UKIP and the Culture War
I was surprised to find that Godfrey Bloom, the UKIP MEP for Yorks and Humber had been running his re-election campaign on the basis of climate change denial. This seemed odd to me. I thought that UKIP were a party promoting withdrawal from the EU. But then you should never judge a party by its name. In fact it is often difficult to see any link between the name of a party and its position. In fact UKIP want not independence for the UK, but to hand over sovereignty to a few wealthy individuals, many of whom are not UK domiciled.
So why are UKIP running campaigns on climate change?
Well, there’s a phenomenon in US politics called the Culture War. This functions by dividing people on political issues other than class. By creating a divide on the basis of issues like abortion, gun ownership and attacking the separation of church and state, a small group of very wealthy Americans committed to a neo-liberal programme have been able to win a consistent majority over the past 30 years.
This runs contrary to the pattern of politics in the US before the 1960s, and in much of Europe, where the determining factor in politics has been class. This is linked by parties to the economic interests of their voters. So the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats and the French Socialist Party have prioritised policies that have focused on the economic interests of their voters.
This has recently broken down in the US. By aligning on socially conservative issues with working Americans, the very wealthy have been able to get those people to vote against their own economic interests. By creating a culture war where gun control, promotion of religion and other issues unpopular with large numbers of Americans and aligning
This is why poor Americans more often oppose the Democrats’ healthcare proposals than would be the case in Europe. By creating a political culture that aligns economically progressive measures like healthcare, or better welfare with policies such as gun control or secularism Republicans have been able to win over poor people to their economic policies.
This is important in the UK because it is becoming clear that the right are seeking a culture war. While UKIP have jumped on this bandwagon, they have relatively little to lose. And they are joined in this by their working class equivalent, the BNP. There is real tension in the Conservative party between the David Cameron led efforts to move the party to the centre and the party grass-roots, who are champing at the bit to privatise the NHS, stop immigration and plunder what remains of the state for the benefit of a very small, already very wealthy minority.
The widely publicised climate change denial of all of the top 10 Tory bloggers shows how Cameron’s attempt to move the party to the centre could very easily fail. It will be replaced by an aggressive attack on a whole variety of progressive policies. This will be exacerbated if UKIP votes are seen to have lost the Conservatives seats in the forthcoming election.
The direct antecedent of the culture war was the economic coup perpetrated by the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the 1980s. This used the failure of the post-war social democratic consensus on welfare and economy to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor. It has been difficult for the right to generate that level of support recently as the polarisation of income makes it harder to have broad appeal. This is why culture war is important. It allows the right to align themselves with a majority.
The media colludes in this by focusing on ‘benefits cheats’ while ignoring massive tax avoidance. The press is obsessed with crime and punitive responses to crime. There is little attention to the causes of crime. While terrorism can be used to justify almost any infringement of human rights or civil liberties, the threat posed by climate change has only recently been acknowledged, and is again under attack. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions will die as a result of climate change many more than as a result of terrorism. It is a distraction from the real issues facing the world.
It’s not all bad news. The campaign by papers like the Guardian timed to coincide with a crisis in public finance to encourage government to crack down on tax avoidance. The work done by the Equality Trust on promoting the rigorous assessment by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson that inequality is the driver of social dysfunction is excellent. It has been picked up across the media, and promotes policy solutions totally opposed to those championed by Tory bloggers.
The reason the culture war has been so successful for the American right, and for Republicans in particular is because there has been no resistance. Democrats and progressives have failed to appeal to the middle income Americans who would be so damaged by Republican economic policy, but approve of their social policy.
There are another range of moral issues that the Democrats can appeal to. They must do this to prevent a permanent majority for the right. This is also the case in the UK.
Pickett and Wilkinson’s work can form the cornerstone of progressive resistance to the right wing culture war in the UK. It is, unfortunately, an approach that will not be taken by the other parties of the left. While the Campaign Group and others on the very left of the Labour party may wish to fight back, their party leadership is totally unwilling to. The Greens are perfectly positioned to resist a move to the right in British politics. They can argue for a justice system that aims to prevent crime, not punish criminals. They believe in equality and human rights for people in the UK and around the world. While the SNP are similarly placed, their record of pandering to the Catholic Church on issues like HPV vaccinations is problematic in building a progressive coalition.
I was horrified by the responses of other parties to Nick Griffin’s demands for a halt to immigration on Question Time. Even the Liberal Democrats were suggesting that this was right, but that the BNP ‘go too far’. Progressives must fight this implicitly racist approach. It’s time to build a coalition to stop the creep of mainstream parties toward a racist immigration policy. Both SNP and Greens can provide the political dimension to this. But they must be brave in doing it.
The lesson for progressives and greens is that a culture war is coming. We must fight back now, before a coalition in favour of repatriating immigrants and their children and in favour of a punitive justice becomes rooted. Appeasement has never been successful in dealing with fascism and the hard right. While Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats appease the BNP on these policies it is vital that progressives build an alternative based on equality, human rights and solidarity in Britain and abroad. Otherwise we’ll be facing a future of racist governments acting in the interests of the very wealthy, and against the interests of the majority.