A very British culture war

Brexit has exposed a fundamental divide between individualists and communitarians.

Rakib Ehsan


It is often said that now the United Kingdom has left the European Union, it is time for us all to band together and unite in the name of the common good. While it is admittedly a nice thought, it is spectacularly detached from reality.

The UK – whether we like it or not – finds itself in the middle of an aggressive culture war. The idea of national reconciliation now is wishful thinking. The prospect of us all playing happy families, after decades of social fracture and three years of intense wrangling over Brexit, is for the birds. British political culture has always been confrontational and adversarial, and Brexit has compounded this. Added to this are the many cultural and identitarian conflicts that are increasingly being imported from the United States. All in all, there is little chance of a more consensual political environment taking root anytime soon.

The BBC is at the heart of this culture war. In the build-up to Brexit Day, CBBC, the BBC’s children’s channel, posted a bizarre sketch on social media. It was from an old episode of Horrible Histories, but it featured a new Brexit-themed introduction by comedian Nish Kumar. Not only was the sketch riddled with historical inaccuracies, it also came across as overtly anti-British – with all involved displaying a comical form of self-loathing.

On Brexit Day, the BBC also broadcast a spate of interviews with pro-Brexit members of the public. The interviews adopted an unusually forceful style of questioning, one usually reserved for politicians and those with extensive media experience. The reporters repeatedly asked these Leave voters: ‘How will leaving the EU affect your daily life?’

This line of questioning is significant. It speaks to a broader cultural divide in our society – a divide between the individualism that dominates institutions such as the BBC, and the patriotic communitarianism that runs deep in the Brexit-voting provinces. Our national public broadcaster is packed to the rafters with self-absorbed individualists, people who are still utterly perplexed and even angry about Brexit and resent the Conservative victory in December. After all, both the referendum and the 2019 election were votes in which culturally conservative folk, living humble existences, played a decisive role.

Elite Remainers argue that by leaving the EU we are ‘losing’ certain individual rights and benefits – from the freedom to work and live in other EU countries to the suspension of mobile roaming charges. These arguments may resonate with people who see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’, but much less so with patriotic, communitarian voters. These voters prioritise the democratic health of the UK over the wants of the individual.

These conflicts are also playing out within our political parties. Boris Johnson’s shift to the left on economics, which helped him win over former Labour voters in the election, has provided him with an electoral coalition that is uncomfortable with the blend of neoliberal economic orthodoxy and metropolitan social liberalism that characterised the Cameron-Osborne years. Meanwhile, following the spectacular Tory breach of Labour’s northern ‘red wall’ constituencies in the election, Blue Labour, founded in 2010 by Maurice Glasman, has spied an opportunity to promote its patriotic, communitarian message, based on the triad of faith, family and flag. Blue Labour is at odds with the open-borders cosmopolitanism of Momentum, which continues to hold considerable power and influence within Labour’s internal party structures.

The instincts of metropolitan liberalism often come into conflict with the more security-oriented values of cultural conservatism. This is no better demonstrated than by the current debate on gender recognition. There are those who believe that individuals – irrespective of immutable biological characteristics – should not only be free to self-identify in terms of gender, but also that their gender identity should be acknowledged by the authorities and respected in the eyes of the law.

On the other side, we have people – such as myself – who think that the totalitarian impulses of the transgender movement must be confronted. Such concerns about the trans movement are rooted in the interests of the collective over the individual – including the safety of women in spaces such as public toilets, the upholding of fairness in women’s sport, and the wellbeing of those providing sensitive services to women.

The UK is bitterly divided. No politician, however ambitious and optimistic, is likely to be able to bridge the social and cultural fault-lines that are now firmly embedded in our society. The country was divided before Brexit, but the post-referendum period has left us bruised beyond measure. The divides on cultural matters – immigration, multiculturalism, integration, crime, counter-terrorism, national security and more – will continue to define the post-Brexit national political discourse for some time.

Britain’s culture wars are in full flow and show no signs of ending anytime soon. Many of the debates on cultural issues will continue to be confrontational, adversarial and hostile for many years to come.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on Twitter: @rakibehsan.

Picture by: Getty

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Peter Spurrier

12th February 2020 at 11:24 pm

Communitarian versus individualist? I don’t know about that. The battle I see is against PC conformists. They’re hardly individualists or real liberals. People who think for themselves and defy the crowd, I respect.

