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The False Narrative of the New British Culture War

The False Narrative of the New British Culture War

‘We are not an island’.

That one of the most prominent salvos onto the UK’s cultural battleground should emanate from the marketing department of a multinational financial institution is a development laced with absurdity. But the debate surrounding the contentious HSBC advertising campaign has largely missed the mark. Based as it is on understanding and exploiting behavioural trends and moral psychology, most sophisticated advertising is, at heart, neither sermon nor admonishment. HSBC was not launching a new culture war. It merely recognised an already well-developed cultural narrative and ran with it. It saw that the war had already arrived, and sought to capitalise.

HSBC’s target customers in this instance consist of those who view the deep euroscepticism revealed by the Brexit vote as indicative of a persistent and growing tide of xenophobia and insularity in the UK; a culture of widespread ‘othering’ and rejection of outsiders. It has become a fashionable tendency to talk of two nations—open and closed—with all the moral connotations that this implies.

This perspective abounds on social media platforms, and also in the daily opinion columns of the liberal press. In December 2018, Matthew D’Ancona of the Guardian wrote that “I am forced to conclude that there is now a sufficiency of Britons who just don’t much like people of foreign extraction, and certainly don’t want many more of them around the place”. In his article, D’Ancona offers scant evidence for this conclusion beyond his own beliefs. So does his view of modern Britain actually stand up to analysis? Or is a culture war being promoted on false premises?

The first challenge comes from the fact that linking levels of euroscepticism to xenophobia is an empirical dead end. In recent Pew research, among the ten EU countries measured, only Spain reported a higher proportion than the UK of people saying they ‘wanted more immigration’. In the same study, 37% of Brits said they would prefer to reduce immigration. This compares to 41% of French citizens, 58% of Germans, 71% of Italians and 72% of Hungarians. A study conducted in 2017 found that of 8 EU nations, UK citizens (jointly with Swedes) were the least likely to view immigrants as an economic burden. Research from the European Commission in 2018 has shown that the UK ranks 6th among the EU 28 in terms of reported comfort with interactions with immigrants. When it comes to the specific issue of immigration from Muslim-majority countries, Chatham House found in 2016 that only Spain has fewer restrictionists than the UK.

In study after study the UK is shown to be one of the least immigrant-hostile countries in Europe. But the more significant lesson from the research is that levels of xenophobia do not correlate in any meaningful way with euroscepticism. If the most xenophobic countries were also the most eurosceptic, the UK would be somewhere towards the back of the queue to leave the EU, not the lone voice at the front demanding exit. Other European countries that also demonstrate lower levels of xenophobia have mixed views about European integration; they include the relatively eurosceptic Danes and Swedes, as well as the committed integrationist countries of Ireland, Spain and Portugal. The idea that xenophobia can act as a proxy for euroscepticism is deeply flawed.

Despite these comparative facts, it is also true that the leave vote in 2016 was motivated to a large degree by popular discontent around migration control. Specifically, frustration was directed at the EU-wide policy of freedom of movement, which entrenches a labour union among 28 countries. Most other EU countries are relatively relaxed about free movement within the bloc, and are more concerned about immigration from outside the EU. This partly explains the lack of correlation between xenophobia and euroscepticism, highlighted above. For countries more committed to the European project, movement within the EU is not seen as immigration in the same way that external migration is. By contrast, Brits generally have a weak sense of European identity (only 15% of Brits self-describe as European according to a 2015 study) and a strong aversion to immigration policy being determined at the European level. Free movement, in this respect, forms part of the sovereignty debate as well as the immigration debate; it is the clearest and most visible manifestation of the transfer of decision-making powers from Westminster to Brussels. Disentangling arguments about freedom of movement from ones about sovereignty is therefore a much more problematic task than has often been acknowledged.

