Applying the same approach to statues as vaccines could take the heat out of UK's culture war

Applying the same approach to statues as vaccines could take the heat out of UK's culture war

Catherine Neilan

19:07 17th March 2021

At the start of the vaccine programme there was a debate about what the Government should do to counter anti-vaxxers.

Should ministers come out all guns blazing to prove them wrong? Should they make vaccines mandatory? Should politicians and celebrities jump the queue to join in a high-profile publicity campaign?

In the end, the course taken was the simplest: do nothing. It was a path set out clearly by Jonathan Van-Tam, and though I feared at the time that it might run into problems, and while there are clearly issues among certain communities where vaccine scepticism has been long-held, the uptake has been higher than expected.

In the UK, that is. Rates in the EU have been far more sluggish, slowed by unhelpful comments from leaders such as Emmanual Macron, who questioned its efficacy and safety, before being exacerbated by the series of countries to pause their AstraZeneca programmes amid ultimately misplaced fears of blood clots.

In a rare show of maturity, the UK Government has risen above much of this, allowing for occasional lapse into vaccine nationalism, buttressing confidence in the drugs as well as the system. Having suffered one of the worst Covid death tolls in the world, the success of the rollout is even giving rise to smattering of pride that finally the country got something right.

Wouldn't it be nice if that could be translated into our culture wars?

Perhaps, instead of stoking conflict over statues, "annoying" protests, no-platforming, left-wing comedy or flags, ministers should adopt Jonathan Van-Tam's approach and refuse to give these things the oxygen of publicity.

His argument not to spend any time debating with anti-vaxxers could be applied to any and all of these gripes. As the Overton Window suggests, the less they are considered, the less normal and acceptable they will seem.

But while the government could do a better job in how the culture war is dealt with, the reality is it's unlikely to disappear completely.

The problem is that much of the culture war is totemic, a symbol of what is going on under the surfaces. The vast majority of people do not spend their waking hours fretting about obscure statues in the same way that so little thought is given to the Union Jack most people can't tell which way up it goes.

But they become flash points because of what they represent: to one person, a history of oppression and prejudice, to another a glorious and triumphant past they wish was closer to the present.

By spending time fighting over the symbols, anger is inflamed about what is - or is not - changing and the lazy labels get trotted out again.

One side is sneering, elitist and out of touch, the other regressive, even racist. The divisions will get deeper, and even if one side "wins" it will be a Pyrrhic victory because it is not the statue that matters, but what it represents. The statue will not change the fundamentals. That is a much harder - longer - fight. And whipping up anger and resentment over the statue will make the fight so much harder, for both sides.

Clearly, a debate about what should happen with problematic memorials is needed, but it needs to be a grown-up conversation with the heat taken out of it.

Ministers have been careful with their words when it comes to reassuring the public on the vaccines. Applying the same approach to the culture wars could have a similar effect.

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Tags: Conspiracy theories Statues Culture Wars Anti-vaxxers Brexit Freedom of Speech Protest