The right is winning the culture war because its opponents don’t know the rules | Nesrine Malik

A few weeks of football heroics have forced the Tories into a tactical retreat – but fighting back will take more than optimism

Early last week, it looked like the England football team had lost to Italy but scored against Downing Street. As the abuse of England’s black footballers poured forth on Sunday and Monday and public outrage mounted, senior Tories had to shimmy away from their tacit approval of the racism that the England team had taken the knee against. Both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson distanced themselves from the earlier comments by Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, stressing that there would, of course, be zero tolerance for racism and 100% support for our brave boys.

By midweek, after Tory hardliners began to side with Tyrone Mings against Patel, and Keir Starmer rattled Johnson a bit at PMQs, there was a growing sense of excitement that the all-conquering Tory culture-war machine might be running out of steam – finally stopped in its tracks by the courage of England’s football heroes and the overwhelming decency of the majority that cheered them.

But this happy narrative misunderstands the purpose and aims of the culture war – which has hardly been halted by this undoubtedly grave error of targeting. What we are about to see is not a ceasefire, but a brief and temporary tactical retreat. The government can afford a strategic pause: the culture war has been a huge success, insofar as it has helped to forge an electoral bloc that backs the Tories against their “woke” enemies, real and imagined.

The right’s culture warriors have profited enormously from their opponents’ failure to understand the nature of the war and the means by which it is fought. A number of recent reports from thinktanks and pollsters that promise to defuse the culture wars by reassuring us that the actual public isn’t really so divided, may in fact deepen this misunderstanding. The error here is to believe that the culture war consists of a debate about the “real England”, one that can be resolved by facts and data – rather than a battle between manufactured narratives that seek to mould an England in their own image.

Gareth Southgate’s celebrated “Dear England” letter depicted one version of this story, elegantly and aspirationally redescribing the country in the likeness of those who represent it on the football pitch. The culture warriors of the right have their own story, crafted and sold by the government and most of the press, in which England is the victim of those who unfairly cry racism at every opportunity. The common mistake made by those who prefer Southgate’s version is not the belief that the culture war is confected; it is the belief that simply calling it a confection is some kind of victory.

For all the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement since last summer, the protests did have one lasting effect on public discourse. They shifted our conversations about racism away from a notion of personal and intentional moral failure, and toward a conception of racism as something structural and institutional. But when it comes to these debates about the “real England”, this lesson has gone unlearned; we argue about the country and its intentions as if it’s a boorish uncle. We are trapped – to borrow the words of an actual culture war fracas – between “England is racist, 100%” (Stormzy) and the retort that this claim is “100% wrong” (Sajid Javid).

A perfect example of this fruitless approach to discussing racism played out over the past few weeks, where support and abuse of the England team were both a canvas on which to sketch the soul of the country as the culture war insists we must imagine it. On the heads of a few brave young men and their manager was placed the hope of achieving that elusive liberal dream, “progressive patriotism”. Finally, we cheered, here was the “real England” we knew was out there all along. Set aside the years of deliberately cruel austerity, the resentful chaos of Brexit, the bungled “libertarian” pandemic disaster, Grenfell, Windrush, Yarl’s Wood – this team was supposed to show us that another England was ready to be born.

The speed with which that hope was daubed with racist graffiti and monkey emojis is not “proof” that England Is Racist, just as the outrage that followed does not prove the reverse. It is simply a reminder that we have not shed the mistaken idea that racism, like some stubborn relic from our past, can simply be worn away by the slow accumulation of new realities – of passing time, of shifting demographics, of intermarriage and integration. And so we conclude, glass half full, by declaring that England Has Changed, But Not Enough.

As we wait passively for this new, inclusive England to arrive, the Conservatives have successfully connected race to patriotism in the public mind. The government has invested a lot of time and uncharacteristic effort into making the allegation of racism an insult and bullying institutions and organisations that dare to interrogate it. It commissioned a report whitewashing the existence of structural racism in the country. It deployed its own black and ethnic minority members to deny racism was an issue. It positioned itself early on in opposition to the Black Lives Matter protests, and made political hay out of criticising taking the knee. The goal of this rhetoric has been achieved: anyone who talks about racism is simply doing Britain down, smearing white people, forcing a woke agenda “down our throats”. The Times columnist Melanie Phillips, invited on to the BBC on Wednesday to discuss the horrific abuse suffered by three young black footballers, simply explained that taking the knee was actually the “racist gesture”, and that Black Lives Matter was “fundamentally anti-white, anti-west, anti-Jew”.

These are the weapons of the culture war. But we are also prevented from understanding the potency of the culture war by optimistic progressives who are keen to explain that it’s all a big misunderstanding. These polite incrementalists believe that even if progressive patriotism once again failed to fully materialise, the groundwork is nonetheless being laid. But the right is creating its own new stories. Because culture war is not about winning a debate about what constitutes England through factual disputes about its character, its statues, its football team or its history of empire. It is not a peripheral indulgence, or a mere confection. Culture war is an aggressive political act with the purpose of creating new dividing lines and therefore new and bigger electoral majorities. It aims to create its own truth, and its own England, through what Nietzsche called a “mobile army of metaphors”.

In the right’s mobile army, race and identity have played a central role, painting an England that is under assault from uppity minorities and their woke backers who can only be kept at bay by the Conservatives. In our “This is England” excitement about the football team, what we don’t seem to have learned is that what is true of individuals is also true of England. England, like a person, can behave in idiosyncratic ways when it comes to race. Optimists misread the positives in those idiosyncrasies as a sign – if we just keep our eyes trained on the encouraging trends, we will be closer to the truth, which is that things are getting better.

The only certain truth about England is that it is a creation, not a reality whose essence can be revealed or discovered once and for all. Things getting better has not equipped us in any way with the ability to protect our minorities, to defend them against being savaged for sport or vilified and used as pawns for political gain. That is as much a failure of liberals as it is a success of conservatives.

  • Nesrine Malik is Guardian columnist

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Nesrine Malik

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