The lifeboat attack may seem like a new low, but the right is longing for a “migrant crisis” | Daniel Trilling
IIf your policies involve frequent attacks on beloved national institutions, no matter how much you claim to protect them from subversion, you risk looking like you just don’t like them. This is a problem for right-wing cultural fighters who pretend to stand up for a patriotic, socially conservative majority against a tiny liberal elite that firmly holds the levers of power.
After several years of increasingly bogus rhetorical attacks – on the BBC, the National Trust, the English football team – it seems that the culture warriors are running aground.
Nigel Farage’s recent criticism of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – for allegedly providing a “taxi service” for people crossing the English Channel in small boats – has rightly drawn attention to its demagoguery. His choice of words was correct. In Italy, following the 2015 refugee crisis, allegations by populists and the far right – that humanitarian aid ships provided a Taxi del Mare, a “sea taxi” service for migrants fleeing the hell of Libya – called volunteers and helped pave the way for government action against bailouts.
It was noteworthy, however, that most of the right-wing talking heads did not join Farage’s attack. Several ministers, perhaps suspicious of colleagues who looked like shameless opportunists during Euro 2020 – and fail to condemn the English fans who booed the team at the start of the tournament and then dressed in red and white at the end – were quick to get their support for that RNLI show. That was wise: the fact that the voluntary lifeboat service has received a 3,000% increase in donations since Farage’s statements shows that it enjoys widespread public support.
However, it is still too early to celebrate. The attacks are likely to continue because they have become indispensable to the political tactics of the right. On the one hand, committed ideologues seriously believe that the liberal elite, which is not keeping up with the values and beliefs of the British people, remains in power despite the overwhelming election victory of Boris Johnson in 2019.
If you don’t want to accept that historical shifts like the spread of liberal social attitudes – or the fact that young people, increasingly excluded from stable careers and housing, are more accessible to socialist ideas – reflect changes across society, then that’s it it follows that these must be the product of underhand influences: from “wakefulness” or “cultural Marxism” or a biased establishment.
In addition, there is a flourishing media economy based on right-wing outrage. Attacks on the “crazy left” and moral panics on issues such as migration are hardly new to the right-wing press; In fact, the Daily Mail included the RNLI in a recent report on the “migratory mania” on the channel. Stories about the accommodation of asylum seekers in supposedly posh hotels with the implication that the British are missing out have become a staple of the tabloids.
But to newer right-wing media, the hysteria over the great liberal conspiracy is even more important. GB News’ troubles are a case in point. After the station’s ratings flopped, he called up Farage as a presenter to reverse his fate – which shows how dependent this section of the media is on populist provocations.
For the government, meanwhile, a culture war policy could prove essential to hold its current electoral coalition together. The exact meaning of the term “culture war” is often controversial, but it is best thought of as a political method to bring together a diverse group of people with conflicting, even conflicting interests in your camp. Pick a divisive social issue, make your position an identity trait, and try to get other people to do the same.
The polarizing effect of the Brexit referendum, which – at least in the Westminster discourse – split the country into two rival camps of graduates and survivors, was skillfully used by the conservatives as a cultural war battle in the 2019 election.
Since then, and given the claim that Brexit is now “done,” the right has been looking for other issues to play a similar role. As tensions in the new Conservative base come to the fore – for example between voters in the north of England, who are keen to see the government “leveled” by investing in infrastructure, and the traditional Tories in the south, who have low taxes , Low wage state – the search will most likely continue. The party may find it has diminishing returns as polls after polls show the public is not inherently divided along the culture war.
But cultural wars, even if they don’t take root, are more than just harmless noise. Although much of the right has avoided attacking the RNLI itself, boats in the English Channel are being used as a litmus test of the government’s commitment to a far-right agenda. The cover story of last week’s Spectator said we are battling “Britain’s New Migrant Crisis”. If Johnson meant, “everything he has said about ‘taking back control’ in the past few years,” thundered Douglas Murray, “then he must get control of the borders of this country. In the area of sovereignty, nothing counts anymore. “
Even if this doesn’t push the government any further to the right, it ends up diverting attention from its existing policies – which, one might say, are extreme in and of themselves. The Borders Act, which is currently passing through Parliament, is just one of a series of hard-line law and order measures (along with the heavily criticized Police Act) that the Johnson administration is introducing. The right-wing indignation machinery does real harm to politics, even if its demands are not met, because it narrows the debate and makes it more difficult to question the decisions of people in real power.
To understand what I mean, think about the questions we could have been asking over the past few weeks while instead discussing the extent to which it is acceptable to save lives at sea. Why are people so desperate to get to Britain that they get into inflatables and what role do we play in creating those conditions? Why does one of the richest countries in the world have an asylum system that forces children to sleep in unused offices and leaves cases unanswered for up to a decade?
Who will benefit from playing British citizens off against migrants? The public defense of the RNLI is encouraging, but it has to be the beginning rather than the end of something.