Bullingdon Club Britain - The Dark Roots of the Conservative Culture War
In an extract from his explosive new book, Sam Bright reveals how the Conservative Party is attempting to ignite a 'culture war' to cling onto power
In Dark Money, Jane Mayer describes how a “multi-armed” assembly line has been created by radical, right-wing groups to channel their ideas into the American political mainstream.
With the hosting of the National Conservatism conference in London last week – organised by an American think tank – and the financial links between Tufton Street groups and their free market American counterparts, this assembly line clearly extends across the Atlantic.
And so, the British right has imported America’s culture war along with its strange, anachronistic critiques of ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘cancel culture’, and ‘critical race theory’.
In my new book, Bullingdon Club Britain, I attempt to unpick this culture war campaign, and explain why it has quickly become the dominant narrative of Conservative politics. An exclusive extract from the book is featured below.
The Culture War
A privileged elite has assumed power and exploited a flimsy political system to entrench its wealth and power – assisted by a compliant media.
However, getting away with it has required an equally pervasive and sophisticated distraction campaign; the creation of an alternate worldview in which the ruling elite is actually the saviour of the working class.
This worldview is the culture war – a key political tool for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, designed to break working-class solidarity through the invention of conflicts between social liberals and social conservatives.
So, rather than Boris Johnson being an enemy of the working class, because he’s an Old Etonian Bullingdon boy, he has been portrayed instead as a champion of the ‘left behind’ – due to his supposed antipathy towards a distant, liberal, metropolitan elite (embodied by his support for Brexit).
The culture war has turned Johnson into a cultural ally of the working class, even despite his own privileged background and his pursuit of elitist politics.
While this has been a conservative ploy for decades – former Conservative Leader Michael Howard ran an anti-immigration campaign back in 2005 that included the policy of introducing an ‘Australian-style’ points system, later supported by Nigel Farage and adopted by Johnson’s Government – the understanding of this phenomenon has crystallised in recent times through the culture war.
Typically, ‘culture war’ is used to describe a battle of ideas between two divergent groups. On the one hand are older and less well-educated people who are socially conservative (likely to be more hostile to immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and permissive social mores) and typically rooted in small towns and rural areas. On the other are younger graduates based in cities, who are generally more accepting of immigration and fluid identity values.
As Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford write in Brexitland:
“Many of those who grew up in a more ethnically homogeneous, socially conservative Britain have a profoundly different view of what Britain is and ought to be than members of the youngest generations, who have grown up in a much more ethnically diverse and socially liberal country.”
However, the right-wing media suggests that this war is being fought equally aggressively by both groups; a form of social Darwinian warfare that has spawned from a natural ideological divide, with no clear provocateur.
This is patently not the case. Although there is a small band of hyper-liberals who are attempting to rapidly and combatively erode ‘traditional’ ideas regarding borders, the family nucleus and gender identity – on occasion shutting down those who disagree – there is a much wider liberal consensus in Britain that is not so forthright nor so antagonistic about these values divides.
In an effort to turn moderate conservatives against this body of sane liberal opinion, however, right-wing culture warriors exaggerate the influence of hyper-liberals – portraying the latter as the dominant progressive faction.
This distortion of reality is aided by the isolated information bubble inhabited by social conservatives – many of whom are older and therefore more reliant on right-wing newspapers and susceptible to online fabrications. Those over the age of 65 share nearly seven times as many articles on Facebook from ‘fake news’ domains as those aged between 18 and 29, according to a study by the journal Science. Nigel Farage also instructively claimed that Brexit and Trump would not have happened without Facebook.
These separate information spheres are mirrored in the physical geography of liberals and conservatives, with the two groups increasingly clustering in different parts of the country.
“White voters with low education levels move less often, and are becoming concentrated in more ethnically homogeneous and less economically successful rural and small-town areas,” write Sobolewska and Ford in Brexitland. “These trends magnify identity conflicts by increasing social segregation and reducing the level of contact and common experience between people on either side of the identity politics divide.”
Therefore, the ‘culture war’ more accurately describes a political conflict manufactured by the right to distort and exploit the largely unsubstantiated fears of social conservatives towards hyper-liberalism.
As social class researcher Ellie Mae O’Hagan has written: “The hard right is successfully pushing a narrative that the division in this country is between the white working class and the ‘woke mob’.”
This is despite a plurality of people subscribing to basic, progressive opinions. People widely believe, for example, that people of colour face greater barriers to success than white people. There is also popular support for policies such as gay marriage, access to safe abortions and a low salary threshold for immigrants seeking to enter the UK.
In 2000, just 25% of those who responded to the British Social Attitudes Survey – a socially and politically weighted survey of 6,000 people – said that equal opportunities for black and Asian people had not gone far enough. At the latest count, this figure had risen to 45%. The ‘woke mob’ is the growing plurality of people in the UK.
Reflecting the tempo of modern politics, the culture war is trans-Atlantic – waged by the likes of Ted Cruz, a multimillionaire Republican who spends his time lamenting “west coast liberals” – distracting from the corporate greed of America’s actual elites who fund his brand of libertarian politics.
As Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic about the culture war frenzy stoked by ‘MAGA – Make America Great Again’ (in other words, pro-Trump) Republicans: “They will tell you that they are for ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, but these are merely code words for personal grudges, racial and class resentments.
“What makes this situation worse is that there is no remedy for it. When people are driven by fantasies, by resentment, by an internalised sense of inferiority, there is no redemption in anything.”
This is also the approach of the Bullingdon Club elite. There can be no victory for ordinary social conservatives who have been captured by the culture war – no final victory against the supposed liberal enemy – only a never-ending Ferris wheel of intensifying grievances built to serve successive reactionary political campaigns.
Take the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas, which offered a bingo card of the issues currently enraging the right.
Far from focusing on the cost of living crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the climate emergency, instead talk centred on transgender people, educational indoctrination, and how – as Nigel Farage termed it – “madrasas [schools] of Marxism” are supposedly teaching white children to hate their race.
When the big global crises were mentioned, it was with a tone of dismissal. Farage told his audience that far more dangerous than Vladimir Putin’s aggression is the “fifth column” – a group of people supposedly working with our enemies – in English-speaking countries infecting children with the virus of ‘wokeness’.
Farage and his fellow travellers are waging a ‘revolution’ against imagined enemies, rather than concerning themselves with real-life issues of the economy and national security – a big departure from conservatives of yesteryear.
In attendance at CPAC was Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s right-hand-man and one of the ideological forefathers of the culture war.
As Joshua Green writes in Devil’s Bargain – the story of how Bannon rose to prominence at Breitbart and under Trump – at an early age, Bannon was taken with the idea that “Western civilisation had to be constantly and vigilantly defended against shadowy, shape-shifting enemies.”
This prominence of this idea, of a civilisational conflict between a supposed liberal elite and working-class conservatives, was apparent in 2018 when Bannon told the New York Times that he wanted to “build a vast network of European populists to demolish the continent’s political establishment.” Farage had discussed fronting a new movement set up by Bannon during this period.
Indeed, Farage is a disciple of the Trump-Bannon school of culture war populism. He was the first foreign leader to meet Trump following his shock 2016 victory, he campaigned for Trump again in 2020 and has continued to support the disgraced former President despite Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud and mounting federal investigations into his conduct.
Now, Farage acts as the cultural bridge between the populist-right in America and Britain – absorbing the talking points that emanate from Fox News and unloading them on domestic airwaves through GB News. And Farage’s relationship with American populism is symbiotic. The politician-turned-broadcaster is credited with educating MAGA Republicans about the culture war through Brexit, which targeted social conservatives with anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiments. “Brexit and the Trump election are inextricably linked,” Bannon has said.
This populist alliance is now almost a decade old, and Farage is readily importing political tools back from his students in America. Like the manufacturing of a car, Farage provided the raw materials and is now taking shipment of the finished product.
And so, during his CPAC speech, Farage wielded one of the new scapegoats created by Republican politics: critical race theory – an academic discipline that explores how institutionalised racism operates in society.
“This terrible virus, worse than anywhere else in the world,” Farage bellowed, “this is a Marxist attempt to break Western civilization! A Marxist attempt to destroy everything we are.”
Reverberations of this debate have been felt in the UK, with the right caught in a state of frenzy about attempts in some academic institutions to examine the negative impacts of the British empire, and to teach a form of history that accommodates more non-white viewpoints.
The UK’s so-called ‘strictest headmistress’, Katharine Birbalsingh, who was recently the short-lived head of the Social Mobility Commission, used GB News to suggest that Shakespeare may be ‘cancelled’ in UK schools for being a “dead white man”.
This is a trend observed by public policy expert Sam Freedman, who says that when culture war protagonists “run out of real culture war issues,” they instead “just imagine ones that might exist in the future and fight them.”
