Culture wars update

Woke police officer

One of the things we’ve done on this blog – with, let’s face it, limited consistency – is keep an eye on the public statements and Ministerial actions of our MP Oliver Dowden who, these days, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio (we started, in fact, under his predecessor, James Clappison, a long-serving MP who had represented Hertsmere since the creation of the constituency in 1992).

Although Mr Dowden is currently without formal Ministerial responsibilities (his role does allow him to attend Cabinet meetings, although without a portfolio to represent he’ll probably just do a crossword or something) you might be forgiven for thinking that he ought to adopt the title Minister for the Culture Wars. He’s all over it. The Google alert that keeps us up to date with Oliver Dowden’s business is essentially all culture wars, all the time these days.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that the Co-Chairman’s message to electors ahead of the 5 May local elections, which you can read on Conservative Home, is heavy on the culture wars and includes two uses of the word ‘woke’ (‘woke warriors’ and ‘woke vanity projects’).

We’re not 100% sure we want to reduce this blog to a chronological account of Mr Dowden’s statements about statues, unisex toilets, woke street names and so on. But it does seem worthwhile to record the fact that a prominent MP, once confidant to a Prime Minister and until recently a full Minister of the Crown, can be so diminished in office as to be obliged to churn out talking points for Facebook (Mr Dowden is so far silent on David Attenborough’s woke dinosaur, though).

So, let’s get it over with. Oliver Dowden’s latest Culture Wars sortie relates to guidance apparently given to police forces to use gender-neutral language when addressing the public (we can’t find this guidance online, although the Mail’s claim is that it was obtained by a FOI request to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire constabularies). The Minister for Woke’s statement on the matter says that the police should be arresting crims and

…not wasting time trying to condition officers who extend a basic courtesy to the people they serve.

Oliver Dowden MP, quoted in The Mail, 16 April 2022

It’s not clear what Dowden means by ‘condition’ but the quote has surfaced in multiple outlets, from GB News to The Sun, to The Daily Star to Kremlin-funded RT (recently banned from UK TV by Ofcom, as you’ll remember, but obviously still on the mailing list for these press lines). We’re curious as to how this happens. How is a line like this distributed? It’s not contained in an official press release that we’ve been able to find. Is there an email d-list? We’re naive about the ways of Government press offices. Can you enlighten us?

Anyway, our bet is that Mr Dowden’s interest in the Culture Wars will sharply decline immediately the council elections are out of the way in a few weeks (no elections in Hertsmere this year, though, remember, so don’t get excited).

The culture war will be fought in the streets

1900, peak year for Boer War street names. Photo by Gwydion M Williams

The news that Oliver Dowden wants to make it a bit harder for people to change street names got us thinking about how streets get their names and why they’re changed.

Street names are interesting aren’t they? A mix of impenetrable, often very ancient, labels for paths and byways that even precede the Roman names and much more modern, deliberately-applied names that often commemorate battles, statesmen, landowners and local dignitories. Sometimes it’s artists and writers. Round my way there’s a whole estate named after poets, which is lovely.

In British towns you might be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the Second Boer War – a particularly brutal war for land and resources fought in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century that’s widely commemorated – especially in street names.

This particular war was an early ‘media war’ – covered in often uncompromising detail by star correspondents (including a young Winston Churchill) sent by the major newspapers – most of whom enthusiastically supported the British action against the two Boer republics on the other side. The new technology of the telegraph allowed vivid reports to be returned daily and the papers competed to carry the most gruesome descriptions of the fighting.

The names of battles won and lost, the soldiers who fought them and the places they fought over were all well known – much as we came to know the names of cities and battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan – Fallujah, Basra, Helmand, Kunduz… And because the end of the Victorian period was a time of much housebuilding in Britain’s towns and suburbs it’s no surprise that there are dozens of Ladysmith Streets, Mafeking Roads and Kitchener Terraces all around the UK.

During the First World War the issue was different. Going to war with Germany, a nation with which many – including the Royal family – had close connections, produced new tensions. In the cities, for instance, many were unhappy about British streets that had German names. Some were summarily changed by patriotic Mayors and councils.

