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Do culture wars matter?

culture war

In this long read and new departure for this website we set out views on culture wars on race.

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Our view is that while some problems of racism persist, as they do anywhere in the world, Britain has become a well-integrated society and attempts to highlight racism, or the darker aspects of British history, have ulterior motives which are unhelpful, to say the least, in developing a cohesive society.

This website has hitherto steered away from writing about Black Lives Matter or culture wars more widely. If our hope was that such matters as taking the knee and toppling statues were American imports by a liberal elite especially among our universities which might eventually go out of fashion, that view now looks misplaced. The rush by major companies and institutions to sign up to these ideas now makes it look like this is a permanent revolution in behaviour akin to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As Brexiteer believers in national sovereignty, and perhaps supporters of the late Roger Scruton’s idea of the UK as our island home to be cherished and protected, we are naturally suspicious of new philosophies which appear to undermine national cohesion, but we need to be clearer about what is at stake and how we should react.

Culture wars on race

The ideas underlying the current culture wars on race have had a long gestation in North American universities going back half a century. They are well described in Joanna Williams’ essay ‘Critical race theory. A ruling class ideology’. She describes how the idea of race was first demolished as a genetic reality and then revived as a cultural construct ‘by a new elite which uses anti-racism to invent differences between people which it uses for its own ends’. A whole new set of ideas were invented and developed to give the movement real heft, including critical race theory, unconscious bias, white privilege, cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions, defunding the police, intersectionality institutional racism and unconscious bias training.

The movement was largely limited to a fringe in UK universities and politics until the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in May 2020 when it burst out in online, media and street protests across the world and very much including the UK. The US police clearly have severe problems and protests aimed at the USA were legitimate, but it quickly became apparent that the targets of protest in the UK were domestic. The BLM movement was quickly endorsed by the British establishment in a manner never seen before. This included  Prince Harry, the Premier League, and major businesses and institutions. Famously and fatuously, Keir Starmer took the knee with his deputy in his office “in solidarity with all those opposing anti-black racism”.

The ground had been well prepared by one-sided academic writing against the British empire and the history of slavery which had begun to enter school curricula. Movements by professional or cultural elites to destabilise core national beliefs are of course as old as the hills, going back to support for the French revolution until its terror became well known, and then socialism and communism in the 1920s and 1930s until a range of murderous communist regimes made support distasteful. One might also include the Ban the Bomb and Greenham Common movements which feebly argued that dropping our own defences would persuade potential enemies to do the same.

What is surprising is that the current anti-racist movement blossomed after what little racism there was in the UK had been very largely eliminated and race relations were good, indeed better in the UK than almost every other European nation. Life expectancy is generally good in the UK for non-whites compared to whites. Nor are the British police a particular problem. In the US as many citizens die in police custody in a day as do while in the custody of British police in a year, and the few deaths at police hands in the UK do not disproportionately involve ethnic minorities. Police stop and search actions disproportionately target black youths but in specific inner-city areas, especially in London, and as the head of the Met argues this is rational, reflecting their disproportionate involvement in violent crime, and is helpful to the wider black community itself.

UK Government Response

The UK Government has had difficulties dealing with this movement, not wishing to appear to endorse racism in any form, but at the same time not wishing to support an elitist over-reaction to limited social problems.  It initially rolled with the punches, setting up a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, even if this seemed likely to add little to Theresa May’s 2017 Race Disparity Audit. It was a classic political move of tactical retreat to a defensible position, and one which avoided the head-on confrontation desired by some in the No. 10 policy unit to ‘declare war on woke’. Interestingly the woke warriors in government are dominated by Asian ministers and advisors, perhaps because they were not hobbled by ethnic guilt but perhaps also because they are often from working-class backgrounds.

The new Commission, which cleverly included the white working-class boys within its remit, bought time and did not prove as vacuous as Labour claimed. The conservative media has also focussed on statues, which suited a government which can strongly oppose illegal damage to property while opening a manageable debate on which public monuments are offensive to certain racial groups.

