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The year woke broke: a brief history of a contested word

From Suella Braverman to Elon Musk, war has been declared on liberalism. How did one word come to mean so much – and so little?

By Stuart McGurk

Speaking in the Commons on the afternoon of 18 October, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman denounced the opposition to her proposed Public Order Bill as “the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”. The next day, she posted her resignation letter on Twitter. It had been a busy 24 hours in the war on woke, which featured the following skirmishes.

In the Commons, Braverman had given way to only two MPs, both members of the Common Sense Group – a collective of around 70 Conservatives on the right of the party that had formed two years earlier. Marco Longhi, MP for Dudley North, asked when the police would start locking protesters up. (A month later, Longhi would become president of the activist organisation Turning Point UK, whose aim is to fight “woke ideologies” in universities.) Gareth Bacon, MP for Orpington and the author of an essay for the Common Sense Group’s 2021 manifesto titled “What Is Wokeism and How Can It Be Defeated?”, suggested police officers should spend “less time policing pronouns on Twitter”. Braverman, a regular speaker at Common Sense Group events, welcomed their questions: “My honourable friend raises an issue close to my heart.”

On TalkTV that evening, Piers Morgan – whose most recent book, Wake Up, was by definition anti-woke – would bemoan the spread of “this ultra-woke world-view”, before discussing Meghan Markle, whom he’d previously nicknamed the “Queen of Woke”. On rival channel GB News, Dan Wootton would fret that if Keir Starmer became prime minister it would mean “a total defeat” in the war on woke.

In New York, lawyers for Elon Musk were finalising paperwork for a $44bn takeover of Twitter, a website on which “woke” trends regularly. A court case had recently revealed texts sent to Musk from his ex-wife Talulah Riley urging him to buy the platform: “please do something to fight wokeism”.

On Newsmax, the former Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider wept as he blamed “woke Hollywood” for not funding his film about the American flag. Donald Trump Jr, whose father had recently complained that the US banks had “gone woke”, promoted PublicSq, a platform designed for “freedom-loving”, non-woke businesses. A crowd-funding campaign for a “non-woke” superhero movie was revealed to be a scam.

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[See also: “Nobody took her seriously”: the rise, fall and rise of Suella Braverman]

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At Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 October, Starmer – who had been advised by Tony Blair to drop “woke” politics and focus on the economy – attacked Liz Truss’s handling of the economy. Truss, who had vowed to tackle the “woke” civil service during the recent leadership contest, sat on the front benches with Penny Mordaunt, forced to deny during the same contest that she was “too woke”, and Kemi Badenoch, knocked out in the fourth round despite styling herself as the least woke. Rishi Sunak, who had attempted to revive his faltering leadership bid by attacking “woke culture” following suspicion that he was woke-curious, was nowhere to be seen. Boris Johnson, who had attacked “woke” plans to rewrite UK history in his 2021 Conservative Party Conference speech, was on holiday in the Dominican Republic and likely still asleep.

At around 3.30pm, Braverman began drafting her resignation letter. She had been found to have broken the ministerial code after sending John Hayes, the chair of the Common Sense Group, sensitive No 10 documents from her personal email. Hayes’ outsize influence on Tory anti-woke rhetoric had led colleagues to call him “The Woke Finder General”. It was later revealed that the two had met so often that Home Office officials had raised the alarm.

The Labour Party, climate protesters, Guardian readers and people with tofu in the fridge claimed it as a victory of their own. But most knew it was bigger than that: finally, after years of rearguard withdrawal, it was a rare win for woke.

“Victory for the wokerati!” read a typical tweet. T-shirts and mugs commemorated it. A YouTube sea-shanty celebrated it (“She swore the wokerati fought her/But Sue’s email’s what really caught her”). By the next morning, the Guardian had updated its call for reader contributions on its website: “A message for the tofu-eating wokerati,” it began.

How did we get here? How did this headline-friendly, hashtag-neat, four-letter word that still officially means “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice” come to mean so many things that it now means almost nothing at all? To answer that, you have to go back to its origins in the 1960s, and from there track its rise and fall – through protest movements, media sound-bites and corporate co-option, as woke went from rallying cry to the one-size-fits-all insult of our age.

Ask the people who use the word woke most to define it, and they will struggle.

“It’s very pro-Europe,” says Alexander Stafford, the Common Sense Group member and Conservative MP for Rother Valley. “It’s very much defined by what it’s not. It’s the population of everywhere. It’s the views of a supernational organisation.” 

“It’s an ideology that perceives people first and foremost through group identity,” says Andrew Doyle, GB News host. “It rejects the notion of individualism, is drawn from the coded understanding of power structures within society, which then mutated into critical race theory, which has now been applied since the postmodern turn of the late 1980s.”

“Isn’t it an acronym for something?” says Hayes, Woke Finder General. 

Suddenly, Doctor Who casting decisions were woke. Bike-parking schemes were woke. Periods were woke. A vegan sausage roll was performatively woke. James Bond – a spy who killed for a living – was double-O-woke. Marvel, breakfast cereal, the Microsoft Word spellchecker: nothing was beyond suspicion of it.

Companies decided they should be it, only to be charged with “woke-washing” and suffer woke backlashes as a result. BuzzFeed ran a quiz on it (“You decide to go as Kanye West to a Halloween party but you’re not black. Do you paint your face?”). Vladimir Putin thinks the West will fall because of it. 

[See also: Maria Ressa: “The law was bent to the point it was broken”]

At first being anti-woke was a contention; then, suddenly, it was a career. TV stations, YouTube channels, podcasts and freshly monetisable personas were dedicated to the notion that it was only them against the woke-warriors bent on silencing everyone else. 

At the same time, being super-woke started to resemble being anti-woke; liberalism began tying itself in knots. Nick Lowles, the anti-racism campaigner and founder of Hope Not Hate, was no-platformed for perceived racism. Peter Tatchell, the LGBTQ campaigner, was no-platformed for signing a letter denouncing no-platforming.

Was woke simply the new “politically correct”, the latest example of what the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker coined as the “euphemism treadmill”, the process by which a tired or offensive term gets a new lease of life by hopping to a new host? Or was it a symptom of something deeper: a one-word fissure borne of a society that, able to choose its own truths, was becoming irrevocably divided? (There was also the possibility that it had become a synonym for annoying.)

Like archaeologists of some far future sifting through the rubble of our civilisation, no one could quite say what woke meant any more. But, now awakened, it was clear it wasn’t going away any time soon.

“We didn’t start this war,” Hayes told me, as he drove home from a Common Sense meeting. “The war was declared by the wokes.”

Josie Pickens didn’t join Twitter for any of the reasons you might suspect. She was a grad student in 2009, working on a master’s about womanism, the social theory based on the everyday experiences of black women, at Texas Southern University. She would later realise the social network’s power – she followed the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement through it, and wrote her first article for Ebony magazine on the protests with the help of it – but she joined, she says, because one of her favourite singers, Erykah Badu, was live-tweeting the birth of her child.

In September 2009 Pickens posted a tweet that would become famous, at least among cultural historians and word nerds. “They used the RICO laws to imprison Mutulu Shakur #staywoke #preventativedetention,” she wrote, referring to the activist’s imprisonment for a 1981 robbery while a member of the Black Liberation Army. It was the first documented use of “#staywoke” in the world. Yet until I contacted Pickens, a professor and cultural critic, she was unaware of this. “My friend said I should put it on my CV.”

The term, ironically enough, came from one of Badu’s songs, “Master Teacher”, released in 2008, the year before she live-tweeted her labour. It was co-written by the soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had heard a fellow music student use it to mean literally stay awake, found it funny, and realised how well it would work as a refrain in a song she was writing: one that imagined an idyllic future for African Americans, but where it was vital to be on your guard.

The director Laurens Grant first started hearing the word woke years later, while interviewing activists for a 2016 documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement. The hashtag that accompanied it, #staywoke, was a clarion call: to take notice of the deaths of these young black men and women, and to keep noticing.

The documentary’s eventual title – Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement – proved problematic. “There was so much pushback,” Grant tells me. “People were saying, you can’t say ‘Woke’, that’s grammatically incorrect! I mean, I’m laughing, but it was that new.”

In Oxford later that year, an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary was about to grammatically correct it. Jonathan Dent was working as a drafter at the time, meaning he added words to the dictionary. He is currently a reviser, meaning he updates them. The gap between a word being drafted and revised in the OED can usually be measured in monarchies, yet “woke” may give Dent the unique opportunity to do both within a decade.

