Phoney ‘Culture Wars’

JVL Introduction

Two government reports have appeared recently: the Sewell Report and a Select Education Committee report.

Both aim to appeal to working class conservative voters by referencing the alleged disadvantaging of the white working class as a result of ‘liberal metropolitan’ and Labour cultural preferences that favour BAME groups.

In this evaluation for JVL’s Antiracist Alliance Network, Derek Clifford provides a hard-hitting critique of the framework within which Tory policy is being elaborated.

We are circulating his remarks here and would welcome comments on them.

Some of the Tory government’s recent initiatives deliberately stoke racial divisions and ‘culture wars’, whilst simultaneously appealing to their working class ‘red wall’ voters. Government-friendly media rush in to deepen the divisions. They all studiously avoid any reference to the gross structural inequalities of wealth and power which keep Tory elites in control, and which are the overwhelmingly authentic causes of both white working class and BAME deprivation, as well as many other kinds of oppression. They ignore the evidence that continuing systemic disadvantage additionally arises from Britain’s long traditions of racism, and its imperialist and slave-trading past, from which Tory MPs and supporters continue to benefit.

Two recent government reports have reinforced efforts to portray white people as the victims of anti-racism, demonising the BAME communities as the recipients of resources that should be going to whites. The widely criticised Sewell report1 aimed to demonstrate that, in opposition to the claims of ‘Black Lives Matter’, BAME groups were doing relatively well in modern Britain, and therefore there was less need to allocate resources to them rather than towards the ‘white working class’. The more recent report of the Select Education Committee2 has followed up with the claim that white working class boys are demonstrably faring worse than boys in minority ethnic groups within education.

The two reports are connected in their concern to demonise any suggestion of the systemic nature of racism and social inequality. They both target the recent term ‘white privilege’. The Education Committee recycles the Commission’s Chair, Dr Sewell’s statement “that for many people living in “very poor backgrounds” the main issue is “not all this academic stuff about ‘White privilege’”, a “pernicious” ideology according to Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP.

Both reports purport to take into account differences among ethnic groups and the undeniable poverty of white working class children – poverty that has significantly increased during the Tory years of ‘austerity’. Neither report acknowledges the grossly stratified and hierarchical nature of the UK – an essential starting point, one might have thought, for any rigorous analysis of difference and division in British society. The Sutton Trust 2019 report3, for instance, reveals that UK power structures remain dominated by a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attend private schools. Children at private schools have 3 times as much per head spent on their education as children in state schools. Consequently, many top jobs in the professions, politics, journalism and management are occupied by the products of very rich families whose children go to these privileged schools. Neither ‘poor white boys’ nor ethnic minority children stand much chance against this entrenched dominant elite.

The Education Report bases its claims about the relatively greater needs of ‘poor white boys’ on figures relating to children receiving free school meals – the very poorest, and a minority of white working class children, but the reference to ‘white working class boys’ suggesting all are underachieving is a deliberate and inflammatory oversimplification. Equally there is a repeated emphasis on the number of white working class boys involved compared to other groups: hardly surprising since it is the majority ethnic group by far. The report shows that proportionally speaking, double the percentage of Afro-Caribbean children need free school meals, (14% white, 28% Afro-Caribbean). All working class children whether on free school meals or not, whether ‘white’ or minority ethnic, have been let down by a fragmented and hierarchical education system that has underfunded and undermined state schooling, and allowed child poverty to grow. What is carefully avoided is considering the necessity for any transformational social change that might benefit all non-elite social groups.

Other earlier reports were published on similar topics in 2016, some of them coming to different conclusions, recognising some elements in common between different non-elite social groups. However a recent discussion of their content demonstrates that even reports like these earlier ones, some less inclined to emphasise racist divisions, are normally interpreted by the media in the light of the ‘poor white boy’ narrative, suggesting that whites are victims of multi-culturalism. The publication of this kind of commentary in ‘the most, the second-most, and the fourth-most circulated newspapers in the UK… highlights the reach of this discourse into popular thought’. 4

The conclusion is stark: right wing phoney cultural wars are deliberate manifestations of racism, and the crocodile tears about poor white boys mask every intention to continue as normal. The Conservative Party and their subservient media friends are not interested in the potential harm that divisive racism brings to society. On the contrary they welcome racism, partly because they directly benefit from it, politically and economically when working people are divided, and partly because it is an expression of the continuing conviction of their own superiority as a white Anglo elite dominating a stratified and hierarchical society, including poor whites as well as ethnic minorities.

This right wing encouragement for racism impacts negatively on all minority ethnic groups – Jewish, Muslim, Afro-Caribbean and others. It always needs to be called out for what it is: an ugly semi-fascist tendency in politics, and ultimately a threat to the whole society.


  1. Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report, March 2021
  2. The Education Committee: The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, 2021.
  3. The Sutton Trust, Elitist Britain 2019: The educational backgrounds of Britain’s leading people, 24 June 2019
  4. Kafui Adjogatse & Esther Miedema, What to do with ‘white working-class’ underachievement? Framing ‘white working-class’ underachievement in post-Brexit Referendum England, Whiteness and Education, 18 June 2021


Comments (2)

  • Pete Winstanley says:

    An excellent analysis. Here is a recent letter from me printed in the Northern Echo:

    There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about the term “white privilege.” First used in the 1960s during the civil rights movement in the USA, it is perhaps less readily understood in the UK, where “privilege” is usually associated with wealth and class.
    White privilege certainly does not imply that white people are not subject to disadvantage or deprivation, nor does it deny other forms of discrimination, e.g. against Jews, Gypsies, Muslims, gays or the disabled. As Dawn Butler MP explains: “Put simply, white privilege doesn’t mean white people won’t experience hardship or injustice, it means they won’t suffer it because of their skin colour.”
    The recent report from the Tory-dominated Education Committee includes some important findings about how the education system has failed working-class children, but regrettably creates division by pitting white working-class people against black people, many of whom are also working-class. The historian David Olusoga, the son of a black father and a white mother who grew up on a council estate in Gateshead , says: “For many black people, myself included, the “white working class” do not belong to a rival group, but are family members, friends, and members of the same communities.”
    Durham MP Mary Foy summed it up neatly: “The Tories have been in power for 11 years. In that time they’ve voted against free school meals, closed Sure Start centres, run down schools, overworked and underpaid teachers, fuelled poverty and insecure work, underfunded and under-resourced schools, shut libraries, gutted the welfare state, botched the reopening of education and the recovery plan, and so much more. Yet they want you to believe talking about “white privilege” is the problem.”

  • Mark Francis says:

    The Isle of Wight is (as the name may or may not suggest) 97% white and has the 2nd worst GCSE results. This is unlikely to be due to BAME students being disproportionately favoured. Why this is so, is not clear, but came right after the Tory IW County Council reorganised the education system.

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