In this brand new offering commissioned by the New Culture Forum, Marc Sidwell, recently of The Telegraph and City AM, attempts to answer those two questions that have perturbed conservatives of late: 1) why, despite enjoying electoral success and with their opponents in tatters, have conservatives not been able to win culturally? and 2) what can we do about it?
Sidwell’s passionate analysis begins with the story of Antonio Gramsci, the dead Italian Marxist who, while imprisoned by Mussolini for having too dangerous a brain, wrote about the necessity of seizing the cultural sphere as now the superior means of spreading anti-capitalist revolution. He shows how Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ was latched onto by left-wing philosophers of subsequent decades, who, seeking to bring the communist revolution to countries other than Russia, turned to minority groups as the new, fashionable victim of the oppressor-oppressed paradigm. The traditional working class had, after all, let the Left down. These academics theorised and theorised, but ever-present was the need gradually to exert cultural control: from art, entertainment and sexuality to morality, religion and, importantly, the universities. Their disciples internalised these teachings, and if they did not go into academia themselves, they slowly began to occupy positions of authority in society, from which they could spread the gospel. And so began the Left’s ‘Long March’ through the institutions.
Continuing his diagnosis, Sidwell writes rather comically about the ‘Blob’ – the shapeless patchwork of organisations with ‘mission statements’ and ‘commitments to diversity’, shielded from the checks and balances of political accountability and able to spread damaging ideas risk-free. He describes them as “Undemocratic, undefinable, near-impossible to pin down or stop.” He traces the transformation of academic into activist, and in so doing sees the creation of an educated élite, totally detached from the concerns of those in whose name it seeks to ‘better’ society. Beautifully cataloguing instances of wokery in Britain from the supposedly apolitical organisations, Sidwell shows his reader how even the Conservative governments of the last ten years have ceded too much cultural and linguistic ground to the Left. Further contradictions are exposed. The New Left’s desire for institutional infiltration, according to Sidwell, “begun as a reaction to central control, committed to breaking up systems of mass indoctrination. But the longing to make its socialist utopia real turned one wing into murderers. It led others to embrace indoctrination: no longer determined to smash oppressive institutions of coercion, they sought instead to capture that power for socialist ends.”
In contrast to Blairite managerialism and quangocracy, the author invokes the individualism and professionalism of the Thatcher era, which viewed in the context of the broader Leftward ideological trend, appears as nothing more than a queer hiccup. The book’s thesis seems to be that Mr Johnson will need his social and economic reforms to be accompanied by a broader cultural realignment, in the spirit of what occurred under Mrs Thatcher, if he is truly to win the battle for conservatism. The fight cannot stop at the ballot box, Sidwell argues. Indeed, the Conservatives do not escape criticism for cancel culture. Their throwing-under-the-bus of Sir Roger Scruton and Toby Young after being smeared by the offence archaeologists is heavily censured. Sidwell points out reflectively, “when a Conservative administration is the agent that permits such outcomes, the culture war is no longer in contest. It has been lost.”
The final two chapters read more like a manifesto; having identified the malady, the doctor proposes a course of treatment. He sees universities as the natural place from which better ideas should be able to germinate, but recognises that any changes will not happen overnight. He illustrates how the fervour of the 1980s was born of long, difficult intellectual groundwork by people such as Milton Friedman, when the creation of the post-War welfare-state and the dominance of the unions in the 70s appeared to show that Leftism was there to stay. Sidwell praises the proposed changes to the left-liberal institutions such as the Civil Service and the Supreme Court, and says that Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings’s apparent intention slowly to starve the BBC of its funding by decriminalising the licence fee is a step “in the right direction”. However, he is careful to stress that he does not see a right-wing march through the institutions as a realistic solution, as this presupposes that the institutions as bodies should remain largely unchanged. Instead, he advocates for the creation of new institutions close to the centres of political and intellectual power: “A rejection of the established order is not enough. It takes a generation and requires sophisticated new ideas, shared at the centre through high-status institutions.” Also underlined is the importance of play and celebrity; mockery and the creation of new, dissenting art is underscored. Laurence Fox’s recent projects are acknowledged in this respect. Finally, Sidwell sums up his vision of “a country where we look one another in the eye as political equals, rather than allowing a privileged few to look down on us from the heights of power. By escaping the grip of the political class, we become free to restore the tradition of common-sense citizenship.”
Despite it reading at times a little highbrow, the book’s candid and sober tone serves as a clear warning as much as it does a call to action. We read, “The long march has, for now, made the left unelectable. But the most radical forms of the left are back on the threshold of political power. One unlucky election could open the door to revolutionary change.” This marvellous, just one-hundred page treatise would serve as a good, wide-ranging critique for conservatives looking for answers. Equally, it would provide positive food for thought for those who felt they could explain the Left’s victories all too well.
The Long March: How the left won the culture war and what to do about it is available in hardback from the New Culture Forum, or can be downloaded for free here. A discussion on the book with the author can be found here.