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UK's 'culture war' risks leading to US-style divisions – but we're not there yet

The country must guard against a a drift towards further polarisation

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"Culture wars" in the UK

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The UK risks divisions like those seen in the US if a focus on “culture wars” continues in media and political discussion, according to a new study.

The report, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, is the final instalment in a major research series involving national and international surveys, media analysis and a review of academic literature. The findings will be discussed at an event at 13:00 today.

The study finds that while there are many important differences with America, there are “clear echoes” of the US experience, where the UK could be at the early stages of a trend seen in the US in the 1980s and 1990s.

It says that many people’s views on cultural issues have become tied up with the side of the Brexit debate with which they identify, while people’s party-political identities, although not as strong, show similar alignments. This provides the “conditions for more all-encompassing division”, as compromise across these divides becomes harder when cultural perspectives become a core part of how we see ourselves.

However, the study finds the UK’s Brexit and political identities don’t – as yet – split the country to the same extent as the Republican-Democratic divide in the US. Britons are also much less likely than Americans to say their country is divided by culture wars, and to feel that there is tension between people who support different political parties and between those with different social and cultural values.

Analysis reveals that although half the country has relatively strong views on “culture war” issues in the UK – such as Britain’s colonial past or Black Lives Matter – the other half can be categorised as having either moderate views or as being disengaged from these debates.

Many Britons also have little awareness of some of the key concepts commonly used, including being “woke” or “cancel culture”. And while they are concerned about culture war divisions (as well as about more traditional sources of tension such as wealth and class), large sections of the public nonetheless think these divides are exaggerated.

The study offers recommendations for how to guard against the UK polarising further:

  1. First recognise that a lot of people are in the middle of a spectrum of views on “culture war” issues, with the extremes overweighted in our public debate.
  2. Be aware that tension is an inevitable feature of generationally driven cultural change, and that we do not have unusually large gaps between young and old on emergent issues compared with gaps we’ve seen between young and old in the past. Blaming a particular generation, of old or young, for divisions is therefore not helpful – we should look to other factors.
  3. In particular, we need to address the incentives to amplify division and extremes in our new information environment, including holding media and social media platforms to better account for the role they play in this process.
  4. Political leaders should look to make appeals that connect worldviews, rather than divide. The US provides a vital case study in how the left only championing emergent cultural trends, and the right focusing attention on the extreme positions of “campus politics”, ends in division, not a decisive majority.
  5. Civil society organisations should be supported in enabling connections across divides: real-life contact, in the right settings, can reduce the sense of division.
  6. We need to increase the amount of devolved and deliberative decision-making that brings the public into or closer to political and cultural debates, and each other.
  7. Finally, much depends on how debates are conducted, which requires relying on a sense of duty among political leaders on all sides to cool things down rather raise the temperature further.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“No one really wins a culture war, not for long at least. The danger is not disagreement, nor the tensions caused by cultural change, as these are inevitable in politics and society. Instead, the real risk is implacable conflict where compromise is incredibly difficult to achieve because an increasing number of issues get tied up in our sense of identity, and distrust of the ‘other side’. One of the key ways to stop a drift towards that is just to recognise we’re not in that position right now – that we don’t have a culture war in the UK, and the large majority of people are generally much less fired up about cultural issues than the rhetoric suggests. But we also can’t wish the risk away or duck out of the arguments – we need to take practical steps to change how politicians, the media and social media conduct these debates, which in the end means appealing to all sides to look for what connects us rather than what divides us.”

Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, said:

“This new work shows many people aren’t culture war warriors on either side, despite vivid media coverage. Britain is not America. We are decidedly middle of the road in our views compared to many other countries.

“The overall public view is not always what you see on Twitter. But the divisions – particularly between the extremes - are real, often coalescing around people’s Brexit positions which are a real dividing line five years on, and matter more than party political loyalties.”