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27 May 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 1:44pm

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

Waging a culture war isn’t a winning electoral strategy when 59 per cent of voters don’t even know what “woke” means.

By Martha Gill

When it comes to cultural messages, there is a simple rule for parties that wish eventually to win a majority: keep it vague.

You cannot win an election without uniting very different groups – voters to the left and right of you, from the north and the south, city dwellers and those from small towns, and people from different generations. The trouble with culture is that – by definition – it only applies to one group at a time. So the more specific you get, and the deeper you wade into a culture war, the smaller the set of voters you eventually find yourself championing. 

Plump too obviously for a selection of the electorate – voters who care deeply about the fate of the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford, for example, or those who have noticed and object to these trendy new pronouns – and you risk forfeiting the rest: not just people who disagree with you, but those who don’t much care but are nevertheless turned off by the fervour of your argument.

That’s why the best approach to matters of culture has always been an ambiguous one – and the best political slogans are some version of the phrase “we are on your side” (allowing each group to believe it is indeed their side that you are really on).

[See also: Suffering should unite us, so why does it divide?]

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With that in mind, it should be no surprise that the government’s culture war – the so-called “war on woke” – is not yet working. Having been bubbling away under the surface for a few years, it started in earnest in January, with Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, pledging 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. This week Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, told the Evening Standard that “woke culture runs contrary to the great liberal traditions of Western democracies”.

Yet a recent YouGov poll found that 59 per cent of Britons don’t know what the word “woke” even means. Of the minority who think they do know, roughly a quarter of those polled thought “woke” was a good thing, just over a third thought it was a bad thing, and another third thought it was neither good nor bad. Evidently, the government’s message that the country requires a robust defence against a woke mob set on destroying British culture is not cutting through.

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As the journalist Henry Mance wrote in the FT last week, Britain’s “culture war” seems to be a mirage. What is surprising is that this culture war was ever considered as a political strategy, when it is obviously doomed to fail.

It is clear where the error is in the government’s thinking. It wishes to whip the country into the same populist fervour produced by Brexit, and it believes the way to do that is to create a cultural debate and take the position of the “average” Brexit voter (perhaps roughly summarised as the non-graduate over-fifties inhabitant of a post-industrial area of the north).

[See also: The rise in cosmetic procedures troubles me – and it shouldn’t be anti-feminist to say so]

But the mistake here is that Brexit was much more than a position in a culture war. Brexit was also a set of policy pledges – more money for the NHS, controls on immigration – broad enough to appeal to vast swathes of the country: rich and poor, old and young, and not just that narrowly defined “average voter”. Many of those who voted for Brexit were responding to what they saw as material promises: better public services, more space in schools, less EU red tape. Not all of them were stating an ideological position.

And even then, the ideological arguments for Brexit were on issues wide enough to unite people from all walks of life, and big enough to really grandstand on, such as sovereign independence and control of our borders. The new culture war seems to be focused on things small enough to actually grandstand next to: flags, statues, busts of Churchill and museum exhibitions. You cannot see these igniting much passion, even among those who agree with the government’s line.

But perhaps the most important difference between the campaign that captured 52 per cent of the country and the current culture war is that the Leave team was smart enough to keep its messages vague. Part of the reason “take back control” was the perfect slogan is that it could mean anything to anyone. “Are you being left behind by Westminster?” is a question that interests everyone. “Is the board of the Greenwich maritime museum too woke?” is not. 

[See also: Deborah Levy and the domestic]