When culture war combines with constitutional impotence: a warning from history

12th July 2021

The first time I heard about Otto von Bismarck was when I started my history A-level – until then I knew the name ‘Bismarck’ only as a name of a sunk battleship from world war two.

The first thing we learned about Bismarck the politician was that he launched a culture war – a Kulturkampf.

And the first things we learned about this Kulturkampf was that it created needless social divisions, that it was counter-productive and was quickly abandoned, and that Bismarck did not really have a sincere belief in any of it anyway.

Of course, what one gets to know from any A-level history course is often more simplistic than a more nuanced understanding that you can get from further reading and thought.

But this understanding of Bismarck and his Kulturkampf is more useful in understanding the policy of our current government than knowing the names of second world war battleships.


At the time of my A-levels in the late 1980s, there was the political attack on the ‘loony left’ and then a decade or so later ‘political correctness’ was the target – ‘gone mad’ or otherwise – and now it is ‘deep woke’ or whatever.

And although from time to time this politics of nasty name-calling was translated into policy and law – for example, section 28 – it never seemed (at least to me, in my privileged state) the very essence of government policy until the current government.

Now there are a number of ministers who freely indulge in culture wars – playing like infants with matches.

A report published by the Fabian society today – of which I have only had a preliminary scan – offers a detailed analysis of the current culture wars and those who promote them:

These four summary bullet-points are especially plausible.

And the current configurations of media and politics seem to give each of these ‘peddlers’ more power than they may had before.

The decline in mainstream political parties as broad coalitions, moderating the extremes, means the grievance-mongers can rise quickly to political power – and that illiberal politicians can mobilise their illiberal bases directly and unashamedly.

(The political figures I remember from the late-1980s being the rent-a-quote members of parliament for ‘loony left’ hit-pieces – Beaumont-Dark, Dicks, Dickens – were all safely on the backbenches – now the quotes would come directly from the cabinet.)

The decline in traditional media as gatekeepers on who gets access to broadcasting and publication also mean that the perpetually outraged and the trolls have immediate and effectively limitless reach.

The grievance-mongers, the perpetually outraged and the trolls all existed (if with different labels) before the rise of the internet, but they did not perhaps have the easy access to media and political power.

A recent post on this blog averred that this political culture war has, in turn, constitutional – and constitutionalist – implications.

There is a reckless political belief that there are no constitutional rules or norms which are beyond being gamed for political advantage.

And when culture war combines with constitutional impotence then we have the politics of another German chancellor – you know, that one whose name you still do not need to have studied history to have heard of.

There is a worrying alignment of culture war and constitutional weakness, and unless one or both of these are addressed, it will not be difficult for knaves or fools to exploit their grim opportunity.


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10 thoughts on “When culture war combines with constitutional impotence: a warning from history”

  1. That other Chancellor, picked up where Bismarck left off, persuading the Protestant Church in Germany whilst he was rising to power that he would put the Catholic Church in its place to their benefit.

    There are a number of versions of Pastor Niemöller’s well known poem, “First they came …”. In none of those I have come across are Catholics mentioned.

    Dominic Cummings is supposed to be an admirer of Otto von Bismarck …

    “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

    Then again may be it is just Bismarck’s cynicism or perhaps the battleship of which he is enamoured?

  2. Not all the 1980s culture warriors were backbenchers. Apart from Thatcher herself, I think both Nicholas Ridley and, particularly, Norman Tebbitt qualify. Stirring up the right-wing tabloids against various minorities helped sustain Thatcherism, particularly after the rally-round-the-flag effect from the Falklands/Malvinas conflict wore off.

    1. Nicholas Ridley, a junior Foreign Office Minister at the time, was lounging at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons expressing Her Majesty’s Government’s relative lack of interest in the Falkland Islands remaining British at roughly the time that the Argentinian ‘scrap metal’ merchants were reaching the vicinity of South Georgia; the strategic group of the islands.

      The Skull was never really taken that seriously.

      As a junior Transport Minister, he once visited the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. He was so impressed by what he saw that he was heard to say that British Rail might learn a lot from the KWVR. One of his officials audibly pointed out to him that it was mostly run by volunteers.

      He was always good for a gaffe or two.

      1. The Skull was never really taken that seriously.

        He surely was. The division and rancour he caused with his “get on your bike…” comment still echoes today in the popular/ist idea of the deserving – and underserving – poor.

        1. The Skull was Nicholas Ridley so named by Steve Bell, the Guardian cartoonist.

          Norman Tebbit was The Chingford Strangler (or Skinhead), who was once described in the House of Commons by Michael Foot at the Despatch Box as a “semi-house trained polecat”.

          As for the undeserving poor sentiment, an early reference in English is to be found in The Statute of Cambridge 1388, an early law which differentiated between sturdy beggars and the infirm poor.

  3. I have just finished reading Henry “Chips” Channon’s unexpurgated Diaries 1918-1938 – a Father’s Day present from my daughters. (I read the Bowlderised version allowed to be published by Peter “petty” Coats in the 1960s decades ago – [incidentally, he once tried, unsuccessfully I might add, to “pick me up” on a train to London, inviting me to his set in Albany which I declined – I was visiting my mother in Worcestershire] and there are so many leitmotifs of the late 1930s Tory appeasement policies reflected in this current threadbare administration of none-of-the-talents today: the entitlement of the governing Party and the people they represent, the corruption both moral and political, the insider arrangements, the cheap appeal of populism, the adoration of “strong men” leaders, the dismissal of hopes and fears of half the electorate. I am hoping for a young Winston to come forward. “Peace in our time”? Nah. I would vote for Marcus Rashford tomorrow.

    1. “In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers, it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him. Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years. Thereupon the people picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able to grasp that wars are not won without fighting.”

      Thus wrote George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941.


      1. Chamberlain has been much maligned.

        Public opinion was not behind rearmament in the 1930s, and yet we managed to rearm and modernise our armed forces under Chamberlain. Navy investment was significant. The ‘over the horizon’ capability that permitted us to crush the Italian fleet in the Med in 1940 was new.

        The fact of the matter is that war with Germany in 1938 (as Hitler desired) would have led to our rapid defeat. Neither the network of radar stations nor the replacement of biplanes in the RAF was complete.

        The Halifax faction took the view that war would lead to the loss of Empire and Great Britain’s eclipse as a Great Power. They were correct – and so it came to pass. We were bankrupted utterly and were repaying war debts to the Americans until Blair’s terms in office.

        It is natural that Chamberlain sought to escape the choice between the Devil and Sea in the 1930s. There was a strong thread of opinion within senior circles in Berlin that did not favour war with GB – their main strategic preoccupation was (and is) Russia.

        The passivity between 1938 and 1940 can also be explained by our understanding of German military doctrine. War between Stalin and Hitler was inevitable. Staying aloof from continental European affairs while two of our main rivals destroyed each other would have been a deeply attractive prospect – and in line with Britain’s traditional European policy since 1815.

        If war with Germany could have been avoided, perhaps the Empire could have been saved (with the exception of India match).

        None of this was obvious to Orwell at the time he was writing.

        Which isn’t to excuse Chamberlain’s indifferent record as a wartime leader. The accusations of poor leadership over the Norway campaign were justified. Although Churchill’s record includes the Dardanelles in the First World War when he was First Sea Lord.

  4. not sure impotent constitution is the right word, at the end of the day they suspended the constitutional rights of the German citizens through a vote in parliament which was won with a 2/3 majority.
    but it kind of proof’s your point that a codified Constitution alone is not a guarantee

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