Updated: Oct 16, 2021
by Jonathan Coulter and Nigel Scott
The term ‘woke’, originated in black communities of the USA and means ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. This seems laudable, and it is difficult to understand why anyone should object. Notwithstanding many on the right have presented ‘woke’ as an attitude that threatens to impose a humourless straitjacket of political correctness on public discourse and, at times, to erase history.
So where do we at CAMPAIN stand on this? We have been shining a light on the misrepresentation of the Labour left, as antisemitic, but we have been doing this as a matter of principle, not out of political allegiance. To fulfil our mission as a non-partisan body, we also examine concerns about free speech and misrepresentation emanating from other parts of the political spectrum, including the right.
The War on Woke
The Conservative Government and a range of right-wing figures have repeatedly raised the spectre of a ‘War on Woke’. In January, Robert Jenrick pledged to protect colonial statues from the “baying mob” that apparently wanted to tear them all down. Soon Gavin Williamson was pledging a “free speech champion” to fight against no-platforming in universities. In May Oliver Dowden, the then Culture Secretary, told the Evening Standard that “woke culture runs contrary to the great liberal traditions of Western democracies”.
Government people driving this campaign include a highly influential power couple, Munira Mirza and her husband Dougie Smith, and the new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. According to this Telegraph article, the culture wars are for Mirza "a philosophical issue", but for Smith "they are a question of strategy, believing that every statue that is toppled is a vote-winner for the Tories, especially in former Red Wall seats".
Meanwhile, Dorries, a Liverpudlian of working class origin, and an author, is a populist par excellence who once tweeted “Left-wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech”. She also expressed her disappointment that Boris Johnson’s comments on Islamic letterboxes “didn’t go further”. Notwithstanding, or maybe because of this, Johnson sees her as someone who can help him connect with the (former) Red Wall.
A key initiative embracing the ‘War on Woke’ was GB News, founded in June 2021 with money from the American multinational Discovery, Inc., the United Arab Emirates-based investment firm Legatum and a British hedge-fund manager, Sir Paul Marshall, and employing Andrew Neil as its chairman and leading presenter. However, Neil departed after three months, and the disappointing performance of GB News has opened a gap in the market that the Murdoch Channel, UKTV, with presenter Piers Morgan, looks set to fill.
Not all Conservative figures have been enthusiastic about the War on Woke, and even Boris Johnson is reported to have baulked at putting it at the centre of his governing mission. The backlash at the Euros, after several ministers criticised the England squad for taking the knee, has raised further doubts among Tories, with one notably right-wing figure, Steve Baker, saying “We just have to get alongside those players who are taking the knee, and understand they are not saying ‘defund the police’; they’re not anti-capitalist”, but seeking to show “solidarity with those who suffer racism”.
Is this just a diversionary tactic?
Left-of-centre commentators tend to characterize the ‘War on Woke’ as a Trump-like diversionary tactic to get ordinary people to vote against their own interests. According to Anna Noble, Government and the right-wing press is trying “overshadow difficult conversations” that are needed about its own responsibility for injustices and policy failure re both Covid and a decade of austerity. "The number of children living below the poverty has increased by 38% since 2010, and the use of food banks in this country is up by 3,900% since 2010. For the first time in history, UNICEF has had to help feed British children". In the same vein, Byline TV points to Government covering up for the economic consequences of Brexit now becoming apparent, and unpalatable things like cuts in universal credit and a rise in national insurance.
The case of GB News shows that the War on Woke can attract international funding from people with right wing agendas, who may enjoy the anonymity of off-shore tax havens. However, it would be an oversimplification to characterize ‘war-on-woke’ campaigners as cyphers who simply do the bidding of British and international paymasters, and deny them any real agency as individuals. Indeed, some manage to tap into concerns felt by people of the centre and the left. A prime example of this is debate over trans rights, notably around the legal right of people to self-declare their gender rather than first provide medical evidence of gender dysphoria, and the idea of safe female-only spaces not accessible to trans women.
The stand-off over trans rights
This debate has often proved acrimonious, pitting those advocating for an allegedly vulnerable trans minority against non-trans women claiming to be concerned for their own safety and identity. Organisations like Stonewall and Mermaids campaign relentlessly for greater acceptance of transmen and transwomen and the legal right to self-declare their status without third party intervention. On the other hand, there has been pushback from a range of organisations defending women’s rights, and individuals like J K Rowling, Piers Morgan and Baroness Nicholson. Pro-trans lobby groups routinely label their opponents “terfs” and “transphobes” and have made vigorous attempts to prevent them from speaking and articulating their concerns, which have included threats of violence which have caused some women to fear for their safety. We at CAMPAIN take no position on these debates, except where there is serious misrepresentation of facts and the threat to freedom of speech. This is occurring within all mainstream UK political parties, where people who argue against self-identification and women who argue for the retention of safe spaces are routinely attacked.
Two recent cases have brought this problem to the fore:
The Liberal Democrat Natalie Bird, whom the Liberal Democrats recently banned for ten years from standing in any party role, both internally and externally, because she wore a t-shirt with the slogan “woman: noun adult human female”
The Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, who has argued for the retention of female-only spaces, decided not to attend the Labour Party Conference of September 2021 citing online threats from transgender activists. She also drew the ire of trans activists and was rebuked by Sir Keir Starmer for saying that "only women have a cervix".
While the term “transphobic” connotes antipathy or hate towards trans people, those issuing the accusation are often engaging in conjecture without evidence that the accused harbour any such motives; this behaviour looks like a serious case of misrepresentation.
We cannot applaud the ‘war on woke’. Government is trying to use it to divert public attention from areas where its own record is questionable, while media outlets have been hypocritically using it to posture about “free speech”.
As CAMPAIN has repeatedly reported, the mainstream media has persistently engaged in de facto censorship of evidence that contests their repeated assertions about antisemitism in the Labour Party, while the press barons have fiercely resisted regulatory measures designed to raise their abysmal standards. Hypocrisy is also evident in Government pledging a “free speech champion” to fight against no-platforming in universities, while threatening to defund universities that refuse to adopt a mis-definition of antisemitism which has been mobilised for the purpose of stifling free speech about Israel.
However, the trans rights case shows that political parties of the centre and left sometimes make themselves an easy target for the ‘War on Woke’, due to their unwillingness to make a hard choice in favour of freedom of expression, and ignore the existence of the many transgender people who do not support the brazenly intolerant approach of Stonewall and its allies. Free speech may cause discomfort among some trans people, and raise the hackles with militant lobby groups purporting to defend their rights, but this must be set against the greater cost of chilling the environment for free speech, and in some cases, damaging the careers of those who will not be silenced.