In 1916 the London County Council changed the name of Bismarck Road in Blackheath to Edith Cavell Way (Cavell was a nurse, captured and shot by German forces in Belgium in 1915). There’s a street in Stoke Newington called Beatty Road that used to be called Wiesbaden Road. Petitions were raised, questions asked in Parliament. Changing names didn’t become national policy though. In the House of Commons in 1918, faced with a bill to rename all street names of German origin, Leader of the House, Andrew Bonar Law (who, three years later, would become Prime Minister amid a scandal over payment for honours) said: ‘We are engaged, I think, in matters more important’.

Even so, in Leeds:

There are numerous cases in the Metropolitan area of sturdy patriotic British citizens having to live under German direction, so to speak, and the residents of thoroughfares with such pronouncedly Teutonic names as Bismarck, Wiesbaden, Gothenburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and so on, naturally resent the objectionable denominations.

Streets with German Names, Leeds Mercury, November 11 1915

The Second World War seems to have produced fewer street renamings, perhaps because the German names had been removed 25 years earlier, but in Essex there’s an estate with roads named after Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. The Falklands War is reflected in a scattering of street names as you’d imagine – there’s a Port Stanley Close on a new-build estate in Taunton. The 40th anniversary of the invasion might produce some new ones.

Some Nelson Mandela Streets, Squares (and Houses) arrived in the early 90s – mostly in communities where the campaign against apartheid had been at its most vigorous, where Mandela’s freedom meant most. That Mandela now sits alongside Kitchener on British street signs is appropriate – not least because in marking the final removal of the racist regime inserted under colonialism it brings the story of Britain’s involvement in South Africa full-circle.

The war in Ukraine is obviously going to mean good business for sign makers too. In Vilnius the Russian embassy now stands on Ukrainian Heroes Street. In Tirana it’s on Free Ukraine Street.

We change street names for all sorts of reasons.

And in Britain, street names are a battlefield again. Our MP, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio Oliver Dowden, who has taken on the role of Kitchener in his Government’s Culture War, is back in the trenches.

In time for the May local elections (in which we will not participate, by the way – no elections in Hertsmere till next year) Dowden thinks there’s electoral mileage in taking on lefty councils. The main target is name changes proposed by Black Lives Matter groups and by those who think it’s incongruous that so many of our streets honour men who prospered from imperialism and slavery. There is a plan:

These proposals will give local residents a democratic check against the lefty municipal militants trying to cancel war heroes like Churchill and Nelson.

Oliver Dowden, quoted in the Daily Telegraph 9 April 2022

Under changes floated by Michael Gove’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, local authorities would be required to hold a ‘mini-referendum’ amongst residents when a name change is proposed. This doesn’t seem to be a new proposal, though – and there’s no detail on the Ministry’s web site – so it’s likely that Dowden is re-upping November’s proposal to give neighbourhoods a say in planning changes.

But since Michael Gove himself has recently said that the Government has abandoned plans to bring forward the Planning Bill this provision was contained in, it’s most likely that Oliver Dowden’s referendum idea is electioneering, but it’s certainly fascinating to hear the language of ‘loony lefties’ and ‘municipal militants’ back in the public discourse, over thirty years on. The Mail has gone to the effort of creating an illustration to bring it all up to date:

A photograph of Conservative Minister Michael Gove with images of woke street signs behind him - Equality Road, Inspire Avenue, Destiny Road, Respect Way, Diversity Grove
From the Daily Mail

So, if you’ve decided it would be noble to change the name of your street to Kyiv Crescent, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the whole neigbourhood with you.

Here’s how Oliver Dowden voted in the free vote on access to home abortions

An important change to the law during lockdown made it possible for women to get abortion pills (early medical abortion) prescribed over the phone (the legislation calls this ‘telemedicine’) and then to have the pills, which are taken in two doses, 48 hours apart, sent to a home address (this is for abortions earlier than 10 weeks).

