My parents, the son of a factory worker and assistant baker and the daughter of domestic servants, were both the first in their families to go to university. As such, they wanted to ensure that their children, my sister and I, knew our way around ‘culture’.
Hence, for me, a childhood punctuated not only piano lessons and visits to National Trust properties but visits to the cheapest seats at the theatre to see ballets and plays. In their mind, at least back then, there was ‘Culture’ (with a capital ‘C’) to which we had to be introduced.
As Kojo Koram from the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, writes, however, culture is something that is continually remade by the people living it. These different conceptions mark the boundaries of the culture wars currently being played out in British politics and society.
In the 1960s and 70s, when [Stuart] Hall was writing, most British intellectuals dismissed the new mass culture taking hold in the country as a passing fad that did not deserve the attention given to Shakespeare, Elgar or Hogarth. But Hall recognised how it offered an increasingly multicultural British population the opportunity to interpret and experience life as it was lived on the ground. Rather than seeing culture as something fixed and unchanging that needed constant protection, Hall saw it as something that underwent “constant transformation” and was always being made and remade by the people living it, a moving force that perpetually created new identities.
It is no coincidence that so many of the primary battlegrounds where today’s culture wars are being staged are the elite institutions that represent a traditional British hierarchy: stately homes, Oxford university common rooms, the Last Night of the Proms. To culture warriors on the right, these institutions best represent Britain’s national culture as a whole. That they are exclusive is part of their appeal: when culture is defined as something that only a few people can access or control, its preservation is best entrusted to high-ranking authorities.