The Times followed Birbalsingh’s lead in August 2022, lamenting the supposed mass censorship of classical texts by universities – the newspaper claiming that lecturers fear that these books may offend students. This story was given front-page coverage by the Murdoch-owned publication, despite it finding only two examples of books having been removed from university courses in the UK.
This idea – that educational institutions are turning into havens for ‘snowflakes’ (a derogatory term used to describe people who are concerned with social equality and justice issues) – has even been echoed by Liz Truss. In 2020, she delivered a speech in which she claimed that, during her education at a comprehensive school in Leeds in the 1980s, she was “taught about racism and sexism” while “there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.”
Several former pupils of the same school have pointed out that it was far better administered under Labour than under the Conservatives. “We were not ‘taught about racism and sexism’ to the exclusion of the basics,” said one of Truss’s former peers. “We were taught the national curriculum.”
This epitomises the culture war strategy: exaggerate well-meaning liberal reforms – or cherry-pick an isolated example of liberal overreach – to argue that the country is being infected with crazed, gender-fluid (Labour voting) woke warriors, and can only be saved by sensible (Conservative voting) traditionalists.
As right-wing culture warrior Toby Young has claimed: there is “nothing liberal about” the progressive movement. “Instead, it has far more in common with the hysterical witch-hunting of the Middle Ages.”
This hyperbole is defended with the nebulous threat of ‘what next?’ – implying that legitimate reforms benefiting minority groups should be snuffed out as they may fuel vague, future incursions into individual ‘freedoms’.
And this inability to sort fact from fiction is particularly evident on the topic of ‘free speech’ – a primary preoccupation of those engaged in culture-war politics, who claim that dissenting voices are subject to McCarthy-style censorship from students and the left.
The Conservative Government has even admitted that its beliefs about university free speech – supposedly under threat from gangs of bespectacled Marxists – is based on virtually no real-world evidence.
The Department for Education (DfE) announced in February 2021 that it would be appointing a free speech ‘champion’ with the power to fine universities or students’ unions that, in its view, wrongly restrict free speech. This individual would also have the power to order action if staff are sacked or disciplined for their opinions.
At the time, the DfE was criticised for failing to provide any tangible examples to justify its approach. As a result, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jenny Randerson lodged a written parliamentary question, asking how the Government is ensuring “that policies on higher education and freedom of speech are based on (1) accurate research, and (2) evidence which reflects a balance of information.”
In response, the Government confessed that there have only been “a small number of high-profile reported incidents in which staff or students have been threatened with negative consequences” for their political viewpoints, “including loss of privileges or dismissal, sometimes successfully”.
The limited evidence highlighted by the Government included studies by King’s College London (KCL), the University and College Union (UCU), the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Ironically, the KCL study opens with the observation that academic free speech has been “politicised” by the Conservative Party and figures on the right of politics.
“Irrespective of whether this is factually correct or not, the long-term political strategy seems to be to force universities to acknowledge that there is an issue and, through that, create (one could argue, ironically, a ‘safe’) space for more open discussion on issues on the right of the political spectrum and, through that, secure long-term political support for right-leaning parties,” the study reads.
A few paragraphs later, it states that free speech incidents – in which “you could legitimately critique [KCL] for not upholding its commitment to freedom of expression” – are “rare”, with just six events out of 30,000 falling into this category between 2015 and 2020. This is equivalent to just 0.002% of events held at KCL during this time period.
As for the so-called “chilling effect” that has been cited by the Government, whereby a general left-wing climate dissuades right-wing individuals from expressing their opinions, the evidence is also flimsy. Only 12% of students surveyed by KCL said that they hear about free speech incidents at university fairly or very often, with just a quarter saying that they were anxious about expressing their views openly.
“Our survey showed that students consider freedom of expression to be a highly salient issue, but few have had any direct experience of freedom of expression being inhibited in their own institution,” the report concluded.
If a Conservative MP had actually been to a university campus in the last 10 years, they would have realised that most students care infinitely more about shagging and drinking than political debate (unfortunately for politics, and for women, our Bullingdon Club elite pursued both).
What’s more, students themselves are broadly in support of selective censorship. The overwhelming majority – 63% – of students surveyed by KCL said that university officials should have the right to ban people with extreme views from speaking on campus.
Finally – and tellingly – the study states that: “there is already a strong policy framework” on free speech at university and that “further regulation in the UK is unlikely to make any difference to the issue and thus will be wholly symbolic.”