He remembers thinking that researching woke – something, after all, that everyone had done that morning – would be problematic. But hashtags and Twitter are a word-detective’s friend; a couple of years earlier they had helped Dent crack “First World problems”. He found the tweet from Pickens almost instantly, yet the idea was to date it back further. Looking through the OED’s slips – a huge, alphabetised archive of new-word suggestions culled from papers and pamphlets – Dent found a much older use, from a 1962 piece in the New York Times.

The author was William Melvin Kelley, a 24-year-old African-American novelist whose debut, A Different Drummer, would be published the following month. The article would, in some ways, predict woke’s fate. Titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It”, it detailed how much of beatnik slang at the time had been lifted from African-American dialect. And how, once co-opted by the mainstream, your language was no longer your own.

Dent wasn’t to know it, but between his researching woke’s OED entry in the autumn of 2016 and its appearing in the dictionary’s official update the following June, Kelley would die, aged 79, due to complications from kidney failure. It was around then that Kelley’s career really took off.

The US novelist William Melvin Kelley, author of the 1962 essay “If You’re Woke You Dig it”
Founding father: the US novelist William Melvin Kelley, author of the 1962 essay “If You’re Woke You Dig it”. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

A Different Drummer had received little fanfare in his lifetime. By the time of his death, it was long out of print. Yet when the New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz was browsing a junk shop that summer, she was amazed to find a book with an inscription for Kelley inside. Wasn’t that… the grandfather of woke? She tracked down a copy of his book.

What she discovered, she wrote in the New Yorker the following January, was a masterpiece. “The Lost Giant of American Literature” read the headline of an essay that was widely shared among publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.

At Riverrun, a new publishing imprint in the UK, an editor called Richard Arcus tracked down his own dog-eared copy. Schulz, he realised, was right. In recent years, a number of lost classics had been turned into posthumous bestsellers. Books such as Stoner (1965), Suite française (1942) and Alone in Berlin (1947) had all taken the idea of a sleeper hit and run with it, each becoming a success long after their authors had settled in for eternity. But something else was key: publishing had a serious diversity issue. A lost masterpiece from the grandfather of woke? It seemed too good to be true.

“Publishers were attempting to find voices from black writers that had been neglected,” says Jon Riley of Riverrun. “There were whole initiatives dedicated to it. With all of that going on, how was it that even in America people didn’t know about him?”

Which was how, after Riverrun won a fierce bidding war by promising Kelley’s daughter it would republish all five books her father had written, William Melvin Kelley became the first person to revive a flagging media career due to woke – only he was pro rather than anti, and it happened a little later than he might have wished.

Erykah Badu fared less well. That same summer, she gave an interview to Vulture in which she praised both Bill Cosby (“I love Bill Cosby, I love what he’s done for the world”) and Adolf Hitler (“I saw something good in Hitler… [He] was a wonderful painter”) and promptly saw herself cancelled.

It would be nice to think that, when the #MeToo movement arrived, “woke” was a natural ally. Catapulted into the mainstream and the 3am sweats of skeezy guys everywhere by the October 2017 Harvey Weinstein revelations, and the subsequent tweet by the actress Alyssa Milano (“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”), it seemed an obvious hashtag friend. Nice: but wrong.

If anything, the movement and the word were cast in opposition. A Saturday Night Live sketch that spring, in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, had already caught the mood. In it, a succession of outwardly feminist men each try to impress a woman at a bar – they’re wearing a feminist T-shirt! They worked for Hillary! – only to react with outrage when she won’t sleep with them. “OK, bitch!” shouts one. “I’m wearing this shirt and you won’t even let me nut? I followed all the rules!”

Shorn of its rallying cry, woke was suddenly no longer something you did, but something you were. And if you were a man, just as often, it was something you were suspected of pretending to be. Woke had entered its performative age.

However, two things can be true at once. As woke went from activity to identity, it also became a commodity: a principle to be monetised, a lifestyle to be sold. And the glossy magazines weren’t far behind.

[See also: Rebecca Solnit: Why climate despair is a luxury]

In the US, Teen Vogue, as one Twitter user put it, went “WOKE AF”. Its op-eds (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) went viral. A daily news round-up (“The Woke List”) was launched. One issue was co-edited by Hillary Clinton. The website went from 3.5 million unique users in 2016 to 8 million the following spring – and there was still time to report on the “hairy tights” trend.

