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Playing the Identity Card: from Brexit to Culture Wars

Karine Tournier-Sol
p. 55-72

Résumé

Recent academic and media interest has focused on the emergence of identity-based politics in the British political landscape, with the identity divide appearing as a new structuring factor, as blatantly exposed by the Brexit referendum. This article focuses on the ability, and the growing propensity, of British right-wing political parties to play the identity card, to press this very button and activate identity conflict as a mobilizing factor, by opposing groups on grounds of social and cultural values, such as national identity and immigration, beyond traditional dividing lines such as economic redistribution. The aim is to explore how identity has been repeatedly mobilized by the right in recent years for electoral purposes, and with what effects. This begins with the UK Independence Party’s success in activating the identity divide and mobilizing identity conflicts in the years before the referendum. The second section focuses on how this mobilization of identity extended to the mainstream right and how the Conservative party reclaimed the identity card following the referendum, as the identity divide reshaped British politics and restructured party competition and the political parties' electorates. Finally, the third section explores how part of the right has been deliberately stimulating “a culture war” narrative in an attempt to maintain the identity divide holding together the Conservative 2019 electoral coalition of socially conservative voters. This raises the question of the potential impact of such a polarizing strategy, not only on the electorate and on wider social cohesion, but also on the Conservative party itself.

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Introduction

  • 1 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Ca (...)
  • 2 Surridge, P., “Values, volatility and voting: Understanding Voters in England 2015-2019”, UK in a C (...)

1Recent academic and media interest has focused on the emergence of identity-based politics in the British political landscape, with the identity divide appearing as a new structuring factor, as blatantly exposed by the Brexit referendum1. The referendum revealed the coexistence of two tribes, divided by identity and values, with opposite and conflicting worldviews – identity here referring to social identity, based on group belonging and group values. However, the influence of values and identity on voting behaviour is not new2, and actually predates the 2016 referendum, partly accounting for its outcome and the ensuing polarization in post-Brexit Britain, which also stem from the very mobilization of this identity divide in the political arena.

2This article focuses on the ability, and the growing propensity, of British right-wing political parties to play the identity card, to press this very button and activate identity conflict as a mobilizing factor, by opposing groups on grounds of social and cultural values, such as national identity and immigration, beyond traditional dividing lines such as economic redistribution. The aim is to explore how identity has been repeatedly mobilized by the right (here encompassing the Conservative party, UKIP and the Brexit party) in recent years for electoral purposes, and with what effects.

  • 3 Alexandre-Collier, A., Schnapper, P., Usherwood, S., “The nested games of the UK’s EU referendum: r (...)

3This begins with the UK Independence Party’s success in activating the identity divide and mobilizing identity conflicts in the years before the referendum. This phase is crucial as it marked the starting point of the sequence we are still going through, in which identity has been increasingly instrumentalized by the British right, with the referendum a critical juncture3. The identity card was decisive in UKIP’s unprecedented surge which partly accounted for David Cameron’s referendum pledge in 2013.

4The second section will focus on how this mobilization of identity extended to the mainstream right and how the Conservative party reclaimed the identity card following the referendum, as the identity divide reshaped British politics and restructured party competition and the political parties' electorates. The Conservative party’s strategic shift to the political ground of values and identity was pivotal in its landslide victory in the 2019 general election.

5Finally, the third section will explore how part of the right has been deliberately unfolding “a culture war” narrative in an attempt to maintain the identity divide holding together the Conservative 2019 electoral coalition of socially conservative voters. This raises the question of the potential impact of such a polarizing strategy, not only on the electorate and on wider social cohesion, but also on the Conservative party itself.

How UKIP mobilized the identity divide

  • 4 Tournier-Sol, K., "Reworking the Eurosceptic and Conservative Traditions into a Populist Narrative: (...)
  • 5 Rydgren, J., “Is Extreme Right-Wing Populism Contagious? Explaining the Emergence of a New Party Fa (...)
  • 6 Ford, R., Goodwin, M., Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Ro (...)

6UKIP activated the identity divide following the strategic populist shift orchestrated under the agency of its leader Nigel Farage. The identity card is a key resource of populist parties allowing them to transcend the traditional left-right cleavage and maximize their electoral potential. UKIP found its winning formula through a reworking of its founding Eurosceptic and Conservative traditions into a populist narrative4. This rebranding of its master frame5 proved to be a successful strategy to move beyond its image as a mere offshoot of the Conservative party, extending its electoral potential beyond disaffected conservative voters to traditional Labour working-class supporters6, in its self-proclaimed revolt.

  • 7 Müller, J-W, What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, p. 3.
  • 8 Noury, A., Roland, G., "Identity Politics and Populism in Europe", Annual Review of Political Scien (...)
  • 9 Rooduijn, M., “State of the Field: How to Study Populism and Adjacent Topics? A Plea for both More (...)

7Identity was instrumental in this process: it is an essential part of the narrative of populist parties to mobilize electoral support. Müller explains that “populism is always a form of identity politics”7 though the reverse is not necessarily true, and “not all versions of identity politics are populist". The identity divide rests on group belonging and group values. It is therefore inherent to populism which builds on in-group and out-group distinctions, and basically hinges on identity conflict. Both proceed from and rely on a similar exclusionary mechanism, a dualist vision of the world between an “us” versus “them”. According to Noury and Rolland, identity politics in its European version is fundamentally exclusionary8. In UKIP’s populist radical right discourse, this exclusion is two-fold, with a double dimension, vertical and horizontal, anti-elite and anti-immigration: an exclusionary dimension towards immigrants, a horizontal “us” versus “them” dimension typical of the radical right, on top of the vertical “people” versus “the elite” dimension characteristic of populism9.

8The identity card activated by this populist shift opened up new opportunities for UKIP as it allowed the party to cut across traditional party lines, across the left and right cleavage, repositioning itself on the ground of identity and values, which would turn out to play so important a part in the referendum vote. This move was instrumental in the party’s unprecedented surge, as it responded to long-term social structural changes which had progressively given prominence to identity and values over more traditional socio-economic aspects. This evolution has been documented in several recent studies.

  • 10 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge U (...)
  • 11 Inglehart, R., The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles in Advanced Industrial S (...)

9According to the cultural backlash thesis developed by Norris and Inglehart10, growing prosperity in Western societies after the Second World War induced a gradual shift from materialist values, emphasizing economic and physical security above all, to post-materialist11 and progressive values in the 1970s, mostly in younger generations, which led to a silent revolution in cultural values towards social liberalism. This stimulated a cultural backlash among voters with authoritarian and socially conservative values, driving increased support for political parties like UKIP. This shift is generational, with conservative values stronger among older generations.

  • 12 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Ca (...)

10Sobolewska and Ford develop a similar theoretical argument in Brexitland12, demonstrating that long-term social and demographic changes have produced new fundamental divisions in the electorate over identity and values. Educational expansion on the one hand and rising ethnic diversity due to mass immigration on the other are the two key drivers in the emergence of new identity divides in the British electorate – both being also generationally structured. Those long-term changes have generated new groups in the British electorate, with conflicting interests and worldviews mostly articulated around attitudes towards immigration and ethnic diversity. Immigration is pivotal in the activation of identity conflicts, of the identity divide between in and out-groups.

  • 13 Wadsworth J. et al, Brexit and Immigration in the UK, LSE, Centre for Economic Performance, 2016.
  • 14 Evans, G., Mellon, J., “Immigration, Euroscepticism and the rise and fall of UKIP”, Party Politics, (...)

11Identity and values therefore gradually took centre stage and became a new dividing line in the British electorate, visible through the increasing salience of related issues such as immigration and diversity. All this found an echo in UKIP’s discourse which activated identity as a mobilizing factor. The turning-point was UKIP’s tactical move to make immigration its top priority, after skillfully merging it with EU membership which was presented as the main cause of rising immigration numbers in the UK. This decisive move was made possible following Blair’s decision to open the UK’s borders to new Eastern European countries immediately in 2004, contrary to the vast majority of other EU member-states which opted for transitional controls. This resulted in a substantial influx of EU immigrants in the UK13, raising voters’ concerns and therefore decisively activating electoral demand. UKIP seized on this opportunity, capitalizing on it to boost its potential for mobilization beyond traditional party lines14. It allowed the party to respond to the cultural anxieties and grievances of voters holding ethnocentric views.

  • 15 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge U (...)
  • 16 Partos, R., The Making of the Conservative Party’s Immigration Policy, Routledge, 2019.
  • 17 Garbaye, R., Latour, V. (eds), “Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Post-Brexit Britain: Politica (...)
  • 18 BBC News, 25 July 2013.

12On the supply-side, UKIP was therefore the first party, in that political sequence, to successfully activate the identity divide and mobilize identity conflicts. Several factors combined to make it possible for the party, with timing an essential element, together with the political and ideological adaptability demonstrated by Nigel Farage’s party. UKIP enjoyed a particularly favourable context which allowed it to be in a unique position to capture this fertile political ground and frame the political debate on identity-related issues15. The party took ownership of the issue of immigration, traditionally a Conservative preserve16. David Cameron’s party was outflanked by UKIP due to the government’s inability to cut immigration numbers to the tens of thousands, as pledged during the 2010 election campaign. By linking immigration and EU membership, UKIP actually deprived Cameron of political leeway and credibility – the Prime Minister’s hands were tied by free movement in the EU single market. To counter the rising UKIP challenge and the threat it represented for their electoral prospects, the Conservatives radicalized their own discourse on Europe and immigration. The infamous “hostile environment policy” introduced in 2012 by Theresa May as Home Secretary in David Cameron’s government can be seen as a response to the UKIP threat and an attempt to reclaim the political ground of immigration. This strong campaign against illegal immigration was epitomized by “Operation Vaken”, more commonly known as the “Go Home Campaign”, carried out in 2013, with mobile billboard vans driven around six London boroughs with high immigration in order to encourage voluntary departures17. The scheme, which was clear dog-whistle politics aiming at sending signals to ethnocentric voters, raised controversy in the political class. Nigel Farage himself criticized the “nasty and unpleasant” tone of the billboards18, which he said were only intended to try and deter people from voting UKIP by showing that the government was actually doing something against immigration – illegal immigration being one area where it could claim to be able to make a difference. This testifies to a kind of contagion, resulting from competition in the political arena for ownership of identity issues.

