The Insider

Who will win the culture wars?

The right’s attacks on institutions like the National Trust are in part to distract from economic woes. But there is a deeper political goal

January 24, 2024
Trengwainton estate, one of the National Trust’s properties with historic links to slavery. Paul Boyes / Alamy Stock Photo
Trengwainton estate, one of the National Trust properties with links to historic slavery. Paul Boyes / Alamy Stock Photo

It was a shrewd move by Keir Starmer to rush to the defence of the National Trust as a victim of years of culture war nonsense by the Tory media. He is steadily becoming the effective leader of both the Conservative and Labour parties in the face of Tory and Faragist revolutionary zealots who can’t see an established institution without wanting to undermine it—unless it kowtows to the populist right.

Their favourite target has long been the BBC, where the political motive is deep and obvious, particularly with the rise of GB News. On cue, on the same day as Starmer’s intervention, Lucy Frazer, the latest Secretary of State for Culture Wars, followed Nadine Dorries in launching a silly, fact-free attack on the BBC for lack of impartiality. Silly but for the fact that the Tory, Faragist agenda of undermining the BBC is existential, since the objective of destroying it totally is the ultimate Faragist goal. 

The right’s culture wars are partly to distract from economic woes and an abject failure to govern effectively. And the more they succeed, the more licence the right will get to continue governing badly. But they are also about weakening key institutions that are seen as defenders of a pre-Brexit order where facts, experts and consensus mattered—and where culture was intended so far as possible to be inclusive, not divisive.  

The political goal here is far worse than distraction. It is sabotage. It aims to weaken and undermine institutions whose inclusive and conservative values—with a small “c”—are a standing reproach to a revolutionary movement which can’t survive in that world. 

On the case of the National Trust, there were pre-existing disputes which the leadership of the organisation was seeking to resolve as consensually as possible. As one of the nation’s largest rural landowners, disputes over hunting and land management have frequently arisen. As custodian of a large slice of stately home England, debates over how to deal with issues like historic slavery were also becoming increasingly contentious. 

Restore Trust, the organisation which ran slates of candidates in recent elections for the National Trust council, has been seeking division as part of a wider political campaign against “woke” progressives. However, its candidates were easily defeated in November by the membership at large, so Starmer was able to come in to defend the majority under attack from a populist right minority.

The culture wars aren’t entirely one-way, of course. There are warriors aplenty on the left, particularly around issues to do with gender and privilege. The difference is that Starmer’s Labour party has tried to keep a distance from the radicals, rather than becoming their mouthpiece. This involved some difficult manoeuvres in respect of trans rights, where he backed off from previous support for “self ID” for those wishing to change sex, in response, in part, to a ferocious onslaught from the right.

However, the right’s culture wars extend far beyond institutions like the National Trust, the BBC and universities, to anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic minority agendas which have always been explosive if detonated at full force. Here, Farage & co have been more circumspect than Enoch Powell two generations ago, but they are constantly testing the limits and will doubtless become more brazen in the run-up to the election. This will give Starmer more opportunities to present himself as the voice of mainstream decency against far-right division.

It is going to be a long election year.