In the UK, adult Vogue wasn’t far behind, having announced Edward Enninful as its new editor in April 2017. His first issue, December 2017, landed in the midst of #MeToo’s first shockwave. “Remember this was three years before every magazine suddenly seemed to care about diversity,” Enninful wrote in his recent memoir, A Visible Man. “The global right wing had not yet adopted the word ‘woke’ as its insult du jour.”

He planned, he said, to shake up a magazine he saw as insular, upper-class and far too white. And Enninful was true to his word: he championed diversity, inclusivity and mindfulness, and landed a string of world-exclusive covers in his first year, from Rihanna to Oprah.

Suddenly, everything was seen through a woke lens. During one particularly woke period in February 2018, Vogue’s fashion critic wrote about woke suits (“deconstructed into a suitably sexy reincarnation for a woke world”), woke haute couture (“a glamorous new take on their woke aesthetic”) and woke pastels (“an artistic, intelligent approach to life, perhaps best summed up in that currently inescapable word: woke”) in the space of seven days.

These were woke’s golden years. They wouldn’t last.

Anver Hanif had long been dissatisfied with the modelling industry by the time he decided to strike out on his own. Agencies always preached diversity, he says, but they rarely practised it. When he joined Select Model Management in 1987 it had a roster that was almost exclusively white and middle-class. When he joined So Dam Tuff in 1995, it championed black models, but conventionally handsome ones. Where was the agency with models who looked striking, but also odd? That didn’t discriminate on height, and that welcomed transgender and non-binary people?

In November 2019, Hanif registered Woke Management. His friends immediately tried to talk him out of it. “They felt it was too political,” he says. “You know, with links to prejudice and people who are oppressed – they felt it might turn people off.”

He wasn’t the only one with the same idea. In the past few years, a plethora of start-ups have put woke in their brand name. Yet many have flamed out almost as soon as they began: business snowflakes. Take your pick from WokeAndBroke, which went broke (March 2021 – August 2022); Woke Limited, whose time was limited (May 2016 – October 2017); or Woke AF (March 2018 – December 2021), which clearly was not woke AF enough. None responded to emails.

The ones still in business raised more questions. How does Woke Accounting differ from regular accounting? (I can’t tell you: they did not reply). How do Woke Babies differ from regular babies? (I can tell you: they provide children’s books with much-lacking racial representation, as its co-founder Magda Kiros explained.)

For Hanif, using the word woke worked – at first. LGBTQ models came calling. Agents, sensing something different, came for that something. Granted, a couple of religious models refused to join as they were convinced it was a cult, but they were the exception.

Around the same time, big business decided to get woke, too. This was where the troubles began. Style magazines selling woke as aspiration was one thing; corporations preaching it as dogma was another. If you want to put a date on it, you could do worse than 13 January 2019, when Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” advert landed online, and almost instantly became one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history.

[See also: The death of “Boris” the clown]

A heavy-handed take on toxic masculinity – dispensing such sage advice as: don’t stand around chortling at the barbecue while two ten-year-old boys engage in a fist-fight of blood-spraying violence – it wasn’t the first to be accused of “wokewashing”, but it was the worst. The Gillette ad’s downfall would be woke’s downfall: it was smugly telling you it knew best, and that everything you were doing was wrong.

The American podcaster Joe Rogan – an anti-woke superstar whose rise directly parallels woke’s fall – predictably had thoughts. “Like, hey bro, aren’t you selling razors? Like, you’re changing the world with your shitty advertiser-based philosophy?” He had a point.

“It was a classic example where the social purposing is overridden by who the brand’s audience is,” says Eliza Williams, editor of Creative Review. “And it didn’t fit. They’ve gone from ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ to that.” On the other hand, Williams points out, “It’s why Nike can do those ads really successfully, because they’ve taken a stance over decades.”

Nike’s advert with the American footballer Colin Kaepernick – dropped from the NFL after taking the knee – had aired the previous September and was a rare case of wokewashing done right. Sales surged 30 per cent and Nike’s share price rose 5 per cent, adding $6bn to the company’s value. It didn’t, however, stop some anti-woke Nike customers burning their trainers on YouTube.

The backlash against the Gillette advert, meanwhile, was both extreme and ironic: an advert about toxic masculinity prompted some particularly toxic masculinity. Though it was produced by a large New York advertising agency, the female director was heaped with blame. “Kim [Gehrig] received death threats,” says her agent. “It was horrific. She will not want to bring it back to the surface.”

