When Napoleon marched on Moscow in 1812, the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov ordered his forces to sit back. They abandoned their capital and conserved their energies until Napoleon, his supply lines fatally extended, had to retreat and see winter, disease and guerrilla attacks destroy his army and his reputation for invincibility.
The Tories might have sat back and let a vicious left destroy itself. Instead, they have gone on the offensive. No dispute is too trivial to ignore now. No scab too small to pick. Like all swaggering hard cases, they look for fights and if a real conflict isn’t on offer they will pick one with any passerby.
Imagine trying to explain to foreign diplomats at the G7 how the decision of the middle common room of Magdalen College, Oxford, to remove a portrait of the Queen became the lead story in the Conservative press and drove government ministers into fits of fury. Oxford University is one of 166 higher education institutions in the UK, you might begin, and Magdalen is one of 39 colleges at Oxford. It has a junior common room for undergraduates, a senior common room for the academics and a middle common room for graduate students. Our guests need to understand that, in the middle of a health and economic crisis, one third of one thirty ninth of one hundred and sixty sixth of the higher education system became a national story because our right has decided that manufacturing offence from nowhere will keep it in power.
Like many of their counterparts on the left, second-rate Conservative politicians have become culture war mercenaries. Their careers depend on a war without end. Gavin Williamson is a failed education secretary. But he secures his position by condemning obscure students in an Oxford college and pledging his allegiance to the Queen, who can manage perfectly well without it. Oliver Dowden was once a moderate Conservative. The culture secretary was a Remainer who worked for David Cameron. Transforming himself into a thuggish censor is his way of assuring the new regime that he is an obedient soldier worthy of promotion out of his backwater department.
Dowden is now purging cultural institutions of ideologically unsound trustees and insisting that those who remain declare their support for government policies. When the left behaved like this, the right once complained of cancel culture and modern Stalinism. Now it is Conservatives who are demanding that the government appoints “panels of patriots” to force the National Trust and museums to airbrush accounts of colonialism and the slave trade from the historical record, as surely as Stalin airbrushed images of his fallen rivals from Soviet picture libraries.
The sight of Munira Mirza directing the culture war in Johnson’s Downing Street makes the Stalinist comparison apt. I have written before on how the head of the No 10 policy unit and her Revolutionary Communist party switched in the early 2000s from the far left, where it denounced liberals and social democrats as sellouts and frauds, to the alt-right, where it carried on denouncing liberals and social democrats as sellouts and frauds.
A piece by Matt d’Ancona on the Tortoise site describes the current power of Mirza and of her husband, Dougie Smith, a Johnson fixer, who in his spare time made money by organising orgies for wealthy punters in Mayfair.
As an allegory for today’s moronic furies, the picture of a former revolutionary communist and a raddled old swinger fuelling raging click-bait campaigns to divert the masses is hard to better. Johnson and his cabinet make no secret of their admiration. “When it comes to culture wars,” one senior minister told d’Ancona, “we win. Keir Starmer has no answer to this stuff, because his party is so crazily woke.”
So it may be. But for most of the 21st century, conservatives did not feel the need to pick fights. They understood that culture wars were fought as much within the liberal-left as between left and right. They could sit back and reap the benefits as intolerant leftists drove natural supporters away. I have seen them shun and silence progressive Muslims and ex-Muslims who wanted to oppose reactionary Islam, Jews who wanted to confront antisemitism, traditional socialists who believed that the notion of “white privilege” ignored the effects of class, and feminists who believed in the material reality of biological sex. As last week’s court ruling that Maya Forstater had the right to say that sex should not be conflated with gender identity showed, all Conservatives have needed to do was quietly reassure alienated progressives that they at least would allow space for argument.
In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s General Kutuzov scorns the advice of his officers who want him to meet Napoleon in the field. They think “fighting is fun”, Kutuzov snorts. They do not understand that “we can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.”
Conservatives have decided it would be fun to fight their real and imagined enemies on every front
Conservatives are taking the offensive everywhere now. They have run out of patience and decided it would be fun to fight their real and imagined enemies on every front. The red mist has descended and they don’t know when to stop.
We had a foretaste of how the centre-right might end up charging into far-right politics last week. Boris Johnson and the motor-mouthed Dowden criticised the English cricket authorities for going “over the top” when they suspended a fast bowler for sexist and racist tweets he had written when he was a teenager. Fair enough – there is something sinister about the online secret policemen who hunt for dirt from years ago to smear their targets.
When real racists booed England football players for taking the knee, however, Johnson was reluctant in the extreme to censure them. He only managed to mutter a few words after Gordon Brown demanded he give the national team his public support. Are angry white men screaming at black footballers his base now, a core constituency he dare not challenge?
“Respectable” American Republicans thought they could manipulate culture wars to their political advantage. They ended up with Donald Trump, their country disgraced and a fascistic mob invading their legislature. As true conservatives once knew, it’s best to avoid picking fights when you have no idea how they will end.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist