How to lose a culture war

Johnson’s government started a “war on woke”—but it isn’t going to plan

July 15, 2021
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

As the Duke of Wellington said, the best laid battle plans don’t survive a first serious engagement with the enemy. And so it is with Boris Johnson’s culture war with the “woke left.” Post Euro 2020, in the wave of national revulsion at the vile racism which hit screens and social media forums during and after Sunday’s lost final to Italy, he is being forced to defend the same Black Lives Matter knee-taking which a month ago was apparently the harbinger of modern Marxism.

The pre-Euro skirmishes weren’t going too well either. Oliver Dowden, the po-faced culture secretary straight out of the 1950s, was struggling to equate the removal of a few statues of slave traders and (potentially) Cecil Rhodes with the destruction of our national culture. This particular battle hadn’t really been noticed much beyond Oriel College, Oxford, where the offending statue of Rhodes is located, and where it has generated a typically Oxonian debate about the ontology of Victorian imperialism. Anthony Gormley’s suggestion that the statue simply be turned around to face the wall epitomises this fracas.

Not much more successful was the proposed introduction of free-speech czars in campuses across the land—the hapless Gavin Williamson’s main post-Covid education reform. It isn’t clear whether these creatures are supposed to be preventing the left from campaigning against Rhodes and his ilk, or promoting the rights of David Starkey to make the case for them. Many hours of debate far into the night in the House of Lords will elucidate all this in the autumn, while universities wrestle with the real-existing crisis of how to conduct university teaching next term and students get angrier and angrier at what they are not receiving for their £9,000 a year in tuition fees.

The new institutions of the “war on woke” appear to have gone off half-cock too. GB News was billed as our equivalent of America’s left-slaying Fox News, but seems to have lost its anchor Andrew Neil in week three of broadcasting and its few remaining viewers are switching off fast.

It still isn’t clear why Neil packed up for an extended summer, maybe never to return, but one theory doing the rounds is that the Legatum Group and other right-wing backers of the cheapskate channel accelerated the launch in order to get ahead of the imminent launch of News UK TV, which was planning to occupy a more mainstream right-wing space. But, maybe partly influenced by GB News’s tribulations, Rupert Murdoch has reportedly pulled the plug on his new venture, which is a relief to yours truly, who had trialled a debate programme on the News UK channel with Ann Widdecombe and Toby Young as part of my services to free speech and the cause of sensible centrism under attack from left and right.

So in place of a whole suite of English culture war initiatives and ventures, we are just left with the unintended canonisation of Gareth Southgate in the public mind, and an argument about the appointment of an editorial director to the BBC, which the government is trying to block because she isn’t sufficiently pro-Tory.

Meanwhile in the real world, despite all the failure to start an orderly culture war, Johnson is 10 points ahead in most opinion polls and there is still a vacancy for an Opposition, which hasn’t been much affected by Labour holding a by-election in Yorkshire by a wafer-thin majority and farcically proclaiming this to be a great victory.

Floreat Etona

My Etonian friends—I have some—are a bit put out by my big profile of the prime minister in the summer issue of Prospect, which explains him through his alma mater. “Eton should not be wholly condemned,” writes one. “The Highest Common Factor of Etonians is the rather banal trait of geniality, no doubt born of self-confidence, in turn born of affluence.” Hmm, there is a bit more to it than excessive politeness, and anyway that isn’t Boris’s most obvious Etonian attribute, which is the Highest Common Factor of Entitlement.

The audience at last weekend’s Buxton Festival, where I spoke, were amazed that fully 20 prime ministers since Walpole in 1721 have been Etonians. They also liked the fact—given to me by Prospect’s editor Tom Clark—that this represents more than a third of all prime ministers in the last 300 years, whereas Eton should get one prime minister every 30,000 years if our heads of government were randomly recruited from the alumni of all UK secondary schools.

Another Boris in the year 32021. What a thought.