Furthermore, as @post_liberal argues, the desire to subject immigration from the EU 27 to democratic control is also a more complex issue than the ‘open versus closed’ narrative would suggest. Although Leave voters were more likely to advocate immigration control, four out of ten Remain voters thought immigration levels were too high at the time of the referendum. If support for immigration control is synonymous with xenophobia, then a desire to exclude foreigners must exist among “not only putative ‘illiberal’ leave voters but also large numbers of seemingly ‘liberal’ Remain voters, and a large section of the non-white British population too”. Recent Pew research has also shown that three quarters of immigration restrictionists in the United Kingdom are supportive of encouraging high-skilled immigration into the country. Education and skill level are more important drivers of British attitudes to immigration than nationality or ethnicity.

When taken together—the lack of correlation between xenophobia and euroscepticism; the interconnection of free movement and sovereignty concerns; and the complexity of views on immigration control—all cast serious doubt on the culture war narrative propagated by D’Ancona and others. However, in politics, strong narrative usually trumps factual analysis. The desire of some powerful voices to treat the referendum as a moral question is not only a powerful force, but risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as it drives us towards greater polarisation.

This situation suits many corporations and media outlets who are increasingly happy to go along with promoting social, cultural and political division, since clearly defined moral and psychological tribes enable a more targeted approach to their commercial enterprises. Megan McArdle at the Washington Post has expressed intelligent concern about the civic effects of the consumer world becoming aligned with political identities in the US, asking “What happens to an increasingly demographically sorted America where we no longer share even our basic commercial culture…how are these two completely separate peoples to jointly decide on the running of one vast country?”. As the communitarian philosopher Michael Sandel has pointed out, when our economic lives become stratified around political identity we risk losing many of the circumstances in which we can foster the shared civic space and mutual sympathy required for democracy to function.

A Manichaean division has developed around the EU referendum, egged on by some companies and media organisations who benefit from the polarisation. We risk embarking on a deeply divisive US-style culture war on the basis of a false premise: the belief that the UK is experiencing a widespread wave of xenophobia that can be identified through euroscepticism and the Brexit vote. But British euroscepticism is much more complex than this reductive narrative suggests, and is instead rooted in a particular historical and constitutional context. The simplistic elision of xenophobia and euroscepticism is false and should be resisted. The UK is less xenophobic than most European countries, all of whom are more committed to European integration.

HSBC’s ‘We are not an island’ ad campaign may look like a well-meaning attempt to galvanise people around a positive moral and political message, an act of corporate social responsibility. In fact, HSBC cleverly perpetuates, and looks to profit from, a pernicious myth which is both false and destructively divisive.

 

John Gaston

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John Gaston is a former politics teacher based out of Brighton, UK, interested in the history of ideas and political thought.

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29 thoughts on “The False Narrative of the New British Culture War

  1. “What happens to an increasingly demographically sorted America where we no longer share even our basic commercial culture…how are these two completely separate peoples to jointly decide on the running of one vast country?”

    I don’t really disagree with her argument but seems a bit late to ask that question. The cultural center failed to hold and skipped town a long time back; there’s no way a shared “commercial culture” can replace it, unless we expect people to live their lives by the tenets of Pepsi and Wal-Mart. I think she’s expecting consumer culture to do as much heavy lifting as the people who want it to reform society.

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    • Isn’t it that the “shared” commercial culture was ended by the internet. It really doesn’t matter who says what or ad campaigns. The internet has forever expanded our commercial options and modern companies can micro target us. None of that is wrong or bad in itself. But it’s inevitable and irreversible. If there was a shared commercial culture it’s only because there were no options.

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        • There were certainly sub-cultures ranging from very religious people to science fiction/fantasy nerds to LGBT whose cultures were outside the mainstream culture. Racial minorities and immigrant groups also had their own kind of separate to very separate sub-cultures. However, I think that when options were more limited people really did tend to share more of the same tastes in music, movies, clothing, and other entertainment.

          It’s why you had more big massively popular pop musicians playing big massively sold out concerts in the past. There were critical masses for dozens of artists or bands to have multiple gold and platinum albums. These days you have fewer really big stars at that level. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and a few others. During the 80s and 90s you had dozens at that level. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Guns N’Roses, Aerosmith, Run DMC, Whitney Houston, REM, Nirvana, etc. Likewise you had more big hit TV shows that millions of people watched like the Cosby Show or Full House rather than more shows getting audiences in the low millions.