Brandy Cluster

7th February 2020 at 6:08 am

This is VERY IMPORTANT and has just been recorded:



7th February 2020 at 1:29 am

Brexit clearly isn’t working. Time to rejoin the EU!

Dominic Straiton

6th February 2020 at 3:33 pm

Weve had the battle of Townton 2 without blood. The battle of Bosworth field is someway off. My guess is the yeomen and women of England will win the day.

Chris Causey

6th February 2020 at 12:14 pm

See I come at it from a different angle. I prioritize the rights of the individual over collectivist rights, and I see the EU as just another layer of government which removes rights from the individual in favour of the collective. I think the vote to leave the EU was a win for libertarianism, and a massive loss for collectivist authoritarianism. Of course, the real evidence of what was won won’t be apparent until we know exactly what deal we have won from the EU, and whether the government will walk away from a deal if there is a better offer on the table. I am slightly concerned at Johnsons “we will be a global free trade champions”. Because that isn’t going to do much to revitalize our dying industries, and will probably just continue the London centric economy. I would like to see a revitalised pride in the “made in Britain” label. Perhaps by offering tax incentives to our home manufacturing. Not just out of a sense of national pride, but also because morally we know the terrible conditions of workers in countries like China. I received my first ever “made in England” t-shirt is the post, and I’ve never owned such a well made t-shirt. It’s a shame you can only find these things online now as our highstreets are just full of chain stores selling poorly made tat. I highly recommend makeitbritish.co.uk for anyone interested in helping to shape the future of this great country post-brexit. A pro- British capitalism is what we need now more than ever

Geoff Cox

6th February 2020 at 10:41 pm

Thanks for the tip re Make It British. See you there, though it does seem to cost £12 and is a trade show.

In Negative

7th February 2020 at 6:10 pm

“See I come at it from a different angle. I prioritize the rights of the individual over collectivist rights”

“I would like to see a revitalised pride in the “made in Britain” label. Perhaps by offering tax incentives to our home manufacturing. Not just out of a sense of national pride, but also because morally we know the terrible conditions of workers in countries like China.”

Genghis Kant

6th February 2020 at 10:18 am

It is the other way around. The woke hive ‘mind’ wants to destroy individuality.

The Walking Woke want to eat our brains.

Like zombies herding together chanting ‘brains brains’ to attack the uncontaminated, the wokebies herd together chanting ‘fascist fascist’ as they sniff out anyone not yet infected with their mind parasite, then descend en masse to tear apart the unbelievers.

The Day of the Wokebies.

Brandy Cluster

6th February 2020 at 11:52 am

I like to say WOKE but not A-WAKE.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 1:37 pm

As Spiked has already said, ‘wokeness is elitism masquerading as compassion’. Elitism fears losing control, so woke leftists fear anyone not woke and want to assimilate them to neutralise scary difference. But if everyone is Borg, then leftists won’t be elite anymore…. What a bind

Ven Oods

6th February 2020 at 8:29 am

Looking at the top-of-page pic, it occurred to me that Steve Bray (was ever a man more aptly named?) could, now that his mysteriously-funded opposition to Brexit has failed, make a reasonable living as a Nigel Farage lookee-likee.
Chin up, Steve. Every cloud has a silver lining…


6th February 2020 at 11:51 am

Rubber-faced Populist Homer Simpson Lookalike has served his purpose and should now take up golf or some other gentlemanly pursuit in order to fill his now copious free-time.

Philip Humphrey

6th February 2020 at 8:26 am

The culture war has been going on a long time. What has changed is that before 2016 social conservatives were in full blown retreat as “progressives” or “wokes” got pretty much what they asked for, whichever shade of government was in charge. “Progressives” also controlled most of the mainstream media and academia. 2016 was a turning point, the “progressives” found themselves on the losing side both sides of the Atlantic over both brexit and the election of Donald Trump. And since then, they’ve repeatedly lost the battles to overturn those democratic votes. It looks to me like the culture war has intensified because finally the conservative side is fighting back. The next big fight in the UK is likely to be over the BBC, conservatives want to scrap the licence fee and eventually make it optional subscription. Expect the “progressives” to defend their bastion to the last.

