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Could ‘Culture Wars’ Rekindle the Brexit Divide?

Posted on 22 September 2022 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: BSA, Brexit, Culture wars, political attitudes, social attitudes

It is often asserted that Brexit has fallen off voters’ agenda. Remain voters, it is said, have accommodated themselves to the fact that we have left the EU, while the issue has lost its importance for Leave voters. The validity of the first of those statements is doubtful – as our post-Brexit poll of polls indicates - but there is no doubt that the losses of support suffered by the Conservatives have been especially heavy among Leave supporters. Support for the party among those who voted for Brexit fell from 74% in 2019 to an average of 51% in polls conducted just before Liz Truss became Prime Minister. A key challenge for the party’s new leader will be to win those Leave voters back.

One suggestion has been that the Conservatives might do so by taking an ‘anti-woke’ position in the ‘culture wars’ debate. Central to this debate are two issues. First, what should be done to recognise better the distinctive culture, identity and economic position of minority groups, such as from an ethic minority background or who are lesbian or gay? Second, should Britain’s (imperial) past be regarded with pride or acknowledged to have been flawed? These debates have sometimes become quite heated, such as, for example, in arguments about whether the statues of those involved in the slave trade should still be allowed to stand, or whether the expression of views that might be offensive to a minority group should be tolerated.

Originally used by African Americans to mean being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, the term ‘woke’ has come to refer to awareness of and sensitivity to discrimination and prejudice in general. Those of a ‘woke’ disposition believe that more should be done to acknowledge the position of minority groups and that Britain’s imperial past should be regarded critically. Those of an ‘anti-woke’ point of view, in contrast, feel that the recognition of minority groups should be balanced against the rights and feelings of others and that Britain’s history should still be viewed with pride.

So, what might this have to do with the Conservatives’ chances of rekindling their support among Leave voters? How people voted in the 2016 referendum was strongly related to whether they were a social liberal or a social conservative. Social liberals – who mostly voted Remain - value living in a diverse society and believe that it is up to individuals to decide what mores, morality and religion they follow, what language they use, and what national identity they acknowledge. It is a stance that might be expected to incline them towards a ‘woke’ position on ‘culture wars’ issues. Social conservatives – who largely voted Leave - believe that a degree of commonality is necessary for social cohesion and might consequently be thought to be more inclined to an ‘anti-woke’ point of view.

One of the chapters in the latest British Social Attitudes report published today investigates the potential for the ‘culture wars’ debate to rekindle the division between Remainers and Leavers that was central to how people voted in the 2019 general election. It argues that that potential does exist, but that for the most part an ‘anti-woke’ stance has become less popular over time and that, consequently, any attempt to appeal to voters on the basis of such a stance may not have as large an audience as the Conservatives might hope.

The pattern of responses given by Remain and Leave voters to questions on the latest British Social Attitudes survey that tap into aspects of the ‘culture wars’ debate sometimes differ quite markedly. Two-thirds (66%) of Leave supporters say they feel ‘very strongly’ British, whereas only 31% of their Remain counterparts feel the same way. Similarly, while 65% of Leave supporters think that ‘to be truly British’ it is important to have been born in Britain, only 34% of those who back Remain agree with them. And while nearly half (48%) of Leave supporters agree that Britain is better ‘than most other countries’, only around a quarter (26%) of Remain supporters share this point of view.

Similar differences are apparent when people are asked whether attempts to give equal opportunities to various groups have gone too far or not gone far enough. In the case of Black and Asian people, 60% of Remain supporters say that attempts have not gone far enough, while only 23% of those who now would vote Leave express the same view. When asked the same question about women, the figures were 61% and 32% respectively.

An emphasis by the Conservatives on an ‘anti-woke’ stance would then appear to have the potential to help the party appeal to Leave voters. But whether it would resonate sufficiently to deliver electoral victory is less certain – not least because in many instances there appears to have been a movement among the public away from such a stance.

As recently as 2013, nearly three-quarters (74%) said that having been born in Britain is important to being ‘truly British’. Now under half (45%) take that view. The proportion who agree that Britain is better than other countries has fallen over the same period from a little over half (54%) to little more than a third (34%), while now almost as many (29%) disagree as agree.

Meanwhile in 2000, more people felt that attempts to give equal opportunities to Black and Asian people had gone too far (35%) than believed they had not gone far enough (25%). Now the picture is reversed – only 19% think attempts have gone too far, while as many as 45% feel they have not gone far enough. There has also been a marked change in attitudes towards lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, such that, now, rather more think that attempts to give them equal opportunities have not gone far enough (20%) than believe they have gone too far (25%).

Indeed, it might be argued that one reason why ‘culture war’ issues have become issues of debate and contention is because attitudes have changed, and that the more widespread airing of ‘woke’ views that now occurs as a result sometimes poses, understandably perhaps, a challenge to those who do not share such an outlook.

In any event, the ‘culture wars’ debate does in many respects mirror the division between Remainers and Leavers and thus might potentially rekindle the Brexit divide in Britain’s electoral politics – though that does not necessarily mean such a development is bound to deliver the same electoral verdict as emerged from the ballot boxes in 2019.

‘Culture Wars: Keeping the Brexit Divide Alive?’ by John Curtice and Victoria Ratti, published as part of British Social Attitudes: the 39th report, is available here.

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