The Sewell Commission’s report when it came in out March 2021 was balanced, arguing that while pockets of racism persist particularly online, institutional racism did not exist and it recommended moving away from unconscious bias training. Importantly it highlighted the importance of factors leading to disadvantage as opposed to discrimination and racism. It stated that, ‘This Commission finds that the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice, it is building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the last 50 years. This requires us to take a broader more dispassionate look at what has been holding people back. We therefore cannot accept the accusatory tone of much of the current rhetoric on race and the pessimism about has been and what more can be achieved’.

The question is whether such victories as the Race and Ethnic Disparities report are achieved at the cost of losing the long-term culture war. Supporters of ‘woke’ are entrenched in our universities and cultural institutions including the BBC. Even by 2018 the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights found numerous examples of attempts to shut down debate and create ‘safe spaces’. Cambridge University has for instance revoked an invitation to Jordan Petersen, prominent critic of the idea of white privilege, and sacked Noah Carl from his college research fellowship last year for helping to ‘legitimise racist stereotypes’. Petersen was disinvited after being photographed alongside an Australian who unbeknown to him had a tea-shirt with an Islamophobic message. Noah was sacked not for his research on race and intelligence but because it had been praised by unsavoury elements.  The Cambridge Vice-Chancellor has twice attempted to introduce new regulations enforcing woke ideas, only to be prevented by a referendum allowed for by the university’s democratic constitution. As with Brexit, a vote showed that the liberal elite were in a minority. In the Cambridge case only 169 academics (out of 1686 who voted) supported the VC.  If there were votes on a wider range of issues including taking the knee or toppling statues a similar result might emerge. Woke ideas seems to be spread by energetic minorities in key cultural positions able to intimidate or at least persuade companies and others to adopt their views.

Black Lives and American Policing

The BLM movement builds on a sincere desire among many, especially the young and undergraduates, to support fairness and equality. We would not wish to undermine these instincts but at the same time we should debate the nature of the problems and expose where they may be manipulated for ends which the young may not fully appreciate. This debate could include the nature of American policing but should also discuss its relevance to the UK. While real, the problems of American policing are complex but are not in general relevant to policing in the UK.

It should firstly be realised that BLM focusses on only a small minority of violent black deaths in the USA. From 1976 to 2005 94% of black homicide victims in the USA were killed by other blacks, with a similar figure for 2018, with a result that black men were nearly four times as likely to die violently as whites. The 19 murders of black Americans at black hands for each one in police custody are ignored in woke propaganda.  Nor is black violence primarily due to poverty. Hispanics are on average poorer than blacks in the USA but commit proportionately a third as many murders. Black lives do not seem to matter in these debates unless exceptionally when the perpetrator is a white policeman.

There is also little or no evidence that black people arrested by the US (or British) police are more at risk of death than white people. While deaths in police custody are a scandal, the scandal comes out of a policing system in the US that is hugely localised with 18,000 police authorities and where many police chiefs are elected. As former Met Commissioner, Ian Blair has said, few such people get elected on a platform of being soft on crime. Most big city police forces are under the jurisdiction of Democrat-controlled local governments and mayors, some of them black, who have failed to control the police or the unions which protect police with records of brutality. As former US Security Advisor General H R McMaster says, this is a failure of leadership that would not be tolerated in the military. It is however also an unusual situation in which armed police face an armed public including armed criminals.

The issue of police violence in the US is serious but affects all races, and since most deaths are white it should not be a racial matter. It is also primarily a matter for America which is after all a democracy. Showing solidarity with the black community in the USA should involve an awareness of what makes the black race issue so difficult for Americans. More blacks proportionately die at police hands in the US because proportionately more are arrested, convicted and imprisoned especially for crimes of violence. Once arrested, blacks, whites and Hispanics seem to fare the same at least for serious police violence.  A reading list on the statistical evidence for deaths in US police custody is appended to this article.

