While we don’t yet have culture wars, we do have culture clashes. This paper argues that there is still time to bridge our divides, and shows how we can do so. Its author is Sunder Katwala, the Director of British Future and the leading authority on questions of culture and identity in Britain today. Together with British Future, we publish it at a critical moment, as Westminster returns to work and gears up for an election that will place culture and identity centre stage.
In Culture Clash, Katwala argues that while Britain is more divided than any of us want, it is less divided than we have begun to tell ourselves. We can and must address our culture clashes before they become culture wars.
To do so, progressive parties must avoid the mistakes they have made in the past. Some have sought to avoid difficult debates entirely. Others have refused to move an inch. Some have conceded everything, deciding to sacrifice their values in pursuit of votes.
This paper shows there is another way: “bridging”. The metaphor is important: Bridges span opposites. They bring two sides together, while allowing each to remain separate. Bridge building encourages people to recognise their differences while discovering common ground. Neither side must surrender its values. Conflict can be acknowledged and need not be disguised. We meet in the middle.
This isn’t just pragmatic - it is also the principled thing to do. It is about the type of society we want to be. When political strategists seek “dividing lines” in elections, they mobilise their tribe with an “us versus them” appeal on questions of identity and culture. While this might bring short-term reward, it brings lasting pain. When identity divides dominate politics in this way, what really matters - whether politicians deliver for the public – gets forgotten.
In this paper, Katwala shows that bridging is possible by addressing five of the most contentious issues of our age:
(1) Patriotism: Learning to love the flag
(2) Immigration: Turning down the temperature
(3) Navigating the shifting language of race
(4) Cancel Culture: Where is the line on free speech
(5) Sex, gender and competing rights
On each of these issues, Katwala argues that we must build bridges. While we may have culture clashes, we do not yet have a culture war. If we seize this moment, we can stop our divides from growing into an unbridgeable gap.
The Labour Party has a particular opportunity to do so and its leadership has shown that it has the desire. Now this must become a shared challenge for the broader party and its allies in civic society too. As Katwala concludes, “that is not just pragmatic politics. It is a point of principle.”