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    • I think the idea is that without a shared mass culture, there is little dialog because people have fewer things in common. In the past Democrats and Republicans might have disagreed politically but they generally listened to the same music and watched the same tv and movies. These days not so much. Without a shared cultural discourse, there is really nothing to unite people.

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    • Hi Rufus, I think this is a great point – it is not a new phenomenon. I guess what I would say is that with the advent of more effective data targeting methods, companies are more likely to see it as in their interests to foster cultural divisions which make it easier to group consumers.

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  2. Having some corporations be in at least of support of social liberalism is one of the biggest changes in business history. In the not so distant past business people and by extension their corporations, tended to be enthusiastic supporters of social conservatism as they were of capitalism. The slow shift to paying at least lip service to socially liberal positions like feminism, multiculturalism, and LGBT rights is astounding even if actual practice isn’t up to snuff.

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    • Having some corporations be in at least of support of social liberalism is one of the biggest changes in business history.

      Businesses support “causes” insofar as it effects their bottom line. If playing to the patriarchy worked in 2019, they’d do it. So don’t give *any* credit to businesses change in behavior unless you’re speaking as a shareholder.

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      • I’m not sure about this. Plenty of business owners were willing to be really far right socially during the 1950s and 1960s despite the sheer buying power of the baby boomers. Same with past generations of business owners. There is certainly a lot of opportunism in much of their advocacy of soft liberalism but I’m not sure it is entirely self-serving either.

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        • CEO’s lose their jobs if they don’t pad the bottom line, right?

          There are exceptions – CEOs who are majority share holders – but they’re few and far between. (I love that expression tho I don’t know what it means.)

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          • I’m usually the first to echo this sentiment, and I feel odd pushing back on it, but my experience is that this isn’t quite right. In the modern American corporation the botton line is the most important thing, and when forced to make a decision between bottom line and some greater social or political good the bottom line will always prevail. However those kinds of decisions are few, far between, and rarely so stark.

            Maybe I’ve just been in corporate America too long but most people in it in a decision making capacity believe they’re doing good, at least within the constraints of running a successful business. Now I’ve seen people convince themselves that what is good lines up with their self-interest in very convenient ways, but I have yet to come accross the Hayek quoting Randian ideologue of lore. The social liberalism of corporate America is soft, squishy, and always comes with a few asterisks, but it is real.

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            • The social liberalism of corporate America is soft, squishy, and always comes with a few asterisks, but it is real.

              Interesting. Is this one of those “reality has a liberal bias” sorta things? Or that decision-makers intentionally try to push things in a liberal direction?

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              • A little of both. You have a perfect storm right now- the business managers, professionals and prominent employees are, generally, socially liberal on a personal level and also social liberalism, at least of the performative woke manner en vogue right now is both popular with the masses and is also cheap cheap cheap!

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                • Make it so that you can’t get a corporate job without going to college first, and make it so that you can’t go to college without also taking a course in something like Women’s Studies or Pan-African Studies or Latina Film Theory and you’re going to find a lot of corporate drones who have a certain set of beliefs.

                  (This isn’t intended to be a criticism.)

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              • What’s basically happening is that while politics might still be slightly biased to the right due to things like the Senate, the Electoral College, sizes of various generations, and turnout percentages, commerce is tilted slightly to the left based on well, there’s a giant group of people under 40 who they want to sell things too and the vast majority of those people have pretty much zero issues with the “crazy left-wing” ideas the corporations are embracing and more importantly, the people who do oppose them don’t have financial or cultural cachet.

                Nike figured this out – not being loud about social justice issues costs them more in sales than whatever right-wing boycott will hurt them.

                Plus, as said, the vast majority of employees will be social liberals, again, especially by the standards of whatever Rod Dreher is complaining about this week.

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              • I think it comes from a number of places. One, as North says below, is the marketing aspect but I think that aspect is probably going to be short lived, and could actually come back to bite the broader left over time.

