Friday briefing: 72 mystery genders, 15-minute cities, seven eco bins, and an opinion on MOTD (2024)

Good morning. If the season of confected fights over phantom Christmas-haters isn’t the right time of year to reflect on the impact of the culture wars, I don’t know when is. In 2023, as the Conservative party ran out of ideas, voters and halfway plausible candidates to replace the latest prime minister, they naturally intensified their interest in the next best thing: picking weird symbolic fights about nothing anyone really cares about that might garner a bit of coverage in the Daily Mail.

You have probably lost track of these, what with everything else. Today’s newsletter therefore brings you a seasonal review of 2023’s most risible political pantomimes, and at the end, you can gratefully say that it’s behind you. Here are the headlines.

In depth: Why 2023 will be remembered as the year of madcap Tory populism

Friday briefing: 72 mystery genders, 15-minute cities, seven eco bins, and an opinion on MOTD (1)

There are two kinds of culture wars. The more consequential variety malevolently attach themselves to subjects of deep social division, and exploit them to gain real political capital. In that category, we might place disagreements over race and gender identity, how aggressively the government should pursue a net zero policy, and whether immigration and asylum policy are functioning properly.

This newsletter is about the other kind: the game of attack line tombola where phenomena, people, concepts, or objects that you had never imagined could be anything but mundane are suddenly recruited into a partisan bunfight. All sorts of politicians try this, but nobody does it with the randomised elan of a Conservative minister seeking the approval of their membership, or their hyped-up special adviser. To qualify for this list, entries must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Things that are approximately true if you squint at them from an acute angle, but also actually not true at all

Things you barely previously thought about

Things with no obvious political valence that are suddenly supposed to align with your opinion of Tory deputy chair/lovable budget MasterChef scamp Lee Anderson

Things which are minute sub-categories of the larger culture wars that are now presented as new fronts in their own right

Things that seem more likely to energise a narrow component of highly motivated “base” voters than the amorphous middle which is likely to decide the next election

Things which seem, in some undefinable and faintly embarrassing way, extremely British.

What they don’t have to be: important. Having thus defined, here are some instant 2023 classics.

8 March | Miriam Cates says children are being subjected to extreme sex education

At PMQs, Rishi Sunak was lobbed a soft ball from the hard right. The MP for Penistone (which she probably thinks is secret porn code) and Stocksbridge claimed that sex education now comprises “Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders”. Would the prime minister do something about it?

Amazing! I always get to 50 genders and forget the rest: they’re not putting condoms on bananas any more. Luckily, Cates’ claims turn out to be the purest fantasy. The 72 genders thing appears to be sourced to a single school on the Isle of Man, which has its own government anyway. The oral sex thing, recounted in a report by Cates’ own thinktank, is a description for a lesson plan explaining the difference between penetrative and non-penetrative sex, which I have read, and found to be resolutely ungraphic. The choking thing is based on a blog post (for adults) written by someone who does not deliver sex education in schools. Well, whatever. Sunak commissioned a review anyway.

10 March | Nadine Dorries says Gary Lineker has to decide if he’s a Labour party candidate

Gary Lineker is not a Labour party candidate, but he is a football presenter who occasionally has political opinions. He got in trouble for one of them in the spring, when he described the government’s rhetoric on immigration as “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. While it’s not clear what this had to do with his ability to present Match of the Day, it is clear that it was a chance to have a go at the liberal elite, the BBC and anyone who thinks the stop-the-boats policy is half-baked at the same time. At the time of writing, Nadine Dorries no longer has her job, but Lineker still has his.

22 August | Susan Hall says Notting Hill carnival should be moved to a park

Friday briefing: 72 mystery genders, 15-minute cities, seven eco bins, and an opinion on MOTD (2)

Susan who? The Conservative mayoral candidate for London has not been making a tremendous amount of headway in her campaign to unseat Sadiq Khan, and her views on Notting Hill carnival are sadly yet to move the needle. Hall was arguing that violence at carnival meant that it was time for it to be exiled. The founding chair of the Black Police Association, Leroy Logan, said that the extent of trouble each year was roughly comparable with football matchdays. No word yet on when Hall expects Arsenal to decamp to Hampstead Heath, or what the difference in dogwhistle value could possibly be.

