Grid girls, and a culture war that can only end in defeat for all sides

In a comfy chair in the corner of a living room, 50 years from now, a snowy-haired gent will bounce a child indulgently on his knee.

‘What did you do during the war, papa?’ she will pipe up, inquisitively.

‘Well, you’ve heard of the Moon landing? And the astronaut who said it was “one small step for man”?’ he will venture.

‘That was you?’

‘Even better. It was my tweet that forced Nasa to apologise for using gendered language to describe its imperialist invasion of non-Western territory.’

‘Wow,’ she’ll reply, rummaging in the packet for another Werther’s Original. ‘You must have been very brave.’

‘I don’t like to brag about it. I got blocked, reported, unfriended. One time, I forgot my password and had to go outside and talk to people who held different views. Culture war is hell.’

That might sound fanciful but culture wars are shaping up to be the defining issue of our times. Where previous generations divided over economics or equality, millennials marshal their troops for battles over identity and attitudes. Definition – the right to define yourself and to cajole others into following suit – is usurping conventional beliefs about freedom of speech and liberty of conscience.

Formula 1’s decision to drop ‘grid girls’ – comely young ladies who hold up signs for the race cars – has prompted a row about choice. I find the idea of ‘grid girls’, as opposed to the women themselves, outdated, embarrassing, and, yes, a little tacky. Surely, skimpily clad ‘dollies’ and women on display as entertainment are relics of the 1970s, a decade whose sexual mores were somewhat lacking.

But some ‘grid girls’ hit back, saying this is their choice and they enjoy it. Feminists maintain it is exploitive and demeaning to women, even if they choose to do it. What then, comes the follow up, about Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, niqab or burka? Surely veiling reinforces negative attitudes about women and modesty?

Those of us eager to remain neutral observers of the culture wars quickly find ourselves drawn in. Mumbling some platitudes about letting people get on with their lives as they see fit doesn’t cut it anymore. By sticking to the middle ground, we are taking a side one way or the other. We are expected to choose and in doing so surrender nuance for the safety of blanket support or denunciation.

Much the same is true when it comes to transgender politics. A Scottish Government consultation proposes abandoning medically certified gender dysphoria in favour of a self-identification system. I am sceptical of such a change and worry about its impact on women. Labour’s decision to open its all-women shortlists to trans women, including men who self-identify as such, is one example.

Yet I also believe in the principle of live and let live. Where someone born a man wants to be referred to as a woman, I would do so – not because it is ‘politically correct’ but because it is polite and respectful. There are an angry cohort of trans activists for whom politeness is not enough. You must accept their teaching, chapter and verse, or you are a bigot and, worse, a transphobe and, what’s more, you are the reason gender-confused young people self-harm. They are not after respect but submission.

What is so poisonous about culture warring is that it takes views that are held among sizeable sections of the population (perhaps older people or the religious) and declares them to be prejudice and their expression hate speech. The appeal of this approach is not difficult to appreciate. Politics no longer has to be about arguments. You can simply declare only one side is legitimate and the other akin to racism or fascism and thus to be condemned and even silenced. You win the debate by shutting it down before it starts.

Those who think like this often dispositively declare themselves right, as though they can self-identify their own moral virtue too. However, that is the logic of every sinister and authoritarian movement in human history, and most of them began benignly enough too.

The end point is dangerous, though, as seen when Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was jostled by leftist students at the University of the West of England. Their justification was that he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. Having seldom ventured outside cities and large towns, these budding censors are unaware that not only do some wholly reasonable people still hold these views – they were until recent years and decades orthodoxy.

Culture wars have been made possible by the death of mass culture. We have seen a steady erosion in institutions that fostered unity and encouraged conformity. Churches are emptier, trade unions smaller, and even popular culture no longer holds us together. On Christmas Day 1986, 30million Britons (more than half the population) tuned into EastEnders to watch ‘Dirty’ Den hand troubled wife Angie divorce papers. These days the soap struggles to pull in seven million viewers and, where Den and Angie were household names in the mid80s – even to those who hadn’t watched the show – today most non-fans couldn’t name the regulars of the Queen Vic.

EastEnders aired TV’s first gay kiss in 1987 and the story filled front pages and led news bulletins. Viewing habits are now so fractured that common cultural experiences like that are all but impossible. We are seeing multiculturalism in its truest sense. Britain is no longer bound by shared assumptions and values. Many of us are unaware that many others are out there, thinking the things they do, liking the things they like, and so on.

Political inactivists would rather change a pronoun than change the world. They are hooked on that heady rush of righteousness that comes from identifying a heretic, gathering a crowd and kindling the fire. But they are building their own pyre. A society constantly at war over politics and culture will eventually withdraw from both and come to prefer a smaller state, with less power to impose common values. The culture war will end in defeat for all sides.

*****

Ruth Davidson has followed on the slinky-but-sensible heels of Nicola Sturgeon by appearing in Vogue.

The Scottish Conservative leader posed for a photoshoot in Edinburgh’s New Town in a fetching John Smedley polo from the ‘Best of British’ range. Naturally.

The real cover star, though, was Wilson, the handsome Cocker Spaniel she shares with wife-to-be Jen Wilson. The presidential-sounding Wilson Davidson-Wilson ambles along the cobbled catwalk unfazed by the flashbulbs, like it’s just any old spot of walkies.

WDW hasn’t had the easiest time. He was hit by a car in 2016 and needed operations, metal pins and a skin graft before he was back on his paws. Since then, he’s been a ‘judge’ at the Holyrood Dog of the Year contest and has been busy helping to plan his mummies’ forthcoming nuptials.

He has political experience and a backstory of triumph over adversity. Humans are making a dog’s breakfast of running the country. WDW’s time has come. Wilson for Prime Minister!

*****

Outrage abounds after Labour readmitted previously barred far-Left members. They include a former Militant councillor, a member of a Trotskyist faction committed to ‘overthrowing capitalism’ and an activist suspended over comments about Jews and the Holocaust. Or as they’ll be known 12 months from now, ‘the Parliamentary Labour Party’.

Have your say on these issues by emailing scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © Becky Beagle by Creative Commons 2.0.

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