  • 19 The Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2013.

13Under pressure from its right, David Cameron opted to go for an in/out referendum, in an attempt to “shoot the UKIP fox”19, testifying to the disproportionate influence of the party considering its lack of national representation.

How the Conservative party reclaimed the identity card

  • 20 “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms say (...)
  • 21 Tournier-Sol, K., “From UKIP to the Brexit party: The politicization of European integration and di (...)
  • 22 Mudde, C.,”The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, 39:4, 2004, p. 563.

14The referendum campaign offered pro-Leave Conservatives more latitude to voice their criticisms and adopt their own narrative, especially as David Cameron had discharged government members from the principle of collective responsibility. Conservatives from Vote Leave therefore played the identity card, emulating UKIP and pressing the identity button in an attempt to break Remain’s steady lead in the opinion polls. Moving onto the same political ground as Nigel Farage’s party, Vote Leave switched its focus to immigration, which is instrumental, as we’ve seen, in stimulating identity conflict: it resorted to dog-whistle politics, raising the spectre of Turkey's supposedly imminent accession to the EU. Establishment politicians such as Michael Gove also tried to play on identity conflict by adopting an anti-elite discourse, declaring in a TV interview that “people in this country have had enough of experts”20. Vote Leave therefore co-opted part of UKIP’s ideas and rhetoric, reclaiming the identity card through a populist radical-right discourse reflecting once more a contagion of the mainstream right21. It combined a strategy of inclusion and exclusion: inclusion of UKIP's rhetoric and ideas, and exclusion of UKIP as a political actor22. This strategy proved to be a vote-winner, activating an identity divide between what would soon emerge as the two tribes of Brexitland.

  • 23 Evans, G., Menon, A., Brexit and British Politics, Polity Press, 2017; Mudde, C., The Far Right in (...)
  • 24 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge U (...)
  • 25 Goodhart, D., The Road to Somewhere: the New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017. Norris (...)

15Referenda are intrinsically polarizing23, exacerbating positions between two distinct and opposed camps: people are compelled to take sides, reinforcing the salience of group belonging and identities, those two tribes which were exposed by the result – social identity groups24 with group values and group attachments. The referendum result revealed the coexistence of two tribes with two conflicting worldviews: the "identity conservatives" and the "identity liberals", as labelled by Sobolewska and Ford, fundamentally divided over immigration and diversity, ie cultural issues. Goodhart draws a different opposition, also mapping on the Leave/Remain divide, between the “Somewheres” – rooted communities, socially conservative, often less educated – and the “Anywheres”25 – mobile cosmopolitans, socially liberal and university educated.

  • 26 Surridge, P., “The values divide means voters can switch parties more easily”, UK in a Changing Eur (...)
  • 27 Swales, K., Understanding the Leave Vote, National Centre for Social Research, 2016, p. 16. Curtice (...)
  • 28 Curtice, J., “A Revolt on the Right? The Social and Political Attitudes of UKIP Supporters”, Britis (...)
  • 29 Tournier-Sol, K., “From UKIP to Brexit: The Right-Wing Populist Surge in the UK”, in Tournier-Sol, (...)

16Those identities cut across the left/right cleavage, across traditional party lines26, as reflected by analysis of the Leave vote. The left-right split was less important than people’s position on social values: the libertarian-authoritarian scale proved to be a much stronger indicator of the vote than the left-right scale27, with a strong correlation between the Leave vote and authoritarian values: 66% of voters identifying with authoritarian values voted Leave, compared with only 18% of those identifying with libertarian values. This corroborates studies on the profile of UKIP voters, described as socially conservative and authoritarian28. It also validates the party’s strategy and its activation of the identity card, its mobilization of the political ground of identity and values in the years prior to the referendum29.

  • 30 Jennings, W., Stoker, G., “Tilting Towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? Political Change in England and t (...)

17The identity divide between Leavers/Remainers therefore appeared as a new structuring factor in British politics, with this polarization disrupting the political game and restructuring party competition and the parties’ electorates. It marked the start of a process of realignment of the British political order along this new divide, which continued in the successive general elections of 2017 and 2019 – a “tilting of the axis” also reflecting long-term trends30.

  • 31 May, T., speech at the Conservative conference, 5 October 2016.

18In this emerging new political order, Theresa May quickly repositioned the Conservative party on UKIP ground, on the political ground of social conservatism, in a clear attempt to recapture the electoral support of Leavers, the “Somewheres” identified by Goodhart. This was very clear from her first speech as party leader at the 2016 Conservative party conference, with her direct attack on the “Anywhere” tribe: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”. Her aim was clearly to reclaim the identity card in what sounds like an archetypal right-wing populist speech, in which she opposed “the privileged few” to “the ordinary working-class people”, “people who can just about manage”31, to whom she tried to relate by appearing to share their values and understand their concerns, in an echo to UKIP’s discourse: “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public. They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient”. Theresa May aimed at recapturing the political ground of identity and values from UKIP, which was not difficult as the party was going through an existential crisis following the referendum, having lost its original goal and charismatic leader. The Conservative party became the party of Brexit, the party of Leavers, aligning itself with identity conservatives in contrast with David Cameron’s liberal conservatism.

  • 32 Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O, et al., “Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of Brit (...)
  • 33 Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O, et al., “Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of Brit (...)

19This strategic shift, undertaken by Theresa May and advocated by her political advisor, Nick Timothy, a staunch supporter of blue-collar conservatism32, was taken up and amplified by Boris Johnson, with an additional economic dimension, which would form the basis of his “levelling up” policy to address regional inequalities. The aim was to maximize the support of Leavers to compensate for the Remainers the party would lose at the ballot box. This meant reinforcing cross-party appeal and therefore targeting working-class areas which had voted for Brexit, with commitments to increase state spending on the NHS and infrastructure. In this appeal to socially conservative voters, the identity card also came to play a central role, activated by a rightward shift on cultural values, with a tough position on Brexit, immigration and law and order. This combination of a rightward shift on values and a leftward shift on the economy (or more precisely on state spending, as the global vision remained liberal) – the exact reverse of David Cameron’s premiership – allowed the Conservative party to reach out to long disaffected Labour voters, “left-behind” voters, thereby gathering a coalition of voters which was the key to its 2019 landslide victory, also resulting from longer-term trends of dealignment and realignment in British politics33, as part of working-class voters had been alienated from Labour under Tony Blair.

20In order to maintain this electoral coalition, the party has been trying to hold on this Brexit divide since then, further amplifying it by resorting to another kind of identity narrative, framed as a continuation of the previous one: the “culture wars”.

How the right has been stimulating culture wars

21There has been a temptation on the right – in part of the Conservative party and beyond – to keep capitalizing on the identity card, in particular stimulating a “culture war” narrative for electoral purposes. Indeed, culture wars fundamentally touch upon issues of identity and diversity – the very political ground which has recently proved so fertile for the right.

  • 34 Davison Hunter, J., Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Basic Books, 1991.
  • 35 C. Mudde, The Far Right in America, Routledge, 2017; M. Rooduijn, “State of the Field: How to Study (...)
  • 36 Duffy, B., Stoneman, P. Hewlett, K., May, G., Woollen, C., Norman, C., Skinner, G., Gottfried, G., (...)

22The concept of culture wars was imported from the US, where it was used by the sociologist James Davidson Hunter in 199134 to describe the conflict between two visions of America’s future, two antagonistic worldviews driven by identity and values. This cultural warfare between “orthodox”, ie conservatives, and “progressists”, or liberals, introduces a new cleavage based on different conceptions of moral authority, different moral visions, and is fundamentally a struggle for political and cultural domination. In recent years, it has gained increasing traction in the UK, essentially following the Brexit referendum, as the identity divide and polarization it exposed seemed to echo the US situation, with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and his instrumentalization of culture wars: both episodes were widely seen as part of the same political sequence and interpreted as “a populist moment”35, encouraging further parallels to be drawn between the two countries. This was reflected by the exponential rise in the use of the term “culture wars” by the British media in reference to the UK, from 21 articles in 2015 to 1470 in 202136, with a notable gradual shift from discussions on the US situation to specific UK culture wars.

  • 37 Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, Nationa (...)

23The British version of culture wars revolves around two main debates, both based on issues of identity and social justice: first, the recognition of some minority groups’ identities and situation (such as transgender or Black people); second, attitudes towards Britain’s colonial past37. The discussion on culture wars involves other related terms and concepts, such as wokeness and cancel culture, which are also increasingly prominent in the media and political discourse – suggesting that the importation of culture wars in the UK is essentially an elite-driven phenomenon.

  • 38 Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, Nationa (...)

24It seems that since 2020, part of the British right has tried to mobilize on culture war issues in the hope of cementing the Conservative party’s electoral coalition ahead of the next general election. It has been demonstrated that attitudes towards culture war questions broadly align with the Brexit divide38, cutting across the left/right cleavage. Stimulating a culture war narrative would thus allow the Conservative party to retain the electoral support of socially conservative voters from working-class northern areas and wealthy southern ones – this coalition of voters otherwise divided on economic issues such as state intervention and economic redistribution.

  • 39 Truss, L., “Equality should be for everyone - not just for the woke warrior's favoured few”, The Ma (...)
  • 40 Rishi Sunak went to public school, to Oxford University and to Stanford University where he met his (...)
  • 41 Bale, T., The Conservative party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation, Polity Press, 2023, p. 2 (...)
  • 42 Watch for instance: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8cw1cc

25The culture wars have thus been instrumentalized by part of the Conservative party. This card was clearly played by Boris Johnson and his government who waged a “war on woke”, constantly picking fights with the liberal establishment represented by the BBC, public institutions or universities. This may seem surprising coming from the very party that used to be an ardent defender of British institutions, now acting as an anti-establishment outfit. This discourse was used as a tactic to keep those wedge issues in the public debate, a kind of dog-whistle fueling the polarization along cultural lines exposed by the Brexit referendum, for political gain. Liz Truss also stoked the fires of culture wars, with repeated attacks on what she called “the woke brigade”39. Rishi Sunak, despite his profile as a member of the global elite40 – the “citizen of nowhere” portrayed by Theresa May in 201641 –, followed suit in the 2022 Tory leadership campaign, repeating at various hustings across the country: “I will be incredibly robust in standing up against that lefty woke culture that is trying to cancel our history, our values and indeed our women” 42. This was confirmed by his subsequent appointment of culture warriors such as Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, Kemi Badenoch as Trade Secretary, or Michelle Donelan as Culture Secretary.

  • 43 Rishi Sunak called Keir Starmer “another lefty lawyer” trying to block his plans to curb immigratio (...)
  • 44 Adu, A., Elgot, J., Stacey, K., “Senior Conservatives hit out at Suella Braverman’s ‘racist rhetori (...)

26Part of the culture war issues forcefully activated by the Conservative party is the fight against illegal immigration: successive Conservative governments from Johnson to Sunak have continued to play the identity card and to stimulate the ethnocentric views of socially conservative voters with a tough discourse and policy over illegal immigration, as illustrated by the 2022 Rwanda asylum scheme, or the Illegal Immigration Bill introduced in Parliament in March 2023 by Home Secretary Suella Braverman in order to stop small boats crossing the Channel. The aim is to be seen as addressing the concerns of the Leavers who voted to “take back control” of the UK’s borders in the 2016 referendum. In 2022, net migration hit a record high of more than 600,000, while Braverman had initially declared that she wanted to get it down to the tens of thousands (like Cameron and May before her). Like her predecessors, she therefore opted to focus on illegal immigration, framing the political debate as a fight for the concerns of the “real people” against elite institutions and the soft-left, with “lefty lawyers” one of the favourite targets of Conservative rhetoric43, along with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The fact that such hardline and controversial policies are championed by politicians of immigrant origin (Braverman but also Patel before her) might be seen as reinforcing their credibility, even though Braverman has been repeatedly accused of “racist rhetoric” even in the Tory ranks, with one former senior minister telling the Guardian: “She’s not stupid, she believes she has a license to say these things because she’s not white”44. Braverman is actually one of the most vocal culture warriors in the current government, recurrently using racially charged language.

  • 45 Forrest, A., “Lee Anderson says Tories should fight election on ‘culture wars and trans debate”, Th (...)
  • 46 Archie Bland, A., Elgot, J., “Dissatisfied Tory MPs flock to ERG-inspired pressure groups”, The Gua (...)
  • 47 Common Sense Group, “Common Sense: Conservative thinking for a post-liberal age”, 10 May 2021, 136p (...)

27There are signs that some senior Conservatives want the party to fight the next general election on the ground of culture war issues – this is the case of the newly appointed Conservative party chairman Lee Anderson45. This is also what the backbench Tory group, the “Common Sense Group”46, on the right of the party, has been pressing for since its creation in 2020, positioning itself on the ground of values in the hope of exerting similar influence as the “European Reform Group” (ERG) did on Brexit. The faction (one of many in the Conservative party today) stands against the liberal elite, “the woke”, the “subversives”, from which “Britain in under attack”, and for traditional Tory values47 on immigration, family, education etc.

  • 48 Ellis, C., “A Narrowing of the British Conservative mind?”, Society, 59, 2022, pp. 682–690.
  • 49 It was founded in 2019 as the Brexit party, and officially changed its name to Reform UK in January (...)
  • 50 Reform UK, “Reform is Essential”, December 2022, p. 1. https://assets.nationbuilder.com/reformuk/pa (...)
  • 51 UKIP’s website (accessed 11 July 2023).

28Beyond the Conservative party, on its right, Nigel Farage has also tried to impose the culture war narrative, framed as a mere continuation of his fight for Brexit, which he saw as the first step of his crusade, the “initial stage of a counter-revolution against the liberal elite48”. Reform UK, which he founded in 201949 and of which he is now the honorary president, also plays the “anti-woke” card, even though it is not central in the party’s programme under the leadership of Richard Tice “We must stand up for our core democratic values, our civil liberties, our right to free speech. Let’s celebrate our pride in being British: our amazing culture, our unbreakable communities, our incredible heritage. Let’s stop all the woke nonsense that is holding us back50”. The culture war rhetoric is much more present in UKIP’s discourse, in line with its traditional defence of free speech, with fierce attacks on “the woke mob”, “wokeism and cancel culture”51.

29The right in general, and part of the Conservative party in particular, have therefore been capitalizing on culture wars to maintain the Brexit divide to which it owes its success. As the next general election draws nearer (it is due to take place by January 2025), it seems that there is a clear temptation from the party, lagging far behind Labour in opinion polls, to weaponize culture war issues in an attempt to cling onto their electoral coalition of socially conservative voters.

  • 52 IPSOS Issues Index, June 2023. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2023-06/ (...)
  • 53 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., “British Culture Wars? Brexit and the Future Politics of Immigration and (...)
  • 54 In February 2023, immigration was a priority issue for only 13% of voters, against half in 2016. Ec (...)
  • 55 Ford, R., “The issues with ‘stop the boats’: A promise which can't be delivered stores up trouble”, (...)
  • 56 Savage, M., “We risk being seen as the ‘nasty party’ again, warn senior Conservatives”, The Observe (...)
  • 57 Wellings, B., Ghazarian, Z., “Why British Conservatives Should be Worried About the Australian Elec (...)

30Whether this is a good strategy remains to be seen. In the current national and international context, the salience of cultural issues has decreased in favour of more pressing economic concerns – bread and butter issues resulting from the cost-of-living crisis, or strains on the NHS. This tends to point to a potential realignment along more traditional dividing lines such as economic redistribution, as opinion polls show that the top three concerns of the electorate are inflation, the economy and the NHS52. Studies tend to show that immigration no longer stands as a top priority for British voters, and this has been true since the referendum, despite record levels of immigration53. True, the recent debate on the “small boats bill” has pushed those numbers up a little54, especially for Conservative voters, even if it is too soon to tell whether this will turn out to be more than a short-lived bump, all the more so since the government’s policy may prove hard to deliver at least in the short-term55. Meanwhile, voters will expect the government to act on their immediate concerns. There is a risk for the party to appear disconnected, and to revert to its old image of “nasty party” obsessed with identity issues at a time when the electorate is struggling economically and expects its government to deal with it. The hostile rhetoric of part of the government has already raised concern among moderate Tories, who fear that it may alienate voters56. By comparison, the defeat of the Australian Liberal party – which can be seen as the British conservatives’ sister party – in the 2022 election suggests that focusing on culture wars issues is “a risky approach” and that “they should avoid a polarizing ‘war on woke57”.

  • 58 Duffy, B., “Britain’s descent into culture wars has been rapid, but it needn’t be terminal”, The Co (...)
  • 59 Loc. Cit.
  • 60 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., “British Culture Wars? Brexit and the Future Politics of Immigration and (...)

31There has certainly been a shift of public attitudes though in recent years on culture wars and related issues. Duffy shows that public opinion has gradually moved from general indifference and ignorance of the terms of the debate, to increasing awareness and polarization: “In 2020, 47% had never even heard of cancel culture, but this had halved by 2022. More generally, most people now agree that the UK is divided by culture wars (54%), up from 46% in 2020. This increase cuts across demographics and political identities, but it’s older groups and Conservatives who have moved the most”58, which tends to prove that the Conservative party has succeeded in mobilizing part of its electorate on those issues. This general evolution reflects the increasing salience of culture wars issue in the media and political discourse and shows that it is an elite-driven phenomenon, a top-down movement, which seems to have some impact, thus raising the question of responsibility. According to Duffy, “it’s starting to infect public opinion59”. Whipping up polarization and divisions represents a major risk for social cohesion. Sobolewska and Ford warn against the possibility of a culture war over ethnic diversity, echoing the US situation60.

Conclusion

32What comes out of this analysis is a clear continuity in the appeal to identity and the instrumentalization of identity-based politics by the British right. The whole Brexit sequence has brought identity issues to the forefront of the political and public debate, with right-wing parties the main initiators and beneficiaries: playing the identity card turned out to be a successful strategy to mobilize voters across traditional party lines. Charismatic populist figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson proved to be perfect fits for this, natural leaders to mobilize on identity conflict and culture war narratives: posing as anti-establishment figures against the liberal elite, as “men of the people”, speaking their language, understanding their real concerns and responding with “common sense” policies. Culture wars are seen and framed as a mere continuation of Brexit for its most ardent defenders, who keep on pushing the same buttons over and over in a clear appeal to socially conservative voters. However, stirring up societal tensions and intensifying polarization is potentially dangerous and might turn out to be explosive for social cohesion.

  • 61 Ellis, C., “A Narrowing of the British Conservative mind?”, Society, 59, 2022, pp. 682–690.
  • 62 Alexandre-Collier, A., “From Rebellion to Extinction: Where have all the Tory Remainer MPs Gone?”, (...)

33For the Conservatives, this strategic shift has led to a transformation of the party into a de facto populist radical right party under Boris Johnson. Although it has proved electorally successful, it has arguably also contributed to a “narrowing of the conservative mind61”, away from the traditional perception of the Conservative party as “a broach church” of various strands. Far from its proverbial pragmatism, the party has become ideological on Brexit, purged of its moderate members62.

  • 63 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Ca (...)

