carve out practical spaces for religious belief and practice in Britain when there is a direct conflict with the state-enforced ‘equality’ regime that pushes sexual freedom as trumping all else.


All this comes as the results of 2011 census show four million fewer self-professed Christians than in 2001. The loss of this common faith is a symptom and a cause of the movement towards ever-more islands of individuals marooned in the sea of social existence. Fr Stephen Wang notes that the loss of a national shared faith may be supplanted by the creation of smaller faith communities, as multicultural Britain has migrants from across the world. But the chance of different cultures warring grows.


Peter Smith is a lawyer in London. He has previously worked for a Conservative Member of Parliament, and has written for and The Commentator.

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  1. Pingback: Anti-Realism’s God-Shaped Hole » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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