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To stop the culture wars, learn from gay rights

To stop the culture wars, learn from gay rights
Luke Tryl

Luke Tryl

4 min read

In dousing the flames of the culture wars, our leaders would do well to look to the push for gay equality and to learn from it how to better live up to the public’s expectations about navigating cultural change in Britain today.

A staunch conservative who enjoys Ru Paul’s Drag Race. A 70 year old Brexiteer who admires England’s footballers for taking the knee. A liberal NHS worker who worries that everyone is becoming afraid of losing their job for saying the wrong thing.

This is the real face of modern Britain. As a new report from More in Common yesterday shows, far from being divided into two starkly opposed sides on culture war issues, most Britons look for balance. They have their views, but they blame politicians, campaigners, and cultural arsonists for turning disagreements into flaming rows, instead of showing leadership and building on the lessons of widely accepted cultural changes such as the country’s embrace of gay rights.

People think our ability to talk freely is under threat, creating resentment and resistance towards cultural change

More in Common’s research has identified seven different segments of the population based on their values and beliefs. In conversations with all of them in the last month, we kept hearing how the tone of current debates is exhausting and leaves the public increasingly worried about saying the wrong thing. That feeling is leading people to think our ability to talk freely is under threat, creating resentment and resistance towards cultural change.

But despite this frustration, what came through strongly from our conversations was that Britons accept, and are proud, that Britain’s culture evolves and changes over time. And the public has a strong sense of how this evolution should be managed: in a way that builds on our traditions, rather than tears them down. 

That helps to explain why time and time again when we asked people to name an example of how Britain’s culture has changed for the better, the answer that came back was how we now treat gay people and their families.  

That acceptance of same-sex relationships might seem normal to us now - but at a time when the Pet Shop Boys topped the charts in 1987 with It’s A Sin, three-quarters of Britons believed that “same sex relations were almost always wrong”. Now only 17% do. Same-sex marriage has gone from deeply contentious to widely accepted in 20 years. Attitudes have been transformed, and with that the experiences of gay people across Britain.

What lessons can our leaders take from the way attitudes on gay rights have changed to diffuse today’s culture wars? 

A key lesson is that campaigners for equality didn’t talk about tearing things down. Recognising that Britons overwhelmingly say they are proud of our history, the case for gay equality was made in terms of fairness and equal marriage was presented as chance to strengthen the institution, not overhaul it.

A second lesson is that politicians advocating gay equality avoided an all or nothing approach. Instead, they took an incremental tack, that allowed them to bring people along and to show that changes didn’t see the sky falling in. 

Third, advocates of gay equality sought to build a big tent on the right and left. Rather than polarising the debate into us-versus-them or prosecuting debates along party lines, they engaged with the Conservative Party, with faith groups, with centre-right think tanks that had previously been hostile to gay marriage. And so, it was a Conservative PM who finally oversaw that introduction of equal marriage. 

Fourth, campaigners also took time to make sure they communicated in everyday language and real stories that people understood. When Britons reflect on what has changed their attitudes, they often referenced characters in popular culture such as Eastenders in helping them to better understand the experiences of gay people. 

Of course, there were moments of flashpoints and some polarising activists on both sides of the debate, but what is striking about the steady march towards gay equality is that it was done in a very British way - through dialogue and creating the space for people to ask questions.

In dousing the flames of the culture wars, our leaders would do well to look to the push for gay equality and to learn from it how to better live up to the public’s expectations about navigating cultural change in Britain today.  

 

Luke Tryl is the UK Director of More in Common.

More in Common’s report ‘Dousing the Flames: How Leaders can Better Navigate Cultural Change in 2020s Britain’ is being released today.

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