News, Culture & Society

Just when Britain was healing, a new cultural war is raging over Megxit, insists TREVOR PHILLIPS 

There is a reason this country has not fought a civil war for almost 400 years. 

In the 17th century, Roundheads and Cavaliers battled each other to a standstill over religion and politics, leaving nearly one in 20 of the population dead — the equivalent today of three million people.

Being a pragmatic nation, while we revere our history, we try not to repeat it. 

So when faced with danger and division, while Americans might reach for their six-shooters, the French take to the barricades and Russians find a new dictator, we British look for more peaceable ways of settling our differences. 

As Winston Churchill famously pointed out, we think that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

In the rumbling argument over Harry and Meghan’s future, the monarchy has become the vehicle for an emerging proxy war over what kind of nation Britain wants to be. Pictured: The Queen and the Duchess of Sussex at the royal wedding

Perhaps the neatest expression of the British genius for keeping the peace has been to channel the energies of our warring tribes into non-violent loyalties.

Cities divided by religious adherence — Liverpool and Glasgow, for example — fight out their battles on Saturday afternoon at Anfield, Goodison Park, Ibrox or Parkhead, as do the Jewish and Irish tribes who support Spurs and Arsenal in North London.

In the 1960s, some saw the way that Mods and Rockers squared up as a coded expression of our deep differences over whether post-Imperial Britain should look to America or Europe for its future. 

Rockers wore their hair in Elvis-style pompadours and drank bourbon and Coke. Mods shrouded themselves in parkas, rode Italian scooters and hung out in coffee bars.

But nowhere has provided a better symbolic battleground on which to play out our national dramas than what some would regard (wrongly in my view) as the most pointless national institution of all: the Royal Family.

And I believe that in the rumbling argument over Harry and Meghan’s future, the monarchy has become the vehicle for an emerging proxy war over what kind of nation Britain wants to be.

When the smoke clears over Megxit we may well discover who is winning the culture wars that are breaking out all over the country — vividly illustrated on BBC1’s Question Time on Thursday night.

The actor Laurence Fox provoked indignation in the studio by suggesting that racism has played no part in the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to leave Britain. 

One irate member of the audience — a lecturer on race and ethnicity, incidentally — told him that as a ‘white, privileged male’ he was in no position to proffer an opinion.

When the smoke clears over Megxit we may well discover who is winning the culture wars that are breaking out all over the country. Pictured: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex leaving Canada House, London, earlier this month

When the smoke clears over Megxit we may well discover who is winning the culture wars that are breaking out all over the country. Pictured: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex leaving Canada House, London, earlier this month

Fox robustly countered by accusing his critic of herself being ‘racist’ towards him for her comments. Within minutes, social media had erupted: Meghanites were outraged; anti-Meghanites had backed Fox in numbers.

This spat is just a sign of deeper divisions between two emerging factions. One Britain wants to join the ‘progressive’, globalist, woke world epitomised by Meghan and Harry’s circle — George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas et al.

Another yearns for the comfortable, domestic, common sense future in which the Queen, William, Kate and Mary Berry represent the nation’s beating heart.

Even many of those who apparently share a common cause can sit on different sides of the growing cultural chasm. 

The young followers of environmentalist Greta Thunberg, for example, will have no hesitation in lining up on the Duchess of Sussex’s side.

Those who are fans of Thunberg’s mentor, Sir David Attenborough — and who sat glued to his memorable TV encounter with the Queen when the two nonagenarians chatted and wandered around Buckingham Palace’s grounds — may find themselves shaking with indignation at what they perceive as Harry and Meghan’s disrespectful treatment of our monarch in recent days.

Much has been said and written about reporting on the Duchess of Sussex by our media but we should keep this in perspective. 

For the past four years, the vehicle for our culture wars has been Brexit. Pictured: Leave and remain supporters trying to block each others' banners during a protest opposite Parliament Square, London, in September

For the past four years, the vehicle for our culture wars has been Brexit. Pictured: Leave and remain supporters trying to block each others’ banners during a protest opposite Parliament Square, London, in September 

Most anti-Meghanites probably wish the couple well; they just don’t want to pay for the couple’s upkeep if they aren’t doing royal business — a principle with which they themselves seem comfortable, at least in theory.

I accept that some of the commentary may have been unduly personal. But one aspect of our not taking ourselves too seriously as a nation has always been the British propensity to bare their buttocks at their rulers. 

We no longer cut off the head of an unpopular monarch, but we do reserve the right to be rude about our royals and always have. 

So the suggestion that Harry and Meghan have been uniquely persecuted by the Press is hard to maintain when compared with the treatment of others.

A century ago, the entire family was routinely derided by mass circulation British newspapers as German interlopers, even after they had changed their Teutonic names — Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — to plain Home Counties ‘Windsor’. 

The now much-loved Duke of Edinburgh was referred to as ‘Phil the Greek’ in almost every major daily.

More recently, the future Queen, when she was just plain Kate Middleton, must have found the daily dissection of her dress and diction, and snobbish commentary on her family painful, and at least as hurtful as anything said about the Duchess of Sussex who, after all, entered the royal spotlight in her mid-30s rather than her early-20s like Kate.

