I hear this sentiment echoed by many expats. They often say that this factor alone means they could never return to a life on UK soil. At least half the people I've spoken to believe that UK society has become more polarised in recent times.
Of course, there will be plenty of others who would happily declare that they absolutely do not think that so-called "culture wars" have been dividing UK opinion because they haven't personally been exposed to any of it. I think a lot depends on what part of the UK people originally came from as to what their outlook might be.
I have developed a bit of a theory. I note that those who haven't felt the cultural disparities tend to come from rural areas. They also tend not to frequent social media platforms where name-calling, blatant stereotyping and general rudeness can be indulged behind a firewall of anonymity. I have also noted that these alleged negative social changes have correlated with the popularisation of socio-political terminologies. Increasingly common usage of contemporary buzz phrases such as "cancel culture," '‘white privilege" and "woke" has probably helped stoke division.
The use of the term "cancel culture" refers, of course, to a prevalence of social ostracism over people’s personal beliefs or political persuasions. This type of ostracism often emerges on an institutional level and has tended to be more frequently observed by those who tend to hold Conservative views. Traditional Conservative individuals often feel "cancelled" especially by younger, fashionably left wing metropolitan types who cannot even momentarily abide being in the company of anyone who hold views that are divergent from their own and those of their peers.
The term that has mushroomed most is the word ‘woke’. In the UK an entire new TV news platform (GB NEWS) has grown to champion the 'anti-woke' narrative. The aim was to provide a credible alternative to what was seen as uber left wing "mainstream media" allegedly dominated by 'Labour luvvies' and other 'lefty' metropolitan elites. GB NEWS was set up as a sort of FOX NEWS equivalent for UK consumption.
The 'woke' term itself finds its roots in American slang. It originally referred to somebody who was unusually 'awake and alert' to racial prejudice or discrimination. Although the term has been extended to being 'alert and awake' to other subjects. Subjects which, again, tend to be closest to the hearts of younger, left-leaning metropolitan individuals and students. Those who vehemently champion issues such as LGBT, BLM and environmentalism.
So basically, despite 'wokeness' having its origins steeped in the field of racial discourse, it’s fair to say that being 'woke' now describes someone or something (perhaps institutional) who seek to portray themselves as being aggressively and proactively 'politically correct'.
Many may have once regarded being described as 'woke' as a positive credential. But, in truth, being called any sort of 'name' simply because your political views differ from your accuser must surely be regarded as derogatory rather than complimentary?
Even politicians have started using 'woke' as an everyday word. Some of the critics of ‘wokery’ have been the likes of Nigel Farage and House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg. Both it's fair to say, are, in their own way, true-blue stalwarts of old style Conservatism.
Dominic Raab personified the 'anti-woke' agenda when he recently defended Conservative plans to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a new updated UK Bill of Rights. At that time he said that “wokery has whittled down freedom of speech." This was a reference to left wing adherence to political correctness stifling dialogue by "cancelling" as many dissenting right wing voices as possible, especially when discussing thorny issues such as immigration. Liz Truss also waded in by declaring "Ludicrous debates about statues and pronouns must end."
Sense of division
Such a prevalence of heated discourse within the public domain, including that on various social media platforms have almost certainly compounded a sense that divisions have increased in the UK. However before we define these new terminologies as being entirely negative or wholly derogatory, it’s important to consider the tone at the time they are employed, especially whilst debating sensitive issues such as class, race or gender. Tone makes all the difference.
There has certainly been an increase in the media’s focus on "culture war" issues in recent times. Some of the terminology used during debates in recent years has definitely been colourful. The term "cancel culture", for example, didn’t even exist in our national discussions just a scant few years ago. But now, along with "no platforming" and "safe spaces," these are now commonly used phrases. The above terms tend to be used whilst referring to Universities and student bodies who allegedly keep Conservative ideals firmly at arm's length in favour of promoting more left-leaning ideologies within campuses. I imagine it's difficult not to be drawn towards a more socialist outlook when you're a poor student, unless of course, you happen to be an Etonian.
It should come as no surprise that all the media and political debates surrounding these issues have tainted public opinion. Awareness of key contemporary terms has grown and the meaning of some of these fashionable terms have gradually morphed. “Woke” being the prime example, with a clear shift into the realms of being perceived and indeed utilised as a form of insult rather than a compliment.
I have definitely noticed during my conversations around expat Portugal (and Spain) that the overall trend in opinion is veering towards people genuinely believing that UK society is now broken and divided. A bit like the USA but on a much smaller scale. This has been particularly prominent since the Trump/Brexit era; a time when we all walked around with labels pinned onto our posteriors.
All I can say to the expats who seem to have convinced themselves that the UK has descended into a chaotic quagmire of tribalism, bile and bigotry is - please think again. Perhaps such individuals have not visited the UK for some time? I would humbly suggest that all the thorny issues highlighted in this article are far from being uppermost in most people’s lists of concerns. The majority are nowhere near as fired-up as the media and social media would have you believe. That doesn’t mean these matters are deemed irrelevant to the great British public. Far from it.
It's clear that there are still some important debates to be had about the extent of cultural change in the UK. Paving the way for those debates to be carried out in a civilised and respectful manner should be important to all of us? Another bitter Brexit-like debate would-be utterly disastrous for all and sundry.
Personally, I feel UK society is far more grown up and content than what's being portrayed. When push comes to shove, the British people will always pull together. We definitely have more important fish to fry than worrying about pathetic labels. Of that there's very little doubt.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.