Woke had begun to curdle. The more meaning it took on – not just anti-racist, but feminist and progressive and “pure” – the more being avowedly anti-woke was providing cover for something else: outright racism. When Sainsbury’s released a Christmas advert in 2020 featuring a black family, it was immediately accused of “going woke”.

Casting became such an issue in advertising, I’m told, that Mother – the agency behind campaigns for Ikea, Uber Eats and H&M, among others – put together best-practice guidelines for their clients. In other words: how to be inclusive without getting cancelled.

For Hanif, also, things have shifted since 2019. For one, the industry caught up with him, and began welcoming the models Woke Management specialised in (“All the drag queens are at the major agencies now,” he says, sadly). But also, the name started putting people off. Now “people say, ‘I hate that word.’ Because you’ve got activists banging on about it the whole time.” The pros still outweigh the cons – “but woke has lost its impact now, for me”.

Andrew Doyle, a comedian as well as a GB News host, can pinpoint the exact moment that comedy went woke. And, according to him at least, when woke became something else: a censorship, a narrowing of what was acceptable. 

When the Edinburgh Comedy Awards director, Nica Burns, opened the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, she managed the impressive feat of using the word five times in a 900-word address without quite saying exactly what it was (“I have no answers, only questions”). But she was clear on one thing: all comedians should be it. Burns was looking forward, she said, “to comedy’s future in the woke world”.

“She basically compared the new woke movement to the alternative comedy movement of the Eighties,” says Doyle. “To me, that’s actually 100 per cent backwards. The alternative comedy movement of the Eighties was pushing back against the establishment. And of course, the woke, or whatever you want to call it, is now the establishment.”

To non-GB News viewers, Doyle is probably best known as the person behind the satirical Twitter account @TitaniaMcGrath, a woker-than-thou keyboard warrior (or, as her bio puts it: “Activist. Healer. Radical intersectionalist poet”). She is also the author of Woke: A Guide to Social Justice – or, rather, Doyle is.

As woke widened it was also hijacked. Suddenly, it was little more than a term of derision. Political correctness, those on the right felt, had, at long last, gone properly mad. If it was vegan, vegetarian or environmentally aware, it was woke. If it involved discrimination, representation, or gender-anything, it was super-woke. If you thought a multi-dimensional Time Lord with two hearts and a magic screwdriver could be played by a woman or a gay black man, then God help you, you woke warrior.

But woke’s critics weren’t always wrong. In March, the American School in London – Britain’s most expensive day school, charging £32,650 a year – showed how the liberal left could find itself espousing illiberal values. The school was downgraded by Ofsted after its teaching was found to place more weight on social justice than subject knowledge, fostering a culture where “alternative opinions are not felt welcome”. The school had launched “affinity groups” for under-represented pupils, which parents pointed out was de facto segregation. (Naturally, the Daily Mail called it “Britain’s wokest school”.)

[See also: Geoff Dyer: How to grow old in America]

 In May 2020 the murder of George Floyd caused worldwide protests and much soul-searching in august institutions. Yet for every nod towards change – the National Trust opening up on its colonial roots, a school syllabus that didn’t sugar-coat slavery – there was a corresponding uproar. Sacred texts were being rewritten and it was clear who was responsible. The woke. “I am tired of these sorts of woke games being played,” said Ann Widdecombe, who promptly cancelled herself, or rather her National Trust membership.

But it wasn’t just former Brexit Party MEPs. The previous October, in 2019, Barack Obama had spoken at the Obama Foundation’s annual summit and professed his frustration with what woke had become: a binary state of being with no discussion to be had. Not just something you were or weren’t, but something where calling out those who weren’t meant you really were. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke, you should get over that quickly,” he said to some light clapping. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

One danger he saw among young people, Obama said, was to be “as judgemental as possible about other people and that’s enough. Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. ‘Man, you see how woke I was?’… That’s not bringing about change.”

I wondered how this went down with the Obama Foundation activists on stage that day, and so spoke to Awah Francisca Mbuli, the founder of Survivors’ Network, a Cameroonian NGO comprising trafficking survivors (she is a survivor herself). “For me, it was a wake-up call,” she says. “To add more force to what you’re doing. If you want to do something in life to help make the world a better place, you should double your effort.” They don’t, she says, use the word in Cameroon. “No,” she says, “on stage with Obama was actually the first I’d heard it.”