Even more bizarre is the Government’s reference to the UCU, given that the body trashed the Government’s free speech champions policy when it was first announced.
“It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the Government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students,” its general secretary Jo Grady said.
In fact, if there is any threat to academic freedoms, it comes from the Government itself, the UCU says. “In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with endemic job insecurity,” Grady added.
Not only is the right’s ‘free speech’ obsession devoid of fact, it’s also hypocritical. For, if there is a crisis, it has been created by the Conservative Party through its attempts to limit the freedom to protest, its policy of banning individuals from Whitehall events who have previously been critical of the Government, and its anathema to basic transparency. The death of the Queen, and the subsequent rage at anyone debating the merits of republicanism, also aptly illustrated this point – as did the years-long efforts of Brexiters to shut down those calling for a second referendum.
However, this has not stopped the Conservatives – and, even more aggressively, their allies in the press – from fighting the mythical ‘woke’ scourge that plagues university campuses.
It’s true that some right-wing speakers have faced protests on campus and have been sidelined by the media. The former Breitbart editor and alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, is now a pariah – banned from Twitter and broadly unwelcome on campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. Likewise, former The Sun and Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins has been cancelled by the British political establishment.
Yet it can hardly be argued, from a free speech perspective, that Hopkins and Yiannopoulos have been treated poorly. Their views are so incendiary that, when given a platform, they actively obstruct the freedoms of others. Hopkins, for example, wrote that she would “use gunships” against migrants crossing the channel to Dover, while Yiannopoulos once asked the question to his followers: ‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’
Cauterising them from the mainstream public conversation resulted in few negative side-effects. And, indeed, the decision not to consume someone’s content is a manifestation of free expression.
Others who claim to have been ‘cancelled’ – such as Toby Young, who lost a Government job in 2018 after concerned members of the public protested against some of his past unsavoury comments – have not really been cancelled in any meaningful way. Young has a sizable Twitter following, is an associate editor of The Spectator and has set up a ‘trade union’ to ostensibly defend free speech, whose trustees include a number of high-profile journalists and academics.
To a large extent, as Young’s case demonstrates, the participants in this debate about woke censorship are simply (and successfully) attempting to increase their own profile – knowing that it will attract the attention and jubilation of the right-wing media. The cancel culture conversation does not thrive within a free market; it is subsidised and promoted by big-money media moguls who seek to perpetuate a political agenda.
If ‘cancel culture’ does exist, it does so beyond the studio fights of pampered media personalities. The reality is that to be cancelled, you have to hold a position of influence; positions that are invariably and predominantly held by people from privileged backgrounds.
The upper reaches of academia, journalism and publishing, politics, entertainment and business are all dominated by white, privately-educated men from the south-east. Most people outside this system, who are unfamiliar with the gowns of Eton and the spires of Oxford, are effectively pre-cancelled. Their opinions can’t be shut down, because they are simply not heard in the first place.
It's clear why the likes of Young worry about being ‘cancelled’. Reaping the benefits of an elite education and the patronage of their families, they have always been heard; always provided with a platform. At the slightest sign of this elevated position being threatened, they have gone on the offensive. Unfortunately, however, the rest of us are forced to listen to their identity crisis, whether we like it or not.
The British establishment has always been infatuated with its own image. That’s why the top private schools, universities and their debauched drinking societies wear silly gowns and engage in pompous rituals. It is a projection; a way to make noise and to be seen. The members of this club therefore think they have an innate right to be heard, which is why they are so worried about being ‘cancelled’.
Funnily, the Bullingdon Club elite has used subtle strategies to limit the speech of opposition groups for centuries – namely by claiming that they alone are sensible, rational moderate actors, and that progressive ideas demonstrate a silly misunderstanding of the world we live in.
Here, too, the culture of the elite comes in useful for its members – allowing them to coat their regressive ideas in the veneer of intellectualism derived from ornate language. As the late political theorist Tom Nairn has written: “What the contemporary Anglo-British idiom does is to fuse literacy with aristocracy.”
In other words: the ideas expressed by the upper classes, because they are ordered, composed and presented in a way that is believed to be superior, are in turn assumed to be correct and grounded in well-evidenced, measured thought.
A pig in a top hat, however, is still a pig.
To read Sam Bright’s Bullingdon Club Britain: The Ransacking of a Nation in full, please click here to visit the Byline Books website.