The government proposed removing this pandemic provision and returning to in-person appointments from 29 August this year. Women’s groups, medical charities and professional bodies, like the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, lobbied to keep the at-home provision, because women like the convenience and choice it provides but also because it’s been shown to help vulnerable women – who might, for instance, be unable to get to a clinic – to get safe abortions. BPAS Chief executive Clare Murphy said, in a press release:

We’ve long known there are women who really struggle to access clinic services. They are sometimes women in very complex situations, very vulnerable women. Women in coercive relationships, for example, found it difficult to access clinics without their partner knowing. These women either turn to illegal methods or they present to us very late.

Quoted by BBC News.

Earlier this month Conservative peer Baroness Liz Sugg tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, seeking to make the at-home service permanent (incidentally Liz Sugg was Head of Operations in David Cameron’s Number 10 PR team while Oliver Dowden was Deputy Chief of Staff – they share an organogram here. Cameron moved Sugg upstairs on his resignation in 2016). Because abortion is considered to be a matter of conscience, Government whips permitted a free vote on Sugg’s amendment in the Commons, which took place yesterday, 30 March 2022. MPs voted in favour of the amendment 212 to 184, so the provision will continue and women won’t have to go to a surgery to get the first dose.

MP for Hertsmere Oliver Dowden is one of the 184 MPs – almost all them Conservatives – who voted against retaining the service.

Graphic showing House of Commons voting in the Health and Care Bill - Permitted Locations for Abortion Treatment on 30 March 2022 - Aye 212, No 184.
Voting details from They Work for You

This vote can’t tell us much about Dowden’s attitude to abortion – he has a mixed record. Anti-abortion lobby group Right To Life maintains a web site that tracks votes for every UK legislator (this approach to holding legislators to account seems to be becoming more popular – it’s an import from US special-interest politics where it is widespread). Oliver Dowden’s page shows six abstentions and a total of three votes for or against on ‘right to life’ issues (votes are labelled green if they’re in agreement with Right to Life policy and red if not).

Dowden’s background as a hard-working member of David Cameron’s broadly socially-liberal administration might suggest support for a woman’s right not to be pregnant but his more recent enthusiastic involvement in the culture wars (statues, hedges, Maoism and so on) suggests otherwise. So it’s inconclusive.

Oliver Dowden’s Parliamentary voting record on issues of interest to anti-abortion group Right to Life.

Right to Life themselves are, as you’d expect, unhappy with the outcome of the vote. A spokesperson said, in a press release:

The group of MPs who have voted for this amendment have voted to remove vital safeguards including an in-person appointment with a medical professional. This will put thousands more women at risk from ‘DIY’ home abortion services, by removing a routine in-person consultation that allows medical practitioners to certify gestation and recognise potential coercion or abuse, ‘at-home’ abortion has presented serious risks to women and girls in abusive situations.

Quoted by the Catholic News Agency.

It’s interesting to note that both sides of the argument depend on appeals to the vulnerability of women in coercive or abusive relationships to defend their positions. Can they both be right?

The BBC has a detailed article about the law and the debate in Parliament. They Work for You has the voting details. More about Early Medical Abortion on the BPAS web site.

Oliver Dowden – horticulture warrior

A hedge, left, and Oliver Dowden MP

Our MP, Oliver Dowden, former Minister who is now co-chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio, has been walking the leafy streets of his constituency and has hit on a striking metaphor for the values he and his party stand for:

For me, the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people.

Oliver Dowden’s speech to the Conservative Party 2022 Spring conference.

Dowden is serious about this. He considers it his mission as co-chairman “to defend those values and those freedoms.” The minister’s expanded role as Minister for Suburban Boundary Planting is real and rooted (sorry) in an idea of freedom that goes back some decades – at least as far as Margaret Thatcher’s adoption of a more individualistic model of Conservatism in the early 80s, pushing aside the ‘one-nation’ version that had prevailed for almost a century before it.

In 1982, to drive home the message, the Conservative party adopted an olympic torch of freedom as party emblem (replaced with an oak tree during David Cameron’s modernising spell as leader). Dowden uses the words ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ seven times in all in his conference speech and it’s not just hedges; it’s Europe under threat from Russia too.