                More important is that big companies tend to be based in blue areas, have college educated leadership, and a whole bunch of people in legal, HR, and compliance departments doing their damndest to keep Saul from getting rich. I also think that there’s somewhat of a cultural sanity dividend enjoyed by center left social liberalism, though I also think that’s very fragile, and where the marketing thing and absurd performative wokeness could erode that advantage.

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                • A little late getting back to this, but I’m wondering if what you’re talking about explains why Schultz is being fluffed so hard in mainstream news orgs. Eg., that he embodies the type of soft-liberalism you’re talking about*, one which dominates in corporate culture but, given his approvals, not outside of it.

                  *Not only you, but Lee, Saul, North….

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            • I think you would do a massive study and break it down by industry.

              When it comes to public facing companies selling consumer goods, they are tending more towards small-l social liberalism and this could largely be because they did studies on changing demographics. Conservative, white guys are dying out and younger cohorts are more diverse and socially liberal. It just makes business sense to cater to their views.

              Another factor I think is the hardcore social-conservatism and craziness of the GOP is turning away a lot of people who would probably have center-right politics in any other country. Most of these people are educated professionals. A while ago, Paul Campos did a study showing how lawyer donations to the GOP in 2012 were pretty decent and a good number of lawyers (especially at big firms) voted for Romney. These numbers plummeted in 2016 and beyond.

              Lots of professionals take pride in their craftsmenship and Trump is just seen as a boor and this offends them. This includes very conservative lawyers like George Conoway.

              Now what is strange is that plaintiff’s lawyer me and big corporate defense lawyer are both liberal Democrats.

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              • I think you’re dead on and I would be interested in the industry breakdown. I’m in healthcare and more recently health care technology which obviously attracts people whose interests and perspectives could broadly be considered liberal. I’ve heard other industries, banking for example, can be different.

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      • To a large degree, socialism comes from big company bosses. The early Marxists were swayed by industrialist Robert Owen and his experiments in improving workers living conditions, along with his experiments at setting up socialist utopias in the US. Those reports were completely false (all the experiments were predictable epic disasters) but enough to have Engels overcome his doubts about the whole enterprise.

        Henry Ford was another example of a far-left corporate boss whose ego envisioned his workers as a society for him to mold and shape. He had a huge influence on German national socialists and of course the Soviets, leaping on a Dearborn Soviet pact in 1929 to produce cars on the Volga and to recreate River Rouge in Gorky. US engineers from big corporations like Ford built their tractor plant in Karkhov, their dams, etc. Stalin said Ford was one of the world’s great industrialists and asked “May God preserve him.” Stalin also said “The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.”

        When a company operates on a grand scale, trying to manage the lives of its workers, including providing housing and meals for them, what you have is a socialist collective operating in a larger market. And of course like regular socialism, all the money piles up at the CEO level. (A Russian jet has arrived in Venezuela to fly all the central bank’s gold out, since that belongs to Maduro and his top tier socialists, who are going to keep their loot.)

        Facebook, Google, and Twitter are similar, trying to create a political culture in their workforce, policing thoughts, providing free employee meals, etc. It’s an impulse that occurs to socialists who build business empires.

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  3. Hmmmm. My first thought in reading this post is “the problem is when culture and economics collide”.

    My second thought is that it’s very interesting that Spain is among the lowest antagonists towards immigration yet by most accounts it’s one of the best places to live in the world. So I can only guess that Spain is already corrupted.

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  4. The last link goes to a gated, prize-winning article entitled Inevitability and contingency: The political economy of Brexit, which concludes

    the political economy of Britain generated by Britain’s position as non-euro member of the EU while possessing the offshore financial centre of the euro-zone and Britain’s eschewal in 2004 of transition arrangements on freedom of movement for that year’s accession states made Brexit an eventual inevitability, saving a prior collapse of the euro-zone.

    Wish I could find an ungated copy to read, but from bits quoted elsewhere it sounds like, the friction of electoral democracy necessitates political leaders committing to improve the lives of voters. “Only if Cameron could have released himself from the desire to win the 2015 election, an act of self-restraint almost always beyond politicians, could he have escaped from the diminution of decision-making options at work and, consequently, bought British membership of the EU significantly more time.” Part of the inevitability is evidenced by Labour Party’s own previous commitment to undertake a referendum for any EU Constitution, a commitment skuttled temporarily by France’s rejection of the EU Constitution, which was resumed in piecemeal fashion.