A black rights movement is unlikely to attract mass support if it ignores black responsibilities. Responsibilities include family life and drug use. With the lowest rates of marriage and the highest for single parent families, black communities in America are ill-suited to succeed in the free-enterprise culture of the USA even if a significant number do succeed. Although nothing excuses the brutality meted out to George Floyd, his life epitomises the problems of blacks in America. Brought up by a single mother, dropping out of college, with six convictions for drugs and theft plus a five-year prison term for armed robbery, his early life hardly provides a role model even if he lived a crime-free life since leaving prison in 2014. His five children by three mothers perpetuates the pattern of too many black American lives.  If some of these patterns reflect past injustices the state might offer redress and even compensation as some US states are considering for past ‘red-lining’. Red-lining prevented black people from buying houses in many affluent neighbourhoods and hence from building up financial wealth as many white families have done. Even so, the social disadvantages are unlikely to be much changed unless the community itself takes as much responsibility as possible for openly considering how to repair the damage. Some conservative members of the black community in the USA already emphasise this point, including Thomas Sowell of Stamford University, but they are a small minority.

Some of this carries across to the UK but not really in policing. Few people of any race are killed by the British police and black people are not more likely to be killed among those arrested. Racism is a relatively small problem. Only 1 % of the population describe themselves as having ‘hard racist attitudes’ in polls, and racist political parties make no headway in national elections. Even in local elections in disadvantaged white areas, far-right parties rarely pick up more than 1% of the vote. If racism really was a big problem, fewer black immigrants would take terrible risks to come here, even from France.

Several ethnic minority groups do spectacularly well in the UK including the Chinese and South Asians, both making great use of British educational opportunities. In Leicester when the Ugandan Asians arrived in large numbers in 1972 local tech colleges were overwhelmed and young Asians were travelling in large numbers to colleges in nearby towns. Not much wonder that local industries like knitwear, hundreds of years old, were soon largely owned by this industrious group.  As  David Goodhart has said, ‘the whole debate is disfigured by disproportionality. The gravitational force of ideology forces the attention of young radicals on a small problem …. of police harassment while ignoring some far larger problems of the black community’.

The problems that Goodhart alludes to mirror some of those in the US. Although the public authorities can help, much responsibility must lie with the community itself. Poverty and high local crime rates do afflict a minority of black people but so they also do for whites. Racializing such problems is divisive, including dividing the disadvantaged. When the Labour party champions anti-racism, it risks losing exactly the same sort of voters it lost over Brexit. These are issues that are more constructively seen as class matters that we all tackle together, even if that deprives some people of the warm feeling of being on the side of their favourite groups of victims.

Bending the Knee in Football

There has been a long tradition in the UK of keeping politics out of sport. This was a big issue for instance in the 1960s when large demonstrations occurred against the (wholly white) South African rugby team playing in the UK.  In addition, an intensive and largely successful campaign against racism in football has been waged by the FA for many years. In this context it is surprising, to say the least, that the FA and major football league clubs should seek to introduce a political and indeed racially charged campaign onto the pitches. Of course, they got away with it partly because fans were absent for most of the period due to Covid. Once the fans returned the booing started.  Not all fans are aghast, but many can see what the game is. The privileging of one racial group inevitably means disadvantaging others. Many fans know that they are likely be in the disadvantaged group. The clamour by many employers to get onto what they see as the right side of a strong social trend inevitably means that more black people will be employed and others who might otherwise have got the jobs will not. Already it has become unusual to see a television advert without a black actor and disproportionately often with a multi-racial couple. This may reflect a tendency for more black people to go into acting or the concentration of black people in London. Equally it could be a form of affirmative action by advertising companies, to the detriment of white or Asian actors.

Does this matter? Is it just a matter of correcting past and potential present injustices? Frankly we do not know but neither do many of those seeking to rebalance boards and employees. As the Race and Ethnic Disparities report said, there are many reasons why some groups may be over or under-represented in certain jobs. We can all imagine why black males are over-represented in the hugely well-paid jobs playing for major football clubs and why Asians may be over-represented in the finance offices of the same clubs. Perhaps the most pressing question in football is why so few club coaches are black. Is this discrimination? Are the knee-takers protesting against their own managers? In addition, there appears to be relatively little concern about the obvious under-representation of Asian players in football league clubs.