Paul Duffin

6th February 2020 at 9:11 am

All good

In Negative

6th February 2020 at 10:32 am

This does not appear to me to be at all correct. In the first place, I’d make a distinction between the wokes and the progressives – I don’t think they are the same thing at all. Woke is an illiberal and authoritarian strain of anything I’d call ‘progressive’. You can reject woke whilst being perfectly liberal in your outlook. Wokeness is not liberal.

Secondly, it is not the conservatives of the Right that want to destroy the BBC. Rather, it is the neoliberal free-marketeers that can’t stand the idea of state funded public broadcasting. There is absolutely nothing unconservative about a broadcaster that broadcasts to properly inform and educate the public. Before the BBC became an essentially market-led institution filled with corporates from the private sector and a market ideology, the BBC was massively conservative.

And this is why you won’t see a rush to defend the BBC from vast sections of the left either. The way Left-leaning people feel the BBC treated Corbyn throughout his leadership, I don’t expect to see an awful lot of support for the beeb from the left. The beeb liked Blair, they liked Cameron, they like Johnson, they don’t like Corbs. Reason? Well, the beeb is a neoliberal, corporate institution, unfortunately though, it happens to be hated by neoliberals and free-marketeers. It’s been a long time coming – the beeb’s destruction, but I think they might just now have fostered exactly the right conditions to see it dismantled. Dennis Potter told them this would happen back in the early 90s.

And this brings me to your social conservatives fighting back? Which social conservatives are you talking about? Trump? Johnson? Cummings? You’re joking. All these guys are from free-market, neo-liberal traditions. They don’t believe in half the things that social conservatives do. Furthermore, nor do the British public. The British public remain generally small c conservative, but there is an awful lot of individualism in there now too – no sign of the kind of duty, say, that used to fuel the illusions of monarchy. Watching the slow-motion disintegration of the monarchy is quite interesting in this regard. The queen is probably the last vestige of a particular brand of viable social conservatism.

The Beeb, at its ideological height, was a broadcast service meant to inform the public in a non-partisan and fair-minded way. It was a service for the public which was supposedly free of market interests. It was born of a world where there could be a single monopolistic media that broadcast to the whole society. Today, we live in a fragmented media arena of competing private interests. There is nothing socially conservative about this fragmentary new world of hallucinogenic experiences. The BBC will at best be just a part of it; at worst it will be gone. Not such a big deal in its current form, but as an ideal, what we’re losing is immeasurable.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 2:11 pm

You post assumes and thus defends the BBC’s once-famous neutrality. But that story does not convince anymore. In a fine piece for the Spectator, Ron Liddle lists the Brits whose majority opinions are blatantly ignored or omitted by the public broadcaster they are forced to fund (especially by Radio 4):

Leavers (52% of voters)
People who think Islam is incompatible with British society (56%, ComRes poll, 2016)
People disagreeing with the ‘right’ of gay people to adopt children (52%, British Social Attitudes Survey 2013)
People who think immigration levels to this country are too high (63%, YouGov poll, 2018)
People who think immigration has had a negative impact on the UK (71%, Sky poll for Demos, 2018)
Europeans who want to stop all immigration from Muslim majority countries – (55%, Chatham House, 2017)
People who believe Britain is a Christian country (55%, YouGov poll, 2014)
People who think that there are just two genders, male and female (56%, Fawcett Society, 2016)
People who do not identify as ‘feminist’ (93%, Fawcett Society, 2016)

Ignoring (or sneering at) all these very popular opinions is why we call the BBC the ‘Biased Broadcasting Corporation’. It broadcasts a leftist, multicultural agenda and so must delete indigenous British voices, pride and values, and then forces us to pay for the privilege. Forget your nonsense distractions about ‘hate’ by ‘free marketeers’. The BBC now embodies leftist elitism and hate against opinion it fears and wants to control. As democracy depends on expressing diversity of opinion freely and w

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 2:11 pm

…without fear, the BBC’s suffocating political tyranny is morally unacceptable.

In Negative

6th February 2020 at 3:04 pm

I don’t really see how your post relates to anything I just said. Very odd.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:21 pm

Your first post ignored the issue being discussed here: the BBC’s leftist bias and its key role in the UK’s culture war. My response supported that claim factually to challenge your allegations that the BBC’s ‘free market’ enemies are the real problem, not its political agenda. But your reply again deletes the issue of political bias. Very evasive and very odd, unless you are just another leftist protecting your extensive media control.

