Why Boris Johnson’s “war on woke” troubles Tory MPs

There are plenty of Conservatives who don’t see how the government’s approach to racism is a winning strategy in the long term.

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It is day two of the fallout from the race and ethnic disparities report commissioned by Boris Johnson in the wake of anti-racism protests in the UK last year.

Back then it was already clear how the government wanted to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and criticisms of structural racism in the UK. Johnson initially acknowledged the “feeling of injustice” motivating protesters, but soon pivoted, influenced by No 10 adviser Munira Mirza and equalities and Treasury minister Kemi Badenoch, towards saying that he wanted a more “positive” discussion around race in the UK and that he wanted to end “the sense of victimisation” among ethnic minorities in Britain. He announced a new commission, chaired by the educational consultant Tony Sewell, who shared this analysis of race in the UK and scepticism about the idea of institutional racism. This was also the period when the government amplified its concern for the welfare of statues. 

The government’s 800-word spin on the report yesterday, which was the only available material when the newspaper headlines were written, is an exact replica of the government’s messaging in the wake of the BLM protests. The government’s declaration that claims of institutional racism made by “well-meaning” young people are “not borne out by the evidence” was in fact stronger than the report’s own findings. 

[see also: The government has made sure its new racism report is of no use whatsoever]

The line that the UK “should be regarded as a model” on race relations by other white-majority countries also did not appear in the report itself. The government managed its release so that its pre-spun lines, rather than the commissioners’ findings, were the main focus, while ministers declined to commit to implementing the report’s more mundane recommendations. (Despite the incendiary suggestion that we need a “new story” on slavery, the report itself is a good faith engagement with the issue of racial inequality, with the major caveat that it fails to probe the links between deprivation and race, and views evidence of the former as proof of a lack of the latter.)

The government has got what it wanted from this process: a robust, headlining-making rejection of the notion of institutional racism, with no commitment to make any of the proposed changes. The question is how long this will last, and how comfortable the Conservative Party is with it. Not all Tory MPs, and certainly not all ethnic minority Conservative MPs, agree with the Kemi Badenoch school of thought on racism. 

The government’s response to Sarah Everard’s death demonstrated how a “war on woke” collides with a hard wall when serious events take place. After months of sporadic dismissals of sexism (remember when Liz Truss said she spent lots of time learning about sexism and racism at school, with “too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write”?), the government was forced to strike a serious tone and commit, at least rhetorically, to improving safety for women and girls. There are plenty of Conservatives, Caroline Nokes being the most vocal, who don't see how the “war on woke” continues or how this can possibly be a serious, winning strategy for the Tories in the long term.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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