The other day I heard Sir John Hayes MP, close confidant of Suella Braverman, saying that the “culture wars” are an important aspect of politics because they are about values.
The implication being that they are a good thing.
I also heard him saying that – in any case – it was the “other side” who started those culture wars.
The implication being that they are a bad thing.
All a bit confusing.
I heard Sir John talk about the sorts of things that matter to him.
He has a very strong sense:
- of nation;
- of community;
- of traditions;
- of institutions;
- of values;
- of place.
- And of history.
Sir John has a “sure sense” of history.
And do you know what’s odd (given that Sir John and I are firmly on opposite sides of the culture war)?
What’s odd is that I have a strong sense of most of those things, too.
But maybe it’s not so odd.
Because words are just words.
It’s what you mean when you say them that counts.
When Sir John talks about his sense of the nation, I wonder why he and his pals seem intent on destroying it.
I think the more they talk of their love of nation, the less I love the kind of nation they represent: the kind of nation the world now sees when it looks at Britain.
When Sir John talks about his sense of community, I wonder why he and his pals so brazenly pursue the policies of division.
I wonder about what he means by community. I worry about what he means by community.
When Sir John talks about his sense of tradition, I wonder why he and his pals are trashing so many of our best ones.
Our tradition of welcoming refugees.
Our tradition of respecting human rights and international law.
Our traditions of the right to strike, protest, vote.
When Sir John talks about his sense of institutions, I wonder why he and his pals are systematically undermining them all.
Why they are attacking the law courts; the civil service; the media; the NHS; legal aid.
Why they are marginalising the Parliament they claim to revere.
When Sir John talks about his sense of place, I wonder why he thinks that makes him special.
I think of the places that mean the most to me, and how they are a part of my very identity.
I think I know what he’s insinuating, and I think I don’t like it very much.
When Sir John talks about his sense of values, I wonder what those values are.
Tolerance? Compassion? Pluralism?
Doesn’t feel like it to me.
Not if his friend, Suella, is anything to go by.
When Sir John talks about his “sure sense of history”, I think that if there’s one thing I know about history, it’s best not to have a sure sense of it.
Be proud of the good bits.
Don’t be proud of the bad bits.
Accept that it’s messy.
But of course the message Sir John is sending isn’t just that these things matter to him.
He’s saying that these things don’t matter to his opponents.
More than that, in fact.
He’s saying that his opponents have contempt for these things.
And this is the right-wing culture warriors’ biggest lie of all.
The lie which Theresa May picked up and ran with so soon after the Brexit vote, polluting all that followed.
The lie that those of us who look outwards to the world are incapable of looking inwards towards our own communities.
The lie that if we get angry about the mistreatment of refugees and immigrants, we don’t care about our own compatriots.
The lie that to believe we should live in harmony with our neighbours and recognise our shared interests is to be unpatriotic.
The lie that to have lived in and loved other countries – particularly European ones – makes us “citizens of nowhere”.
That was the lie Sir John Hayes was trying to sell last weekend.
He presents it, like his Republican bedfellows, as an existential issue.
And unfortunately, because people like him choose to make it one, he’s right.
It’s a fight we need to win.
And it’s a fight we’re going to win.
Because I will not believe, I refuse to believe, that Sir John Hayes is my children’s future.