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Opinion

Culture wars: A minister’s new favourite tool for misdirection

We shouldn’t care if students want to remove a portrait of the Queen. We should care that government uses culture wars to deflect from major challenges.

When I was a student, I did something I’m not proud of. Even though it was pre-internet days there is a still an indelible record. You can’t escape your past.

Early on in my time at college I grew a goatee beard. There are photographs. In some of them I look comfortable, unapologetic even, about the thing on my face. It stayed there for quite a period of time.

Some people suit goatees – early Beat poets, pirates, eastern European gangsters in crime dramas. I was none of these things. At some point I must have thought it made me look exotic and irresistible. It didn’t.

I stand before you today not to offer any apology. I was a student. Even Weller had wilderness years immediately after The Style Council. I’m admitting it, but it really wasn’t something for anybody else to get upset about. At the time I knew a bloke from Somerset who played the didgeridoo. Criminal though that was, it was not something for anybody to get really upset about either. Students try things on. It’s what students do.

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Neither should anybody of any age or life experience be upset that some students want to remove a photo of the Queen from their common room. But given how we live now people will find a way to be upset. That it becomes a new part in the ongoing culture wars is no surprise. Confected fury at perceived anti-nationalism is a key component of division lines. Though as history tells us, being angry at an insurgent point of view doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be placed on the right side of the line.

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What is most frustrating at present is the Westminster government’s desire to dive into to the shallow end of these culture battles, making massive waves to show how important they believe them to be. They have no need. I suspect they know that. It’s an easy win and a diversion from tough things that need to be done.

Gavin Williamson, who is still secretary of state for education, sent a mouthful of a tweet earlier this month, angry about “absurd” Oxford University students removing the picture of the Queen. Gavin has a new focus in his role as, clearly, he has fixed the confusion and fears over grade awards in another massively disturbed academic year for school pupils and has really got to grips with the issues around costs of courses for third-level students when not all of study will be in-person. Plus he’s fixed issues of how postcodes help allocation to the best schools, building in further generational inequality.

Which is a relief to many. Go Gavin.

This focus on minor stories to divert from major challenges is a hackneyed play to make it look as though the government is plugged into the concerns of all of us. It ties to another old trick. When asked difficult questions by journalists, ministers frequently deflect, saying they’ll talk about “what people are really concerned about”. They take a grain of truth and build a silo. But all our concerns are ever-evolving and never fully formed.

In a heartbeat I may be thinking that a really well-conceived Covid Rent Debt Fund would ameliorate life for so many. Then, I’ll be concerned that while Bruno Fernandes offers a positive glimpse of the future for United’s midfield, he lacks that certain essential Keane-like bite that is still missing.

Telling people what they are thinking is as ridiculous an idea as boiling down complex social and cultural arguments to binary decisions, then starting a fight on either side.

Our leaders need to get beyond that.

Or goatee the back of the class until they learn.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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