In practice, it is not easy to discern what the knee protests are actually about. They started in UK football after the death of George Floyd and appeared to be about the treatment of black men by the police (and implicitly by the American police).  The revelation that the BLM movement was highly political and left wing led to this link being quietly dropped by the clubs in favour of general disadvantage of black groups and then their disadvantage in football. Most recently a Financial Times editorial said the protests were about online racial abuse of players as evidenced after three black players missed penalties in the European nations cup final. As with Brexit the FT appeared to require little evidence to support its views. The only hard evidence on this abuse, a study of Whatsapp messages, showed that only a minority were from the UK.  No-one considered whether a recent rise in online racist abuse may have been a consequence of taking the knee rather than a cause.

While we deplore online abuse, the solution appears to lie much more in removing the anonymity of senders rather than gestures on the pitch.  It is not even obvious which groups are being singled out for help. Caribbean and African Blacks certainly, but also those of Indian, Pakistani or Chinese background? The latter groups appear to do well in education, jobs and of course in politics where a disproportionate number from these latter groups hold high office. Some writers on the subject point to evidence that Asian names on job applications receive fewer interviews than identically qualified people with British names. Such behaviour is already illegal and disadvantages Asians rather than most black people and would seem to apply only to a minority since Asians do generally well in the labour market especially in the public sector. The Government’s Race Disparity Audit showed that Indians and Chinese in the UK outperform whites at every level of education.

What is it all about?

The legal position on discrimination in the UK has always been to outlaw discriminatory practices but not to drift into positive discrimination or affirmative action as controversially practised in American universities. Public policy might support disadvantaged groups, but this usually targets the disadvantage (such as poor performance in schools) rather than particular groups. The temptation to move into affirmative action is often there for civil rights groups. This was case in Northern Ireland when a series of Fair Employment Acts were introduced to counter job discrimination mainly against Catholics. Although under pressure to introduce affirmative action, this was avoided by the UK Government except in the case of teachers in Catholic schools which were allowed to discriminate against non-Catholics. By the time these acts were introduced there was little direct evidence of discrimination. The evidence was instead indirect and mainly focussed on high Catholic unemployment. Even President Clinton wrote that the UK government should tackle the discrimination that led to unemployment among Catholics being double that of Protestants. However, there was no evidence for this link and others wrote that Fair Employment Acts would do little about unemployment differentials, and so it proved since Catholic unemployment remains higher than for Protestants decades later. Other factors including differences in the willingness to move to where jobs were available could easily generate unemployment differentials, but in a politically charged atmosphere few cared for complex explanations.

Are we now in an equivalent situation in respect of race? Evidence of racism used to be direct in the form of bricks through ethnic minority windows, violent attacks or a refusal to let property to ethnic minority tenants. All of this was deplorable but in the early days of mass immigration into the UK is likely to have flowed from the shock of rapid cultural change without any democratic assent and with little sympathy or support, particularly from the Labour party, for complaints from their working-class supporters in places like Smethwick. People were in effect told to like mass immigration and cultural change or lump it, although the Tory and Labour Governments did then introduce immigration controls from 1962, initially against Labour opposition. Over the years, opposition to ethnic diversity has lessened and associated racism has diminished. Extreme right-wing political parties did not at any point gain any real support, rarely reaching even 1% of the vote even in local areas where immigration became an issue. Immigration again became an issue after 2004 when ten low wage Eastern European countries and Mediterranean islands joined the EU with open access to move to the UK. Opposition to this new wave of mass migration was sometimes labelled racist but this time the immigrants were white Europeans and suffered little racist abuse. Again, the issue was largely one of rapid cultural change with no democratic control contributing in this case to Brexit.

If racism has diminished over the years, why has anti-racism assumed such a high profile? Some deny that racism has diminished and cite figures for lower wages and higher unemployment for some ethnic minority groups. Rational assessment of the reasons for economic disadvantage has been in short supply at least until the Sewell Report and even then the conclusions were hotly disputed. If genetic or cultural influences are disallowed from discussion, then racism becomes a default explanation of disadvantage. Demonstrations such as taking the knee become a protest against disadvantage interpreted as racism. For some it is a well-meant if diffuse gesture of support for the disadvantaged, albeit only for disadvantaged blacks and not for working class white males who clearly do badly in current education and employment. The focus on all blacks rather than those with clear disadvantage makes the campaign aim less admirable and more racialised. For many black people who have felt second class citizens of the country of their birth it can feel like levelling up. For working class white boys it can easily feel like an attempt to help some of their competitors for jobs and as such to be resisted. For others, equal rights is an industry to be promoted and expanded for financial advantage.