In Negative

6th February 2020 at 8:17 pm

“Your first post ignored the issue being discussed here: the BBC’s leftist bias and its key role in the UK’s culture war.”

My point was that there is no meaningful difference between the values of the BBC, the right of the LP and the current TP. The beeb is run by the same people along the same basic lines. It is organised along free-market corporate lines and makes use of the same sorts of people that would usually manage private companies. It’s ideology is no longer one of public service broadcasting.

“My response supported that claim factually to challenge your allegations that the BBC’s ‘free market’ enemies are the real problem,”

The real problem is that the BBC is treated like a free market enterprise, not a public service broadcaster. I take your point that you think it has a culturally liberal bias (which you call Left wing) but capital is essentially liberal. The BBC is global and liberal. I’m not sure why you think this is leftist?

I’m always amused by the bewildered right who still seem to think that free-capital and liberalism aren’t inextricably related. It’s as amusing as identitarian SJWs that think their values are essentially Left. Fluid identities, free movement, prosumption, lifestyle by design, pretty much everything you list in your post as a popular view that the beeb opposes is perfectly aligned with the interests of capital. I’m good with most of this myself (but for the rampant injustice and slavery of poverty), but your problem isn’t with the left.

Jerry Owen

6th February 2020 at 8:22 am

The cultural divide does exist but not as big as you think, the vast majority of remain voters concede they lost. We have a remain liberal leftist dominated media and political class that dominate the public square. They speak for a minority.. albeit it a sizeable one.
We are a silent majority the GE proves that. The BBC a most dangerous organization that helps prop up the remain whingers is in serious trouble itself.. the future looks ever so slightly promising.

Ven Oods

6th February 2020 at 8:35 am

And, what’s more, Jerry, article contributors should think twice before describing Nish as a comedian without resort to inverted commas.

Chester Minnit

6th February 2020 at 9:04 am

Agreed! I’ve watched Nish Kumar many times and have yet to even smile. I really don’t understand why anyone calls him a comedian, much less his agent.
Katheryn Ryan, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Rhod Gilbert, Frankie Boyle, Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin: now THESE are funny.
Nish? Not so much.
Or Miranda Hart, obvs.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:24 pm

Leftist ‘comedy’ only laughs at its enemies, not with them and never at themselves. Like insecure kids pretending their spite is ‘just joking’.

steve moxon

6th February 2020 at 8:12 am

No Rakib Ehsan, it’s not individualism versus communitarianism: it’s Left backlash against ordinary people en bloc for the refusal of ordinary people to buy Marxism.
Replacing ‘the workers’ as the supposed ‘vanguard’ of the revolooshun by faux groups of de oppwest — women, ethnics, the queer ragbag — is about groups, however bogusly, not individuals.
It has nothing to do with ‘championing’ diversity.
It has nothing to do with individualism.
It is simply hatred on the part of the Left, that has been acquired by the elite useful mode of oik-bashing.
The Left needs to own its own excrement and owes us all one massive apology and to make amends big time — to put it very mildly.

Chester Minnit

6th February 2020 at 7:54 am

I blame the parents.

For years now kids have been brought up with a colossal sense of entitlement and as a result they grow up to be bad losers. If they don’t get they’re own way they puff and posture and threaten and abuse anyone who disagrees with them. The Remainers claimed that Brexiteers were predominantly old and out of touch with the youngsters, but that very divide gave us peaceful Brexiteers and spiteful Remainers spouting vitriol (I know, I’m generalising).

It’s time parents starting teaching their children that you earn rights just like you earn respect, you’re not entitled to either, despite what the Liberals would like us to think.

Its this sense of superiority gives rise to the likes of Extinction Rebellion who have admirable motives but a distorted sense of self-worth.

Linda Payne

6th February 2020 at 8:15 am

They were brought up in a culture of moral panic over children’s safety which began at the time of the Bulger killing, wrapped up in cotton wool, taught to be wary of adults that could be paedophiles in disguise and any parent that did not go along with it risked being gossiped about and/or even reported to social services for letting their kids play without supervision. Hardly surprising many have turned into snowflakes who can’t even handle opposing opinions.

