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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