Slavery Empire and Statues

The black lives movement appears to fit in well with an older established trend to promote guilt about slavery and the British empire. Teaching about slavery was for many years underdeveloped in schools and the media, no doubt because it was an unsavoury subject, and this lacuna has been rightly corrected. As the history of slavery has become well known, the huge 19th century British efforts to suppress slavery have been neglected, presumably because they do not fit the narrative of white guilt. Similarly, the important role of the British empire in suppressing slavery as well as other despicable activities often aimed at women, including suttee, is ignored, while some of the blots of empire like the Amritsar massacre are played up.

All of this does look like an attempt to undermine the confidence of the majority groups in the UK by denigrating their history and by implication their forebears. Even though the UK is a well-integrated society in which minorities can clearly rise to top positions and wealth, opponents wish to use race as a battering ram to upset the established order. Many of the professional and academic classes are willing to support this cultural revolution out of misplaced guilt or sympathy for the underdog, but working-class people lack this guilt and feel instinctively that they will lose from these changes. Many within the more aspirational minorities, especially Asians, also lack guilt and can see more clearly than those with comfortable middle-class upbringings that the accusations of racism are shallow or hollow.


Signs of a fightback are growing. Cambridge has held its referendum and prevented the woke reforms of its Canadian Vice-Chancellor. In Oxford the statue of Rhodes remains in place. As fans return to the football terraces the displeasure of some at hollow gestures of solidarity with a single ethnic group is hard to ignore. The Tory Government set up the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disadvantage and got a helpful report from a Commission composed of nine ethnic minority members and one white.  Today it remains unclear whether the FA and commercial companies will stop their virtue signalling, but a sensible course of action would be for football clubs to quietly cease knee-taking for the new season and for firms to return to their core activities.

This article has not touched on the sexual aspects of our cultural revolution including transgender rights. While there are legitimate issues to be addressed here the impression is one of an extreme over-reaction to real problems in order to upset the balance of society. In this case the fightback is coming from women who can see their position in sport and in public facilities being eroded.  While society will need to adapt to accommodate future changes, we must also guard against those who wish to exploit changes to disrupt the social order for their own ends.

We might accept in conclusion the views of Raghib Ali who writes, ‘we need interventions based on need not ethnicity. Because the greatest determinant of your life chances today is not the colour of your skin but the circumstances into which you are born – and we must tackle this enduring injustice of systematic classism to create a fairer Britain for all’.

Annex:    US Academic articles and official reports on deaths in police custody

Roland G Fryer Jnr, ‘Reconciling Results in Racial Differences in police shootings’, AEA Papers and Proceedings, 108 (2018)

Ordway, Wihbey and Kille ‘Deaths in Police Custody in the USA’ (2020) – https://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/deaths-police-custody-united-states/

Clarke Merrefield, ‘Black men 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men’ (2019) – https://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/killed-police-black-men-likely-white-men/

Braga and Brunson, ‘The police and public discourse on “black-on-black” violence’, Harvard Kennedy School (2015)

Barry Latzer ‘The Need to Discuss Black-on-Black Crime’ (2019) – https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2019/12/22/the-need-to-discuss-black-on-black-crime/

Nicholson-Crotty, Nicholson-Crotty and Fernandez ‘Will More Black Cops Matter? Officer Race and Police-Involved Homicides of Black Citizens’, Public Admin Review (2017)

Katherine J Roisch, ‘Race, Ethnicity, and the Criminal Justice System’, American Sociological Association (2007)

FBI, Crime in the USA (2013) https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded-homicide/expanded_homicide_data_table_6_murder_race_and_sex_of_vicitm_by_race_and_sex_of_offender_2013.xls

FBI, Crime in the USA (2018) https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/tables/table-43  – Black people responsible for 27% all crime, 54% murder & robbery 43% possessing weapons 37% violent crimes 32% other assaults

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Briefings For Britain