IIt’s the opening ceremony of the Culture War Games. Rishi Sunak, who started late but was gaining ground, emerged in earnest in late July with the first ritual, kicking the asylum seeker. Liz Truss promised to send more of them abroad. Sunak, who couldn’t surpass Truss by promising to launch them into space, said hear me: cruise ships. How about we house asylum seekers in some kind of floating prison while they are processed?
That didn’t work, so Sunak effectively restarted his campaign last week, focusing on a battle with “left-wing agitators” for trying to “bulldoze our history, our traditions and our core values.” He accused them of “rewriting the English language so that we can’t even use words like ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ without being told we’re offending someone”. He then fumbled for more, announcing that ‘defamation of the UK’ should be an offense to be designated for prevention as that amounts to extremism.
It’s worth noting that Sunak started out as the “sane” candidate who should be “honest” and not rely on “fairy tales.” But then, presumably after actually learning about voting Tory membership and then having a doom-style meltdown on his team, he decided less facts and more empty posturing was the way to go. It’s an embarrassingly desperate submission from someone who once insisted he had “zero interest in waging a so-called culture war.” The unspoken part is probably “but I’ll do it if I have to”.
And boy does he have to? He lags far behind Truss, who was a culture warrior long before she ran for leadership of the party. She’s got a record and, most importantly, a personality more comfortable with nonchalant deception and goofy mush than Sunak, who always looks like the bully’s sidekick, pompous in company, but in the moment he caught alone, begs for mercy. He’s way out of his comfort zone, which is why even his phrasing when he’s trying to sound muscular is always a bit off (he said last week that leftists are trying to cross out “our” women). Truss has no such visible internal dissonance, instead she’s now taken to proclaiming indiscriminately that she “loves Britain” because “we’re a great country”.
For those hoping that the culture war nonsense and belligerence of the Brexit and Johnson eras is over, the last few weeks have been truly queasy. It’s been so much infantile talk about serious things. The triviality of the two candidates’ concerns stands in stark contrast to the grave economic situation in the UK, which is deteriorating by the day.
But in fairness to Sunak and Truss, what else are they going to do? Sunak found out the hard way and too late that people want to be lied to. They want the fantasy because waking up in real life is too painful. There is a reason why both candidates talk about their potential leadership as if the Conservatives were an opposition party: modern conservatism is about putting as much distance as possible between the actions of the party and its consequences. Whether it’s Brexit, the housing crisis, or a lopsided economy where the super-rich hover comfortably above the inflation that beats everyone else, the Tories can’t fix what they’ve broken themselves. Name a false list of culprits – immigrants, Brussels, “left-wing lawyers”, the European Court of Human Rights – who blame unemployment, declining living standards and “bureaucracy” that stunts growth. This is a party on the run from reality.
The result is a kind of political Ponzi scheme, in which bigger and bigger profits are promised until the investment is so big that the punters themselves dare not ask why their dividends are dwindling. This is why culture war offers are so appreciated, not because people specifically care about their details, which always rank low in polls when it comes to what people say they care about, but because they are a comfort blanket , a way of reassuring voters into believing that their status as natives confused by pronouns and alarmed by the modern world is sacred, and therefore somehow armored against the really big, scary things: declining wealth, a worn-out health care system, the next recession.
In a way, culture wars are just a gateway to a promised land where our best days are yet to come. It’s part of an overall pitch that’s not about addressing specific grievances, but rather projecting a style, an attitude, and a tone. Happy in this fact- and substance-free zone, Truss forestalls any threat of reckoning by cheerfully producing numbers that don’t add up to boost the economy; dismissing Nicola Sturgeon as an attention seeker to be ignored; Evangelism for a Brexit she herself fought against.
In a way, Johnson’s undoing was not his lies, but what he lied about around. Partygate did it for him because it firmly placed his supporters outside of an inner circle of which he implicitly promised they were a part. Truss, and more recently Sunak, are learning that this protection-money policy is the only way forward, that a base built on lies can only be sustained by lies. It’s too late to tell another story. Both Tory members and party leaders are caught in a simulation, the former too fearful of the end and the latter too bankrupt to break through.
In the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca, a single-minded, determined but weak man saves his much stronger, genetically gifted brother from drowning. When asked how he managed to do that despite his physical limitations, he replies, “I never saved anything for the swim back.” That’s where the Conservative party is at the moment – but without the principle or purpose. The lies worked and carried them far out to sea. But the land on the horizon will never be in sight, and they have saved nothing for the return journey.