Contrast this treatment with the joyous and celebratory coverage of the Sussexes marriage in May 2018, hailed by The Guardian no less as a ‘celebration of blackness’, and followed by a delirious welcome for the Royal Family’s first mixed-race birth in centuries — not least by me on these pages.

In that article, however, I did point out that I thought the couple would have very little impact on Britain’s race relations — partly because we are already a far more tolerant (though not necessarily equal) country than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

Yet the New York Times and several other liberal papers which have lined up behind the Sussexes’ wish to ‘step back’ from their royal role have centred their criticism on the media’s supposed racism towards Meghan.

If that is an over-riding issue for the couple — and it may well be too late — my advice would be: pause, take a breath.

Britain is objectively the best place in the developed world to live if you are a person of colour.

So look before you leap to North America, where they still settle racial disputes with guns, and vote into power, not once but twice, a leader who has adopted ‘blackface’ repeatedly as Canadian premier Justin Trudeau has.

In fact, I doubt that many anti-Meghanites are racists; and while the small minority of people in our society who are genuine bigots will almost certainly be anti-Meghanites, that’s not the same thing.

The truth is that both sides aren’t really divided by attitudes to this couple and their son. The battle over their future is really a proxy for a larger one whose contours are becoming clearer by the day. 

For the past four years, the vehicle for our culture wars has been Brexit.

Research by the former Conservative Party deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft, conducted in the weeks after the EU referendum in June 2016, showed that the Remainer and Brexit tribes were not divided by attitudes to economics. 

Asked whether they regarded capitalism as positive or negative, the two tribes split evenly — there are as many anti-capitalists among Leavers as there are among Remainers.

What really separated the two groups are what we now call identity issues — feminism, multiculturalism, freedom of speech.

Remainers lean heavily to the view that Britain is a place where inequality, racism and hate speech poison too many lives; Leavers believe that we are a country where ‘live and let live’ should be our watchword, and bullying by Leftish busybodies is making life intolerable for most of us.

Both tribes have a case to make, but disturbingly we seem increasingly deaf to the view of those who are not on whichever side we favour.

No one epitomises this better than the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to navigate this divide almost entirely accounts for his humiliation in the General Election on December 12. 

A person who doesn’t know what time the Queen’s speech is on Christmas Day — even if it’s just to make sure that the TV is switched off — really isn’t paying attention to Britain.

And his failure to express outrage at the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Vladimir Putin’s agents in the quiet city of Salisbury marked him out as someone who is keener to take the side of dictators over his own people. 

Now he has aligned himself with the Meghanites, speaking of Press intrusion and ‘racial undertones’.

There is no doubt in my mind that the arguments between Meghanites and anti-Meghanites are revealing the true division between Brexit’s warring tribes.

On the one side stand those who seem neither to know or care much about Britain as it is.

The Meghanites would prefer us to be more American (or at least more ‘West coast’), more German, more Russian or even more Venezuelan, perhaps.

Against them stand the anti-Meghanites, who would like us to be ourselves, only better — a little more productive, a bit less stuffy and certainly less class conscious.

To be honest, though I sympathise with the royal couple as individuals, I am by nature an anti-Meghanite.

What do I mean by that? Well, I see us as a tribe that is ready to welcome foreigners who make a contribution to the economy and society, but which balks at immigration cheats.

We abhor discrimination, and understand some people suffer because they feel they were born into the wrong body; but most of us are baffled by the idea that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are simply ideas that can be abandoned at will.

We are glad that the cruelties of Empire no longer bedevil us, but we resent the implication that everything built by our forebears was wrong.

We embrace the internet and new technology, but we just don’t buy the idea that the nation has to put itself in thrall to American and Chinese tech billionaires.

And while we’re alive to the claims of some degree of autonomy by the nations that make up the United Kingdom, we wonder why anyone thinks that destroying a union that led the Industrial Revolution and brought education, economic prosperity and clean water to many across the world would be a good idea.

None of which is to say I don’t wish the Sussexes well. I think that they would have benefited from seeking counsel — or from better counsel — in making their announcement: not least advice to take themselves a little less seriously.

The frank warning this week from Canada’s largest daily newspaper, The Globe and Mail, should give them some pause for thought: by all means come to Canada, but understand that the nation already has its own Royal Family (the Queen is its head) which is ‘close to our hearts but far from our hearths’ and a governor-general.

And certainly don’t expect to be treated as any more special than one of the Chinese entrepreneurs or Sikh engineers who are transforming that country’s economy.

As for us, back in Blighty, we are at the start of an epochal battle for the future of our nation. We need to decide what kind of people we want to be. 

The fact that we will stage that conflict on what may look to other nations like the most trivial of battlegrounds is a tribute to British genius.

In other nations, you are asked to lay down your life for your tribe.

In Britain, we will take sides and we will argue with passion, and then we will settle our differences over a cuppa or a pint, no doubt with lashings of fudge and a large helping of compromise.

But at the end of the day no blood will be spilt — not even that of a corgi in our culture wars!