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17 April 2022

Why the government’s “war on woke” is failing

The right’s crusade against progressive culture looks ever less appropriate as Vladimir Putin derides Western freedoms.

By Martha Gill

In the last few weeks the collection of Twitter spats, op-eds and government edicts known as the culture wars has undergone some rather strange convulsions.

When war first broke out in Ukraine, a consensus formed on the right that something about the conflict reflected rather badly on the woke left. First, that the invasion had shown up worries about gender neutral bathrooms and the like as “self indulgent”. Countries at war had no time to think about the finer points of progressive equality, so other countries — so the logic seemed to go — should forgo that luxury too.

Second, there was a concern that “wokeism” had somehow caused the war. Spending lots of time debating matters such as pronouns and statues of slave traders was decadent and had made the West look weak and trivial, “emboldening” Vladimir Putin. Flaunting our liberal freedoms — taking them too far — had put us in danger of losing them.

Then there was the matter of Ukraine’s fight for freedom, which some on the right sought to use to bolster the UK’s foreign policy. In a speech last month Boris Johnson compared Ukraine to Brexit Britain, declaring that both had the instinct “to choose freedom”.

But this interpretation has been rather confounded by the fact that Putin does seem to have time for the culture wars — even peculiarly British ones — and places himself rather firmly on one side of them. In the past few years the Russian president has presented himself as an anti-globalist champion, winning populist allies across Europe and the US, among them the Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson, the French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and the far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini. In a televised address last month Putin mocked Russian émigrés with French villas who “can’t get by without their oysters, foie gras and so-called gender freedoms”. In another he accused the West of trying to “cancel” Russian culture.

In Putin’s conception of the world wokeism is lumped together with “liberal democratic values”, which makes it difficult for those who try to argue that the former poses a serious threat to the latter. One could even argue that it is in fact the anti-woke populists who have taken Western freedoms for granted by minimising and mocking progressive values, and their self-indulgence that has endangered those freedoms.

Seeing their views mirrored by Putin is not the only problem for those on the anti-woke side of the argument. Some of their ringleaders — Arron Banks and Nigel Farage among them — have been thoroughly discredited in recent weeks because of their previous outright support for the Russian leader.

Another area in which the war in Ukraine has shored up the woke cause is immigration. From the start of this crisis, the UK public has supported being generous towards Ukrainian refugees and welcoming them to Britain. That has caused problems for Boris Johnson’s government, which usually is pulled the opposite way when it comes to migrants. The Brexit campaign won in 2016 and the Tories won in 2019 by promising tougher rules on immigration. Now the government is being asked to make generous exceptions for Ukrainian refugees (but perhaps not others, and perhaps not for all that long). As a result, it was slow to react and the public have turned on the Brexiteer Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Pro-Leave commentators such as Iain Martin, meanwhile, have changed their views on immigration, calling “Brexit-era thinking” out of date. 

All of this points to some significant shifts when it comes to how the culture wars are played out. It is hard to predict long-term changes in the cultural zeitgeist but my guess is that the war in Ukraine will finish off the “war on woke”. After all, it was already dying.

The government’s war on woke was supposed to fill the gap left by Brexit. It served two purposes. First, to tie Labour in knots on issues its voters were split on. Second, to whip up and harness the same feelings of cultural marginalisation that had drawn people to Brexit in the first place. Yet so far these attempts have largely failed. Polls have found people simply do not care enough about the issues at stake. (A 2021 YouGov survey found the public were unsure whether “woke” was a compliment or an insult.) Free speech, statues and pronouns have not captured the imagination of voters in the way Brexit did.

In fact, the war on woke might owe its existence to a fatal misunderstanding of why Vote Leave won in 2016. The culture war aspect of Brexit was novel, so it absorbed a lot of analytical attention, but Brexit was not just a culture war. It also involved policy issues voters care deeply about, such as the future of the NHS and rules around immigration. There was the promise of more money for the health service and of restoring legal sovereignty, and many Brexit voters reported that these were the issues that swayed them. On its own, a culture war is hard to get invested in. 

If the Conservatives had doubts about their project before the war in Ukraine, they can only be deeper now. Already there are signs the war on woke is in crisis, with the Tory party fractured over cultural issues. 

In recent days plans to privatise Channel 4 have prompted a significant backlash from Tory MPs, while Johnson has dithered and U-turned over his ban on so-called conversion therapy. Yet if there’s a sign the war on woke is dying it cannot be clearer than Johnson’s failure to weaponise “net zero”, the only issue big enough to replace Brexit in the culture wars. Instead he is hard at work uniting both sides of the debate by reframing the drive for green energy as a security issue. There is only one possible conclusion: Johnson has lost faith in his war on woke. Soon his party will follow.

[See also: The year woke broke: a brief history of a contested word]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder