Is Britain a nation of woke warriors or culture war reactionaries, statue saviours or statue slayers, free speech martyrs or cancel culture crusaders? To answer those questions, More in Common spent last month talking to Britons from across the country about so-called cultural flashpoints.
But what we found was far from a country riven in two. Twitter may combust with one outrage after another, but most people carry on their lives unaware. When they are confronted with issues, Brits do have opinions – but few choose the extremes. In a word, Brits are balancers. They feel proud of the way we have changed, but they also like a lot about who we are. And they believe we should “do change” in ways that are true to ourselves, and distinctly British.
Almost universally, Brits feel that they have seen significant changes in their lifetimes – even those in their twenties. There’s an almost universal sense of pride in our advancements in making the UK a fairer and more equal country. But there is also a deep sense of frustration with how our democracy is working, and how divided we have become.
A key concern that is largely neglected in public debates, yet comes up time and time again around “culture wars”, is leadership. Why aren’t leaders helping us navigate change? Why are they often steering us into conflict with their soundbites and rhetorical grenades, acting as culture war arsonists rather than putting out the flames? In failing to de-escalate tensions and find common ground on complex issues – the real work of leadership – they are failing to do the job people expect of them.
This failure helps explain why 84 per cent of Britons feel that politicians don’t care about what people like them think. More than that, it leaves them worried that our differences are deeper than in the past, and that our disagreements are beyond being solved. But this is wrong. It’s easy to forget that we’ve been through fierce disagreements before and resolved them. That’s true of so many things we take for granted today, including religious tolerance, protections for disabled people, greater gender equality and rights for gay people.
How then did we navigate through these changes, without descending into culture wars? The answer is in no small part through leadership.
Until 1975, women couldn’t open bank accounts in their own name, and until 1982 they could be refused service in pubs with no consequences. These facts seem almost unbelievable today, and that is something the public take pride in – with almost 80 per cent of the public agreeing “I am proud of the advancements we have made in equality between men and women”.
How were those changes brought about? The answer is through leadership that persuaded the public, found common ground between groups and took practical steps forward. Schools working to dispel gender stereotypes, workplaces seeking to break down barriers to women succeeding by becoming more family-friendly, campaigners highlighting inequity and political leaders passing anti-discrimination legislation and promoting transparency through measures such as gender pay gap legislation.
Of course, there is still much more to do to secure gender equality in the UK, and most Britons agree that men still have advantages over women. Nonetheless, the change that Brits have seen within their lifetimes is remarkable, widely supported and indeed on-going – as we have seen with the #MeToo movement.
In addition to greater gender equality, when we asked people to name examples of how Britain’s culture has changed for the better, people of all ages and political persuasions mentioned the way that we now treat gay people and their families.
This change too is even more recent. Homosexuality was decriminalised less than a lifetime ago, and even at the turn of the millennia, same-sex partnerships enjoyed no protection in law. How then has change on gay equality been both so rapid, and readily embraced in recent years?
The key lesson was that the push for gay equality was pitched as being aligned with, rather than alien, to British values. Equal marriage was presented as an opportunity to strengthen the institution, rather than tearing it down. Advocates took an incremental approach, trying to bring the public with them, including those on the right, at every stage. Rather than talking in abstract language or ideals, campaigners focused on practical steps that people could see in their everyday lives: preventing kids from being bullied and working with employers to showcase the business case for equality.
When we asked where Brits see inspiring examples of leadership today, two names came up time after time – Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate. The England manager’s Dear England letter struck a chord with many, and changed their views. It helped them understand why players were taking the knee and tackling racism in sport.
The way that Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have spoken about foregoing competitions for mental health reasons is confusing to some, but their explanations can help us better understand and talk about mental health.
Few Britons think or talk about these issues in binary forms, as if culture comes down to clicking a button to like or dislike, support or oppose. Our conversations this summer convince us that change does not lead inevitably to conflict and division, but successfully navigating change requires leadership that meets Britons on their own terms, and takes things forward.
Leaders need to play less to their base, move past the politics of “us-versus-them” and instead focus on helping the country to embrace change in ways that are nuanced, confident and true to who we are and the country we want to be.
Luke Tryl is the UK director of More in Common
More in Common’s report Dousing the Flames: How Leaders can Better Navigate Cultural Change in 2020s Britain
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies