Britain’s descent into cultural wars has been rapid, but it doesn’t have to be terminal

In recent years there has been an extraordinary change in the way the media talks about culture change in the UK – and it is starting to infect public opinion.

In 2015, there were only 21 articles in British newspapers that talked about a British “culture war”. Our new research shows there were nearly 1,500 in 2021.

“Canceling culture” didn’t exist in the UK mainstream media at all in 2017 – but in 2021 there were a staggering 3,670 articles using the term.

And the public is starting to notice. In 2020, 47% had never heard of cancellation culture, but this had halved by 2022. More broadly, most people now agree that the UK is divided by culture wars, compared to our last survey in 2020. This increase is across demographic and political identities, but it is older groups and conservatives that have moved the most. .

This shifting ground is also seen in how people see that other key term in the culture war discussion – “wake up”. In our 2020 survey, the most common response to whether “waking up” was a compliment or an insult was “I don’t know what it means,” while those who did have an opinion were evenly split between seeing it as a compliment and take it as an insult.

A chart showing that since 2017 the British media has barely used the term 'culture wars' to a rapidly increasing use.
Mentions of the “culture wars” increased rapidly.
KCL Policy Institute

But many more people now know what it means — and people have resolutely switched to seeing it as offensive. That’s not surprising when you consider our analysis of the context in which “awake” is used, which is overwhelmingly derogatory – language such as “bitter”, “blinking”, “puritan”, “ridiculous”, “insidious”, even “terrorist”. ”, are all associated with the term.

This puts us in a very worrying position.

Some say that these debates don’t matter, or that they are fabricated by the media and politicians rather than being an authentic public concern. It’s true that we don’t see issues with culture wars at the top of people’s lists of the top issues facing the country – the cost of living crisis, pressure on the NHS, war in Europe and the pandemic are all getting considered to be higher priorities. As Shadow Secretary of State David Lammy said, this debate on culture change is not “turning on the curb”.

Front page to front seat

But this misinterprets the importance of the culture war story. Whoever controls a country’s cultural narrative matters because it sets the tone for politics in general. And, as research by the think tank UK in a Changing Europe shows, the cultural instincts of Conservative MPs are much closer to the average voter than Labor MPs. There is therefore a clear incentive for the current ruling party to continue to pay attention to these subjects.

When the US culture war first emerged in the 1990s, it was described as a ‘war for America’s soul’. It can become powerful stuff, not because of the great national importance of the individual issues that come in, but because that process creates tribes as more and more cultural issues merge into your political identity.

Yet the UK is not the US. The country has very different historical, cultural and political contexts, so it is not inevitable that the same scenarios will unfold. But then again, complacency could put the UK in an equally bad place. Analysis of political manifestos in 21 countries, including the UK, over the past 50 years shows a long trend towards a greater focus on cultural over economic issues in what the parties promise. In the UK, this has been exacerbated by Brexit, which at its core was about differing views on the country and its values.

A graph that shows that the British media have very suddenly started using the term 'cancel culture' in recent years.
The use of the term “cancel culture” has exploded.
KCL Policy Institute

One of the defining characteristics of the culture wars is a deep mistrust of the motives of the ‘other side’. One group believes they are engaged in a legitimate struggle against cultural institutions that are trapped by a worldview that does not align with the values ​​of ordinary people. The other sees this purely as a cynical political tactic.

Debating which of these is true misses the point. More importantly, the sense of conflict sets the tone of the debate, placing identities in warring tribes and making compromise impossible. Our culture and values, and how they change, are perfectly legitimate, in fact essential, aspects of political discussion – but how we do it matters. The speed and extent of the adoption of culture war rhetoric in the UK is a dangerous game.

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