James Kirkup

Duel Britannia: The myth of Britain’s culture war

Duel Britannia: The myth of Britain's culture war
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Can I make a confession? I’m not really interested in the Last Night of the Proms. I don’t think I’ve ever watched it. I don’t really know the words to 'Rule Britannia'. Or the other one.

Does that mean I hate Britain and all it stands for? Does it mean I am callously indifferent to Britain’s shameful history of imperialism and oppression?

Of course not. It means I’m like the overwhelming majority of people in this country — of all ages, races, backgrounds — who don’t get very excited about this stuff. We are the civilians in the culture wars, and we are many.

Yes, I know a lot of people who comment under articles like this are passionately insistent that these things matter, to them and everyone they know. Likewise Twitter. But — brace yourself for this — neither comments on media articles nor social media drivel are representative of the country as a whole.

And yes, I’m sure polls are being prepared even now that will show majorities in favour of the Proms et al. But those polls will show preference, not salience: cultural spats are very low on the priority list for most people.

What about the other side of this supposed conflict? How many people are actually demanding change to the Proms? Again, most people don’t care that much. The idea that there is a significant demand for change here is for the birds.

The same was true of our 'national debate' about statues and Winston Churchill. No one was demanding Churchill be removed from Parliament Square. Some idiot Socialist Worker types made a bit of noise about it, but if they’d been — rightly — ignored instead of amplified, that 'debate' would have fizzled before it started.

But, of course, there are people who don’t want to ignore things that should be marginal. They make good copy, after all. Any good hack knows that a 'row' about something 'iconic' such as Churchill, the Proms, the Red Arrows or the monarchy will get clicks and shares and comments.

A certain sort of politician enjoys this stuff too. When I was a lobby hack, we kept lists of rent-a-quote MPs (generally Tory, but also Labour) who would be reliably outraged by some cultural atrocity or other. Some were even happy to let trusted hacks manufacture angry quotes for them: 'yeah, you can do something in my name.'

Several of them went on to solid ministerial careers; some are in cabinet today.

Then there’s the PM, who was a (posh) hack before he was a politician — and a very good one too. Great columnists — I am not one, obviously — can sniff the wind and catch the scent of ideas and trends that are as yet barely formed. Their columns anticipate and shape conversation by tapping into underlying feelings in their audiences.

Boris Johnson made a very good living as a columnist because he was very good at spotting issues where his combination of eloquence and political savviness would allow him to speak to and for his chosen audience. Seeing him stick it to the BBC over the Proms reminds me of nothing so much as my occasional days editing his column at the Telegraph. He’s spotted another chance to insert himself into a story, and — now that he’s PM — by doing so making that story look a lot bigger than it really is.

The BBC, of course, is happy to play its part in this confected drama. The Corporation likes nothing better than talking about itself.

The result is that a lot of people will hear about the Proms 'row' and maybe get the impression that a lot of other people have very strong feelings — on both sides — about it. But that’s ultimately a false impression, because most of us don’t really care very much about this stuff.

Britain doesn’t have a culture war. It has culture skirmishes, fought by a tiny group of paramilitaries while we civilians look on, bemused.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph.

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