Oliver Dowden’s speech to the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, DC on 14 February, in which he denounced the “painful woke psychodrama” that is “sweeping the West”, has attracted plenty of attention, not all of it positive.
The Conservative Party chairman argued that “woke ideology” is “everywhere”. This “dangerous form of decadence” threatens “to sap our societies of their own self-confidence”. He linked the rise of “the doctrine of woke” with the international situation, arguing that “just when our attention should be focused on external foes, we seem to have entered this period of extreme introspection and self-criticism” as “the enemies of the West are finding fresh confidence in their eternal battle against liberty”.
As a speech it is revealing and thought-provoking, not wholly wrong but fundamentally misguided.
It is revealing in that it was a speech Oliver Dowden wanted to make. Dowden entered parliament in 2015 having been David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. He represents the constituency next door but one to my former seat, and I have always found him to be intelligent, politically astute and likeable. He is also ambitious.
In 2019 he saw which way the Conservative Party was going and decided to embrace it. This week’s speech flows from that choice.
As culture secretary he won the respect of officials as an effective and thoughtful minister but also carved out an unlikely role as a culture warrior. He was unfortunate not to have been promoted to education secretary and found himself – to his disappointment – made party chairman.
With the imminent prospect of a further reshuffle (one way or another), he obviously thought now was a good time to emphasise his credentials as a foe of the left and a foreign policy hawk (plus, for good measure, an advocate of low taxes and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher). Dowden will have a good feel for what appeals to Conservative MPs and members, and concluded that his speech fitted the bill.
Although this will not be the view of every New Statesman reader, there is an issue with cancel culture and an intolerance of views outside rather limited parameters. I think Dowden overstates the problem, and there is, I think, less of a threat to freedom of speech in the UK than in the US (as chronicled by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind). But the concern is legitimate.
There is also a strand of thinking on the far left that automatically views the West as the villains of the piece. True to form, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have blamed Nato for the tensions relating to Russia and Ukraine. It is perfectly reasonable for a Conservative politician to attack this nonsense.
Dowden also raises the importance of countries in the West, at a time of geopolitical turbulence, being self-confident, united and “showcasing the vitality of our values”. Again, particularly in the context of Russian threats to an independent, sovereign nation, he raises important questions to which we should give more thought.
It is at this point, however, that we must see his argument as misguided and, at times, ridiculous.
First, if we want to be more united, let us not overstate the cancel culture issue. Dowden gives the impression that all political parties other than the Conservatives are unpatriotic and that Britain’s history is at risk of being expunged. Both points are divisive and wrong. If we are truly self-confident, there are debates to be had about our past. We were not always the villains, but we were not always the heroes either. We should be able to handle this discussion without descending, as Dowden warned, into “extreme introspection and self-criticism” and “demoralisation and despair”.
Second, the link between “wokery” and our ability to stand up to authoritarian regimes elsewhere is, to put it mildly, tenuous. The argument does not work: it lacks a sense of proportion, and has rightly been ridiculed.
Third, if one is making an argument about how we should be confident in our Western values as we confront authoritarian regimes, the biggest problem is not “the doctrine of woke”.
The Heritage Foundation, which hosted the Dowden event, has close links to the US Republican Party, a party in which it would be a career-jeopardising move to condemn the attempted overthrow of a legitimate presidential election. That, I would have thought, is a more salient threat to our values of democracy and freedom. Incidentally, it was a Republican president, Donald Trump, who pondered US withdrawal from Nato. He may yet still pursue that project if he wins back the presidency in 2024.
Within Europe, it is right-wing populist governments that are undermining the rule of law and, in the case of Hungary, supporting Vladimir Putin.
Closer to home, the government in which Dowden serves has attempted to illegally suspend parliament and threatened to break international law. Brexit was always a huge geopolitical error that weakened the West, but the UK government is implementing it in a way that creates additional tensions with our closest allies. It is also a government that appears to think the Prime Minister is above the law.
We should ask ourselves how Western societies can become less divided, more self-confident and better exemplars of liberal democratic values. The answer is not to obsess about wokery, but to confront populism and nationalism, make the case for constructive Western alliances, and respect the rule of law.