26/08/2020 17:04 BST

Rule Britannia Row Is Nonsense Designed To Keep The Nation Polarised

Boris Johnson's grip on power relies on nurturing a sense of grievance among those who disproportionately benefit from the status quo, Ash Sarkar writes.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he tours Castle Rock school, Coalville, in the east Midlands.

It was perhaps inevitable that Black Lives Matter would be reduced to mere cannon fodder for the Culture Wars.

No longer an international confrontation with the law being wielded as an instrument of torture and murder against black people, BLM is now – for the purposes of daytime telly and talk radio at least – the mobilisation of the woke, coming for everything you hold dear.

First it was the Major’s N-word littered rant in Fawlty Towers. Then it was statues of long-dead philanthropists, whose personal enrichment from the kidnapping and forced labour of Africans in the slave trade shouldn’t get in the way of being memorialised as all-round decent blokes. And now, the roulette wheel of pantomime outrage has landed on the Last Night of The Proms.

The Sunday Times kicked off the hue and cry (“Rule Britannia faces axe in BBC’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ Prom”), and the nation’s broadcast media duly scampered off in pursuit.

It’s of seemingly little importance that the central claim of the article – that nationalist anthems wouldn’t be sung this year out of sensitivity to Black Lives Matter – wasn’t supported by anyone willing to speak on the record.

Furthermore, no anti-racist organisation, and certainly neither the US nor UK’s iterations of Black Lives Matter, has demanded that the songs should be dropped. 

What’s more, the BBC itself has suggested that replacing “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” has nothing to do with the lyrics, but because coronavirus restrictions mean there can’t be any big singalongs.

But the article’s thoughtful juxtaposition between progressive buzzwords and pictures of black people involved in curating this year’s Proms was evidence enough.

For/Against pitched battles were staged on Good Morning Britain, This Morning, and Jeremy Vine on 5, columnists competed to file copy, and radio producers raced to secure pundits who’d be willing to confect an opinion for £35 and ten minutes of airtime. 

Not that I’m speaking from a position of lofty disdain for the gig. Being both cheap and available, I too fielded requests from guest bookers who were keen to fill the role of “censorious and/or ethnic lefty”. I didn’t, however, get much further than the pre-interview recce.

By defining political antagonism along the lines of culture, the right have kept focus away from socioeconomic and institutional inequalities.

It turns out that a talking head saying “this story is a load of made up nonsense, and designed specifically to make your audience of retirees murderously furious” wasn’t quite what they were after. 

The emphasis on culture wars in mainstream media is a problem of structure, not staffing. Moral panics of the “political correctness gone mad” variety are nothing new, but have become all the more impactful in an era where both leading politicians and news outlets take their cues from reactive social media engagement.

With original newsgathering and investigative budgets slashed across the sector, being able to dictate the national conversation through manufactured outrage is a cost-effective alternative to breaking a big story.

Legacy print and broadcast media are in a fight for their very survival: generating reaction from both social media and the frontbenches are the metrics by which the value of a story is judged. And like a monstrous Greek god consuming its children, the media must birth the very takes upon which it will later feast. 

Never one to pass up an opportunity for empty gesturing, Boris Johnson resurfaced to proclaim that “it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history [...] this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness.” The government’s willingness to fuel culture wars microevents isn’t merely a means of drawing attention away from, say, a bungled pandemic response. It’s true that shadowboxing against an imagined enemy produces an easy win. But there’s a deeper strategy here too.

Nurturing a sense of grievance among those who disproportionately benefit from the status quo keeps those same demographics invested in its preservation. The Conservative electoral base – baby boomers, homeowners, retirees – have little stake in transforming the economy. And it’s hard to maintain a sense of political insurgency, to keep your base fired up and engaged, when you’ve been in power for a decade and enjoy a parliamentary majority of 80 seats.

But whether it’s Brexit, taking the knee, or the singalongs at the Last Night of the Proms, Johnson’s Conservatives have cannily realised that their path to power relies on polarising once marginal issues, and turning them into potent symbols of the nation under threat from despotic minorities. 

By defining political antagonism along the lines of culture, the right have kept focus away from socioeconomic and institutional inequalities. It doesn’t matter that the “Rule Britannia” brouhaha is a paranoid fantasy: by concocting such moral panics, those with little to gain from egalitarian change are galvanised by fear of what they stand to lose. 

Ash Sarkar is Contributing Editor at Novara Media, and lectures at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.