For Obama, this wasn’t just personal but a matter of policy – and one he saw as vital to the Democrats’ future electoral success. In an interview on Pod Save America in October, he warned that the party risked being a “buzzkill” by focusing on culture-war topics. “People just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells,” he warned.

In the UK, Tony Blair saw Obama’s eggshells and raised him a minefield. “It is a minefield on virtually everything,” he told Good Morning Britain in May. “If you are of a certain generation, you are not sure what you can, what you can’t say, whether you can make a joke about something.”

If woke was proving problematic in US politics, it was nothing compared to the woke war raging back home. 

John Hayes is a gregarious man: well-read, quick to laugh, and surprisingly good company for someone who describes the culture wars in terms of Neville Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. (Hayes is Winston Churchill in this scenario.)

“What we’re doing is making sure the government understands that, with the culture war, you can’t be neutral,” he says of the Common Sense Group, which he founded in 2020. “War has been declared. You could try appeasement, but we know where that ended with Chamberlain. You’ve got to take these people on.”

Yet to hear him tell it, the group was not formed with this aim. While some political pressure groups are born anti-woke, and some achieve anti-woke status, the Common Sense Group had anti-wokeness thrust upon it.

It began with a call from John Horam following the 2019 election. Horam – previously both a Labour and Conservative MP after an ill-fated dalliance with the Social Democratic Party in the Eighties – was eager  that the Tory party use its robust majority to tackle immigration, an issue he felt had been long neglected. Hayes agreed. But how to make their voices heard?

The project started with a small gathering, just five or six like-minded MPs, yet it wasn’t long before they were having Zoom meetings with Priti Patel, then the home secretary, who agreed to make it her top priority. Their influence grew. By the time Channel crossings were dominating the headlines, “it made us much more relevant”, says Hayes, and they looked to broaden their remit.

Black Lives Matter – according to Hayes’s Common Sense Group manifesto, a movement of “subversives fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future” – was key to what happened next. His group began, he says, to talk about the relationship between migration
and identity, the “close association between building social solidarity through integration, the need to create a society with a shared sense of belonging… so we became the go-to group for people who wanted to talk about those things”.

It wasn’t long before woke was in their sights. The combination of Brexit and the recent election, Hayes felt, had given them a mandate. He saw the national conversation as one dominated by “bourgeois liberal elites” and Brexit as a rejection of that. The Common Sense Group’s rise, he says, “was a reaction to that liberal-left zeitgeist… and a profoundly important point. The right to offend. In a society where you can’t alarm or disturb, you can’t invent, inspire or enthral. It’s almost as though wokes would quite like that world.”

MPs began stopping Hayes to ask, “Why aren’t I in your group?” Lords asked the same. Every week new faces turned up. Braverman, then the attorney general, gave talks, as did Truss, then the foreign secretary. Boris Johnson hosted a Downing Street reception. At the 2022 Conservative Party Conference, the group booked a venue for 200 people, only to have 300 show up. Braverman gave a speech on the conference floor in which she used the phrase “common sense” four times, and then attended the Common Sense Group’s reception to give another.

The group campaigned against the “woke” National Trust after the charity published a report detailing links to colonialism and slavery at 93 of its locations. (The head of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, later received death threats but refused to back down.) It asked the then education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, to ban universities from signing up to the “woke” Racial Equality Charter, a scheme aimed at improving minority representation (the then higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote to vice-chancellors to warn it could conflict with their duty to uphold free speech). It successfully lobbied the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to fly Union Jack flags on government buildings at all times. (“Before then, they were only flown on rare occasions,” says Hayes, proudly.)

If Sunak and the cabinet are now the public face of the Conservative Party, then the Common Sense Group is its anti-woke deep state. Some commentators were surprised how much the word “woke” was used in this year’s leadership debates, not least as a YouGov survey from the previous May showed the majority of the British public (59 per cent) had no idea what it meant. 

But as the MP Alexander Stafford puts it to me, the day after he was reported to have been manhandled into the government’s vote on fracking, the anti-woke posturing wasn’t aimed at them. The leadership contest “wasn’t an election for most voters; it was an election for party members. And I think the average Conservative Party member is probably more concerned with these issues.”

Having been reinstated by Sunak, Braverman remains the Common Sense Group’s most powerful ally, in lockstep over everything from immigration to the belief that the “wokerati” are the unofficial opposition.

Hayes is dismissive of Truss’s reason for firing Braverman: that the email she sent him on her private account was a breach of the ministerial code. “It was a written statement on immigration which would have been available to every member of the House and the whole world the next day,” he says. “And for Starmer to suggest it was the equivalent of a top-secret document is pretty irresponsible.”

[See also: “We’re going to disrupt”: A year inside GB News]

But Braverman wanted Hayes’ take on it. The weekend following her resignation, the Sunday Times quoted a No 10 source saying that Braverman “doesn’t make any decision without consulting John Hayes”.

Hayes denies this, but allows: “We are good friends, close allies. I’ve been delighted to have lots of discussions about politics and policy [with her]. She often says, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that?’”

He took Braverman, he says, “under my wing” when she was a junior MP. He put her on the committee for an Investigatory Powers Bill he was pushing through parliament (“So I gave Suella her first big break”). He likes to help young MPs, he says. “I’ve always thought the contribution you can make is through the support you give others. And the influence you can bring in doing that.”

At its heart, the war on woke is a war about the past: how much of it we cling to; the idea that motion isn’t necessarily progress. To hear Hayes tell it, he would prefer everything to stay exactly the same, no woke quarter given.

He first wanted to become a Conservative MP, he tells me, aged seven, before correcting himself: “I actually think it was five or six.” By the time he was ten, in 1968, he’d made up his mind about pretty much everything, and hasn’t changed it since. What is this world-view? That “the collected wisdom of the ages” is more important “than the fads and fashion of any one generation”. That it is our duty to “preserve and protect” everything that came before us. BLM, Just Stop Oil, shifting pronouns: these were part of a “facile faddish fascination for the zeitgeist – you have to get that in!” (Hayes is also against abortion in all circumstances, and has suggested bringing back capital punishment.)

But there is something of a contradiction here. If the Common Sense Group cherishes the past, why campaign against the National Trust highlighting its historical links to slavery? What’s wrong with showing both sides of the story of empire? “I’m not sure they want to see both sides of the story,” he says of his woke opposition. “I think they have a story.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Hayes says something even more surprising. Never mind dismissing the future – he says he’s only barely interested in the present. “I’m not really interested in now. I’m slightly interested in it. But the thing about now is that it becomes then in an instant, doesn’t it?”

On 8 November, the Florida governor Ron DeSantis took to the stage in Tampa to celebrate his landslide victory in the US midterms. Standing in front of an American flag the size of a house, the man whom most experts agree is now the front-runner for the Republicans’ presidential nomination in 2024, spoke proudly about an anti-lockdown policy under which 82,541 Floridians died, the third-highest mortality rate among the US states. DeSantis alluded to policies that have restricted the teaching of LGBTQ issues and the history of race (“We have maintained law and order. We have protected the rights of parents”).

Finally, he began to channel Churchill as he outlined the fight that was to come. “We reject woke ideology!” he said to rising cheers. “We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die!”

I called Pickens, the first to write “#staywoke” 13 years earlier, to ask if she’d seen DeSantis’s speech. Yes, she said. “And that’s why I would never use that word.” Now, she says, you only hear people using it as a joke. “Someone will say something ridiculous and someone will reply, ‘Yeah, stay woke.’ People are demonised for trying to make sure that we understand the history of this nation.”

Woke’s journey has been a long one. Pickens’s daughter was four when her mother posted that tweet; she is now 17. Pickens currently works as the director of an organisation that campaigns to improve the US child welfare system, which it argues disproportionately separates black children from their parents. She remains as energised as ever about the idea that change is possible. She never, of course, thought a tweet would be enough. It would take a life’s work.

Woke’s demise, after all, is not the left’s withdrawal. The word became a powerful weapon in a war, and was co-opted by the right: a way to win a debate by not having one. Though, some would argue, that’s what the woke were doing all along.

Just before this story went to press, I got an email from Jonathan Dent at the OED. Woke, he said, had reached a tipping point. They had decided to revise it.

He sent me a screenshot of the new draft, asking me not to quote from it directly. But it makes clear that the most recent use is derogatory, a reference to the pious and holier-than-thou. The Mail on Sunday is cited as a source. The updated entry is due to be released next spring. It is still, Dent said, subject to change.

[See also: From second homes to food banks, Cornwall is a land of widening extremes]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special