    I take it the contingencies are various political moves taking place in the context of the vortex of EU skepticism from various fronts. “The 2008 financial crash and the euro-zone crisis put a time-bomb under the sustainability of Britain’s membership of the EU.” The immigration component was that as a non-Euro country, the UK served as employer of last resort, unable to constrain or credibly promise to constrain low-skilled migration, but this was just a piece of it.

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    • Hi Chip

      It’s a very strong piece, but I feel it sort of vindicates the point of my article. There are very strong personal feelings about Brexit, but the connection of euroscepticism with widespread racism and xenophobia is simply not borne out by the evidence. However, because people have strong feelings the cultural narrative – open vs closed – is very strong. I don’t think the evidence can necessarily hold back this narrative, but I think it’s worth putting forward a counter-narrative which fights the polarisation.

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  5. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on Brexit, and I’ve read a lot of them. It provokes a number of responses for me. (Incidentally, the book How to Lose a Referendum by Farrell and Goldsmith also lists a number of contingent mistakes the Remain camp made.) I quite like the recent article by Jeremy Cliffe that roots a lot of it in our separate political and legal traditions. Although he did not mention the US founding father James Wilson (previously a Scot), it seems to me that Cliffe’s article points towards Wilson’s observation about “the accommodating spirit of the common law”. The European civil law tradition seems rather more rigid, as we have seen. What on earth is ‘Ever closer union’ about anyway? If the first aim in the Treaty of Rome had been working towards material prosperity and general amity, the English would probably have got behind it.

    In the Unherd discussion with Matthew Goodwin and David Aaronovitch that you link to, Goodwin mentions the historians Linda Colley and Robert Tombs on the historic precursors of Britain’s EUroscepticism. Linda Colley here uses Lawrence Stone’s book Origins of the English Civil War to help us understand the vote. Specifically that there are short term triggers, medium term precipitants, long term preconditions. This model helps explain the UK’s decision beyond the short term triggers (which Stone called ‘elite inefficiencies’ – Will Straw as executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe anyone???). Specifically the British experience of war has shaped its attitudes to Europe and the EU. The world wars did not leave the UK feeling European integration was necessary. The UK’s 150 years of military and material success (1789-1941) left the country feeling that Parliament is a successful body (and Europe a mess). Tombs makes some good points, especially that radical change in England tends to come from below, not from an elite vanguard as in most European countries.

    I would say that one of the key differences between the UK (or really England) and the rest of the EU are that the lessons the UK drew from WW2 is that democracy saved us, while the Europeans (at least the Germans) feel that it was democracy (of the Weimar kind) that got them into that mess and thus it should be limited. Two diametrically opposed myths of history. Which takes us to an alternate binary opposition. Rather than Open/Closed, how about Democratic/Technocratic?

    Of course, you could just ask how EUrophilic the UK is by asking whether people whether they would want to join the Euro. I’d hazard a guess it would be much more than 52/48 against. The Oxford development economist Paul Collier asks a similar question about our membership of the EU through the lens of the Euro here.

    Here by the way is another article you can add to your list of comparative anglo-xenophilia list.

    Perhaps critics are conflating concern with immigration with xenophobia. I can think of a number of reasons that one might want to limit immigration that are not xenophobic. Anyway, the main point is that immigration should be a democratic decision, and disruption occurs when it (when any major political decision) is removed from discussion. That’s the problem with technocracy. As Helen Thompson said in her most recent article “Its [the EU’s] default modus operandi pushes back against serious problems by rigidly asserting its own internal doctrines and hierarchies, and by expressing its commitment to a rules-based international order.” Which ironically sounds rather like Jeremy Cliffe on the more flexible British approach. It’s no coincidence that the UK has no written constitution.

    Incidentally, the new Coke ad is a much more successful, less hectoring version of ‘we’re all in it together’ message: showing multi-ethnic football fans united by a love of the game, but without some silly geopolitical lecture. Nice.

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