34However, the instrumentalization of identity is not new for the Conservative party: the identity card was also played by Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, which allowed the party to thwart political competition from the far right by depriving it of political space, and to assert its ownership of immigration as an issue. There is clearly an echo between those two political sequences63, a continuity which would be interesting to explore further from a historical perspective.

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Notes

1 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

2 Surridge, P., “Values, volatility and voting: Understanding Voters in England 2015-2019”, UK in a Changing Europe Working Paper, 21 July 2021. Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, National Centre for Social Research, 2022, p. 7.

3 Alexandre-Collier, A., Schnapper, P., Usherwood, S., “The nested games of the UK’s EU referendum: ruptures, reconfigurations and lessons for Europe”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29:3, 2021, pp. 301-308.

4 Tournier-Sol, K., "Reworking the Eurosceptic and Conservative Traditions into a Populist Narrative: UKIP's Winning Formula?", Journal of Common Market Studies, 53:1, 2015, pp. 140-156.

5 Rydgren, J., “Is Extreme Right-Wing Populism Contagious? Explaining the Emergence of a New Party Family”, European Journal of Political Research, 44:3, 2005, pp. 413–437.

6 Ford, R., Goodwin, M., Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, 2014.

7 Müller, J-W, What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, p. 3.

8 Noury, A., Roland, G., "Identity Politics and Populism in Europe", Annual Review of Political Science, 23, 2020, p. 424.

9 Rooduijn, M., “State of the Field: How to Study Populism and Adjacent Topics? A Plea for both More and Less Focus”, European Journal of Political Research, 58:1, 2019, p. 365.

10 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

11 Inglehart, R., The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles in Advanced Industrial Society, Princeton University Press, 1977.

12 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

13 Wadsworth J. et al, Brexit and Immigration in the UK, LSE, Centre for Economic Performance, 2016.

14 Evans, G., Mellon, J., “Immigration, Euroscepticism and the rise and fall of UKIP”, Party Politics, 25:1, 2019, pp. 76-87.

15 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. I.

16 Partos, R., The Making of the Conservative Party’s Immigration Policy, Routledge, 2019.

17 Garbaye, R., Latour, V. (eds), “Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Post-Brexit Britain: Political and Social challenges”, Observatoire de la société britannique, n°29, 2022, p. 7. On the billboards one could read: “In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest. Text Home to 78070”.

18 BBC News, 25 July 2013.

19 The Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2013.

20 “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. Sky News Interview, 3 June 2016.

21 Tournier-Sol, K., “From UKIP to the Brexit party: The politicization of European integration and disruptive impact on national and European arenas”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29:3, 2021, p. 382. Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 22.

22 Mudde, C.,”The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, 39:4, 2004, p. 563.

23 Evans, G., Menon, A., Brexit and British Politics, Polity Press, 2017; Mudde, C., The Far Right in America, Routledge, 2017.

24 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 7.

25 Goodhart, D., The Road to Somewhere: the New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017. Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 396. Jennings, W., Stoker, G., “Tilting Towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? Political Change in England and the 2017 General Election”, The Political Quarterly, 88:3, 2017, pp. 359-369.

26 Surridge, P., “The values divide means voters can switch parties more easily”, UK in a Changing Europe, 14 May 2019. Hobolt, S., Leeper, T.J. and Tilley, J., “Divided by the vote: affective polarization in the wake of the Brexit referendum”, British Journal of Political Science, 51:4, 2021, pp. 1476-1493.

27 Swales, K., Understanding the Leave Vote, National Centre for Social Research, 2016, p. 16. Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, National Centre for Social Research, 2022, pp.6-7.

28 Curtice, J., “A Revolt on the Right? The Social and Political Attitudes of UKIP Supporters”, British Social Attitudes 32, National Centre for Social Research, 2015. Jeffery, C., Wyn Jones, R., Henderson, A., Scully, R., Lodge, G., “Taking England Seriously: The New English Politics”, The Future of England Survey, Centre on Constitutional Change, 2014.

29 Tournier-Sol, K., “From UKIP to Brexit: The Right-Wing Populist Surge in the UK”, in Tournier-Sol, K., Gayte M. (eds), The Faces of Contemporary Populism in Western Europe and the US, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 1-22.

30 Jennings, W., Stoker, G., “Tilting Towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? Political Change in England and the 2017 General Election”, The Political Quarterly, 88:3, 2017, pp. 359-369.

31 May, T., speech at the Conservative conference, 5 October 2016.

32 Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O, et al., “Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics”, Political Quarterly, 91:1, 2020, p. 14.

33 Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O, et al., “Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics”, Political Quarterly, 91:1, 2020, p. 7-23.

34 Davison Hunter, J., Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Basic Books, 1991.

35 C. Mudde, The Far Right in America, Routledge, 2017; M. Rooduijn, “State of the Field: How to Study Populism and Adjacent Topics? A Plea for both More and Less Focus”, European Journal of Political Research, 58:1, 2019, pp. 362-372. Tournier-Sol, K., Gayte M. (eds), The Faces of Contemporary Populism in Western Europe and the US, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

36 Duffy, B., Stoneman, P. Hewlett, K., May, G., Woollen, C., Norman, C., Skinner, G., Gottfried, G., Woke, cancel culture and white privilege – the shifting terms of the UK’s “culture war”, IPSOS, The Policy Institute, King’s College London, May 2022. See also Duffy, B., “Britain’s descent into culture wars has been rapid, but it needn’t be terminal”, The Conversation, 12 May 2022.

37 Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, National Centre for Social Research, 2022, p. 3.

38 Curtice, J., “Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?”, British Social Attitudes 39, National Centre for Social Research, 2022.

39 Truss, L., “Equality should be for everyone - not just for the woke warrior's favoured few”, The Mail on Sunday, 27 December 2020.

40 Rishi Sunak went to public school, to Oxford University and to Stanford University where he met his wife, who is the daughter of an Indian billionaire; he is one of the richest MPs in Parliament. He is a former investment banker and hedge fund manager. The couple owns multiple properties across the world.

41 Bale, T., The Conservative party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation, Polity Press, 2023, p. 289.

42 Watch for instance: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8cw1cc

43 Rishi Sunak called Keir Starmer “another lefty lawyer” trying to block his plans to curb immigration at PMQs on 8 March 2023 when defending the Illegal Immigration Bill. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are other examples of senior Conservatives who have repeatedly attacked “lefty lawyers”.

44 Adu, A., Elgot, J., Stacey, K., “Senior Conservatives hit out at Suella Braverman’s ‘racist rhetoric’”, The Guardian, 13 April 2023.

45 Forrest, A., “Lee Anderson says Tories should fight election on ‘culture wars and trans debate”, The Independent, 14 February 2023.

46 Archie Bland, A., Elgot, J., “Dissatisfied Tory MPs flock to ERG-inspired pressure groups”, The Guardian, 11 November 2020.

47 Common Sense Group, “Common Sense: Conservative thinking for a post-liberal age”, 10 May 2021, 136p. https://www.marcolonghi.org.uk/sites/www.marcolonghi.org.uk/files/2021-05/Common-Sense.pdf

48 Ellis, C., “A Narrowing of the British Conservative mind?”, Society, 59, 2022, pp. 682–690.

49 It was founded in 2019 as the Brexit party, and officially changed its name to Reform UK in January 2021. Nigel Farage quit as party leader in March 2021.

50 Reform UK, “Reform is Essential”, December 2022, p. 1. https://assets.nationbuilder.com/reformuk/pages/19/attachments/original/1671551989/Reform-is-Essential-Dec2022.pdf

51 UKIP’s website (accessed 11 July 2023).

52 IPSOS Issues Index, June 2023. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2023-06/Issues%20Index_Jun23%20CATI_v1_PUBLIC.pdf

53 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., “British Culture Wars? Brexit and the Future Politics of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity”, in Kelly, G., Pearce, N., (eds.), Britain Beyond Brexit, The Political Quarterly, Vol 90, Issue S2, 2019, pp. 144-145.

54 In February 2023, immigration was a priority issue for only 13% of voters, against half in 2016. Economy came first (40%), followed by inflation (35%) and the NHS (25%). Ipsos Issues Index, February 2023. In March 2023, immigration rose to 20%, yet remaining behind inflation, the economy and the NHS. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2023-03/ipsos-issues-index-uk-february-2023-charts.pdf ; Stowers, S., “What does the public think about immigration?”, UK in a Changing Europe, 16 March 2023. https://ukandeu.ac.uk/what-does-the-public-think-about-immigration/

55 Ford, R., “The issues with ‘stop the boats’: A promise which can't be delivered stores up trouble”, The Swingometer, 2 March 2023. https://swingometer.substack.com/p/the-issues-with-stop-the-boats

56 Savage, M., “We risk being seen as the ‘nasty party’ again, warn senior Conservatives”, The Observer, 13 August 2023.

57 Wellings, B., Ghazarian, Z., “Why British Conservatives Should be Worried About the Australian Election Results”, Political Insight, 14 September 2022.

58 Duffy, B., “Britain’s descent into culture wars has been rapid, but it needn’t be terminal”, The Conversation, 12 May 2022.

59 Loc. Cit.

60 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., “British Culture Wars? Brexit and the Future Politics of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity”, in G. Kelly, N. Pearce (eds.), Britain Beyond Brexit, The Political Quarterly, Vol 90, Issue S2, 2019, pp. 142–154.

61 Ellis, C., “A Narrowing of the British Conservative mind?”, Society, 59, 2022, pp. 682–690.

62 Alexandre-Collier, A., “From Rebellion to Extinction: Where have all the Tory Remainer MPs Gone?”, Political Quarterly, 91:1, 2020, pp. 24-30.

63 Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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Karine Tournier-Sol, « Playing the Identity Card: from Brexit to Culture Wars »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/6040 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.6040

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Karine Tournier-Sol

Professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université de Toulon

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