Brandy Cluster

6th February 2020 at 12:00 pm

Absolutely correct. My sister (retired Clinical Psych) refers to this as the “deification of children’ – turning them into entitled little monsters because mum and dad are always at work and their guilt has rendered them unable to deny the little dears anything they want – as a kind of substitute for real parenting. When children first went into ‘pet care’ I used to feel sorry for them as I parented my own 4 children. But I didn’t stop to realize that this population of outsourced parenting would explode into an entire generation and that this would have hugely negative social consequences as those suggested in your comments.

Spoilt, ill-mannered, entitled, precious, bad-mannered, protected but – I cannot speak for the UK – going backwards compared with other countries in educational outcomes. The Singaporean, Chinese and Indian kids living in Australia are absolutely running rings around them. A friend of my son is a Singaporean migrant to Australia and he has just started studying Medicine this year. His wife is a pilot (part time only) and they have 2 kids. He told my son recently that the educational and family values just aren’t here in Australia like they are in Singapore and that our country is rather lax in many attitudes (not sure why he emigrated here!). The final clincher in his comments..”and that’s why Australia has ICE”.

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 12:26 pm

“It’s time parents starting teaching their children that you earn rights just like you earn respect”

Maybe the older generation should think this through more carefully before they go round demanding respect from the younger one.

Chester Minnit

6th February 2020 at 2:01 pm

We have. See above.

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 3:35 pm

Hardly. Processing yourself to be superior purely because of the generation you belong to in unlikely to bring about much respect from anyone.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:34 pm

Maybe they could do that if leftists didn’t keep urging the old to die ASAP for their stupid pro-Brexit/British opinions. It’s revealing that both old leftist bigots like Richard Dawkins and much younger anti-fa thugs do that; such hate seems ageless.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:41 pm

Leftists and Remainers wishing elderly Brits would die ASAP because of their pro-Brexit/British views certainly suggests complete disrespect or presumptions of superiority. What’s more, leftist bigots expressing such hate come from various generations.

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 10:17 pm

And by the same token, rightists and leavers calling for the younger generation to be stripped of the vote or re educated shows the same disrespect and presumption of superiority.

Which was evident in the original comment.

SNJ Morgan

6th February 2020 at 6:55 am

I don’t think it’s a ‘British’ culture war – I think it’s a worldwide clash now between the Soros inspired globalists and nationalists.

And I really can’t see the former winning it in the long run – people just don’t want to be controlled by a group of elites telling them what to think and what they’re allowed or not allowed to say.

The former is communist / socialist inspired, the latter conservative. I know which side I am on.

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 12:23 pm

“people just don’t want to be controlled by a group of elites telling them what to think and what they’re allowed or not allowed to say.”

In that case, Conservative nationalists will lose.

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:49 pm

Trump has imprisoned all journalists not praising him; Boris will soon follow suit. No criticism is allowed now, none dare speak out when we live in 1984. The evil oppression of these democratically-elected leaders shames both Nazis and communist tyrants. Leftists are obviously resistance heroes and we should love and thank them for defending us against tyranny so nobly. Mark my rational words (or spare us yours)

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 10:15 pm

Even worse, some “woke” people condemned racism on Twitter.

This is Soros funded fascism, obviously, and the greatest threat mankind has ever faced etc….

Ian Davies

6th February 2020 at 2:04 pm

I don’t share your optimism. I think the latter will get there in the end. The brainwashing has been too good.

Brandy Cluster

6th February 2020 at 2:05 am

Trump is winning in America because he’s prepared to stick up two fingers to the Leftist bien pensant establishment and fight the culture wars, full on. The Democrats have nominated a ‘progressive’ gay in Iowa, which means they have learned ZERO about what makes the American heart beat; ‘it’s the economy, stupid”.


6th February 2020 at 11:49 am

Are ‘progressives’ and ‘homosexuals’ not also American? Does the US Constitution and Bill of Rights not preserve the right to free expression? You have the right to object to their views. They have the right to live as they choose.


Brandy Cluster

6th February 2020 at 11:55 am

Sigh. You just don’t get it.

Jerry Owen

6th February 2020 at 2:17 pm

Brandy.. the living dead never do !

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 12:22 pm

Does being gay disqualify him on this issue?

nick hunt

6th February 2020 at 7:52 pm

Not at all. Just his leftist arrogance and ignorance.

Jonnie Henly

6th February 2020 at 10:13 pm

Odd then, that Brandy felt the need to mention it.

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