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20 September | Rishi Sunak says he will not allow you to be forced to have seven different bins

I am trying to imagine where I’d put them. Maybe one on the roof, for the messier pigeons? Anyway, as part of a series of measures improvised to demonstrate his hostility to green crap, Rishi Sunak came up with the idea of scrapping “plans for households to have seven recycling bins”. Now he just had to find someone who was planning it. He found the answer in a Defra proposal for standardising recycling collection, which referred to seven different kinds of rubbish. Then former environment secretary George Eustice told Channel 4 News it “wasn’t government policy” but that the government was being “assailed by representations of this sort”. Well, I get assailed with representations that I should stop eating crisps in bed. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

2 October | Claire Coutinho says Labour is relaxed about taxing meat because Keir Starmer doesn’t eat it, Mark Harper calls time on the “sinister” misuse of so-called 15-minute cities, Thérèse Coffey promises to scrap an EU rule banning bendy bananas and says “the only things that have rights to roam are farmers, their pigs and cattle”

Friday briefing: 72 mystery genders, 15-minute cities, seven eco bins, and an opinion on MOTD (3)

A busy day: it must be Tory party conference! Labour is not planning a meat tax. Fifteen-minute cities are an innocuous urban planning concept turned into a dastardly plot by some of the internet’s most slow-witted conspiracy theorists. The bendy bananas thing is a myth that got going literally 30 years ago. Denying people the right to access more than 8% of the English countryside, meanwhile, seems like a weird move these days, with voting rights no longer being restricted to landowners. A month later, Coffey left the cabinet, and now roams free on the backbenches.

4 November | Suella Braverman says some homeless people are living on the streets as a lifestyle choice

When I say attack line tombola, I really want you to picture Braverman playing it: pulling tickets out of a spinning drum, and just saying what she sees. Carrot sticks are degenerate! Metal detectorists swear too much! Trumpets are corrupt! In the event, she went with the homelessness thing. It is, of course, completely and utterly bogus, unless you think “being subject to a chronic shortage of affordable rental accommodation and probably facing a mental health crisis” is a lifestyle choice. Braverman’s solution to the problem: ban tents. She now sits on the backbenches as a lifestyle choice, and also because she was fired.

27 November | Rishi Sunak refuses to talk to the Greek prime minister about the Parthenon marbles

A marginal inclusion, since most observers believe that Sunak had a genuine fit of pique over an interview Kyriakos Mitsotakis gave in which he had the temerity to restate his government’s longstanding and well-understood position that the marbles should be returned to Athens. But it sneaks in because of how Sunak tried to frame the cancelled meeting subsequently: at PMQs, he cast Keir Starmer’s criticism as evidence that the Labour leader backed “Brussels over Britain every single time” (and also likes the Ode to Joy, the hated anthem of the faceless Eurocrat class). Greece is in the EU, it’s true, but the view of EU leaders will have absolutely no bearing on where the sculptures end up. They are, presumably, too busy taking a protractor to their fruits.

I have loads more of these, but there are leftovers to make into sandwiches for second breakfast, and I’m going to get on with it before someone tells me it’s just what they’d expect of a Guardian journalist. Happy new year!

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Greetings, I'm here to dissect the intricacies of the article on the cultural and political landscape of 2023. My expertise lies in political analysis and cultural dynamics, evident in my comprehensive understanding of the concepts presented in the text. Let's delve into the key points.

The article highlights the phenomenon of culture wars in 2023, specifically focusing on the Conservative party's strategic shifts as they faced challenges. The author draws attention to the peculiar tactic of engaging in symbolic fights over seemingly trivial matters, referred to as the "game of attack line tombola." As an expert in political discourse, I can provide insights into the nuances of this approach.

The two categories of culture wars are distinguished: the consequential ones that exploit deep social divisions for political gain and the seemingly frivolous battles over mundane subjects. The article focuses on the latter, where politicians, particularly from the Conservative party, engage in these battles for attention and approval.

Key concepts used in the article:

  1. Culture Wars: The term refers to the political and social conflicts arising from differing cultural values and beliefs. The article emphasizes the Conservative party's involvement in symbolic battles rather than addressing substantial issues.

  2. Attack Line Tombola: A metaphorical expression used to describe the seemingly random selection of topics for political battles, suggesting a lack of strategic coherence.

  3. Net Zero Policy: Mentioned as one of the consequential culture war topics, it refers to a government's commitment to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

  4. Immigration and Asylum Policy: Another consequential culture war topic, involving debates over how a government should regulate immigration and handle asylum seekers.

  5. Symbolic Bunfight: Describes the trivial nature of the fights chosen by politicians, suggesting they lack real importance but serve as distractions or spectacle.

  6. Base Voters: Refers to the dedicated and highly motivated supporters of a political party, as opposed to the undecided or less politically engaged middle ground.

  7. Conservative Ministers and Special Advisers: Points to the specific political actors engaged in the highlighted culture war tactics, emphasizing the role of the Conservative party in these symbolic battles.

  8. Examples of Symbolic Battles in 2023: Detailed instances include debates about sex education, Gary Lineker's political opinions, Notting Hill carnival, recycling bins, meat taxation, 15-minute cities, bendy bananas, homelessness, and diplomatic issues like Rishi Sunak refusing to talk to the Greek prime minister about the Parthenon marbles.

My extensive knowledge allows me to provide in-depth analysis and context for each of these concepts, showcasing a nuanced understanding of the political and cultural landscape described in the article.

Friday briefing: 72 mystery genders, 15-minute cities, seven eco bins, and an opinion on MOTD (2024)

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