Oliver Dowden is trying—and failing—to weaponise wokeness. Photo: Reuters / Alamy

The war on woke isn’t working

Boris Johnson’s heart isn’t in the culture wars, but his acolytes seem not to have noticed
March 3, 2022

As we were contemplating what our leaders say could be the worst conflict since the Second World War, the chairman of the Conservative Party flew to Washington, DC to open a second front, this time within our own societies rather than against an external threat. 

Oliver Dowden claimed he was warning the west not to be distracted by the “pernicious” new “Maoism” promoted by “woke warriors” “at the precise point when our resolve ought to be strongest.” His speech was a false flag operation, alleging provocation in an attempt to revive the old special relationship between the US and the UK. Why else drop the names of Thatcher and Reagan, Churchill and Roosevelt, to back his assertion that it is in the UK and US “where the woke agenda is pursued the most aggressively”?

Culture wars rage across sections of America. Trumpism has polarised politics, inflaming divisions over issues from race and abortion to Covid vaccinations and mask-wearing. It is less certain that the UK is heading in the same direction, as Dowden calculates—or that his side would benefit.

One speech by the little-known Dowden could be dismissed. Yet whenever the Johnson government gets breathing space from its self-created difficulties, a zealous minister pops up to spark a culture war. Nadine Dorries attacks the BBC and Channel 4. Dominic Raab questions the European Convention on Human Rights. Priti Patel describes the toppling of the Colston statue as “utterly disgraceful.” Biddable Tory MPs rail against cancel culture, the 21st-century mutation of “political correctness gone mad.” 

Last year the Centre for Policy Studies, a conservative think tank, brought the Republican pollster Frank Luntz over to the UK to produce the lip-smacking conclusion that “wokeism” and cultural wars are “coming anyway” to dominate UK politics. His survey actually found that a clear majority of respondents still thought of the UK as a nation of equality and freedom, while 40 per cent opposed cancel culture, compared to 25 per cent in favour.

Wokeism and anti-wokeism are not another Brexit, a great divider along party lines, because the great British public is stubbornly uninterested. Other polls recorded that 59 per cent don’t know what “woke” means and that 67 per cent are “not following the gender identity debate closely.” 

British and American opinion came into closest alignment in the early summer of 2020. There was widespread sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd. Many public bodies and corporations felt they had been negligent and scrambled to back other rights campaigns, including compliance on trans issues.

In the US the New York Times has cancelled some of its own journalists, the creator of Harry Potter JK Rowling and even some trigger words on its newly acquired game Wordle. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed from the New York City Council chamber, because the image of the slave-owner made some councillors uncomfortable. 

The UK has been calmer. In spite of critical comments from the attorney general Suella Braverman, there was little public outrage when a Bristol jury found the “Colston Four,” who threw the statue of the 17th-century slaver into the harbour, not guilty. 

Some women have been foully victimised by transgender activists for their feminist views, including Kathleen Stock, forced out from her post at Sussex University. Yet none of them has been cancelled. They have found much support and sympathy for their views.

Wokeism is not another Brexit, because the British public is stubbornly uninterested

Keir Starmer’s Labour is declining the invitation to join the frontline in the woke war. The Labour MP Rosie Duffield has threatened to leave Labour because the leadership has not protected her from harassment by party members backing trans rights. Starmer has not spoken out strongly. Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has pointed out that the trans issue “does not come up on the doorstep.” Meanwhile, the deputy leader Angela Rayner’s “shoot terrorists” comment dispels the insinuation that left-wing equals woke.  

And beyond a vocal minority of woke-bashers, Conservative politicians are also resisting the press gang. Tory MPs have split in all directions on Covid restrictions and the Owen Patterson lobbying scandal. Johnson’s government has handled the Gender Recognition Act with care. The Scottish government is being left to defend self-identification without commentary from the sidelines. Tory provocateurs have bitten their tongues over controversies such as the impact of trans women in swimming championships. Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers are pressing for a climbdown over Channel 4 privatisation. 

Useful as it might be if culture wars could be turned into the kind of wedge issues beloved of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, Boris Johnson’s war-mongering acolytes haven’t noticed that their boss’s heart isn’t in it. What could be more “woke” than the proposed Animal Sentience Bill, with or without foie gras? Guto Harri, Johnson’s new communications saviour, was dropped from GB News for taking the knee.

In the UK, confusing fog is descending—but the culture wars never got properly started.