Today
Mon 1 March 2021

A simple question about Joe Biden put to the Prime Minister exposed the deep and historic ties of his Vote Leave regime with the ethos of the former US President – the last thing Johnson wants to confront, argues Hardeep Matharu

It was a simple question but the terror it produced in the Prime Minister’s hollow eyes was deeply telling.

A man known for brazenly dodging the truth, Boris Johnson was stumped in an interview yesterday following the inauguration of Joe Biden as America’s new President.

Asked whether he believes that Joe Biden is “woke” – a term taken to mean being alert to social injustice – Johnson said: “I can’t comment on that… What I know is that he’s a fervent believer in the transatlantic alliance, and that’s a great thing, and a believer in a lot of the things that we want to achieve together and, you know, insofar as… nothing wrong with being woke, but what I can tell you is I think that it’s very, very important for everybody to… certainly I would put myself in the category of people who believe that it’s important to stick up for your history, your traditions, and your values and the things you believe in.”  

It was a compelling and bizarre watch. Not merely because it was a rare moment of a politician having a reporter’s trap descend around them, with no easy way to gnaw themselves free. Those watching could feel Johnson’s discomfort – that in some basic, palpable, physiological way he had been disturbed.

But it was more than mere dumbfounding. He seemed a man exposed; unable to manage his dissonant emotional state. In that moment, Boris Johnson – the great anti-woke crusader and sower of division – was caught out.


The Awkward Truth 

Johnson’s awkward exchange followed comments by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy about Biden being a “woke guy”. 

While the term has exploded in popular use in recent years, its origins can be found in American black culture – from where it has been co-opted, warped and weaponised by those on the right.

Well developed in America as an attack on “lefties”, academics, historians and activists raising awareness of structural ills such as racism and inequality, being ‘anti-woke’ was a cornerstone of Donald Trump’s presidency, in which he billed himself as standing up for ordinary (white) people against political correctness and reverse discrimination. 

The narrative was there in Trump’s violent suppression of Black Lives Matter protestors following the murder last year of George Floyd by a white policeman, and can be seen in his Republican Party heirs – like Senator Josh Hawley who recently denounced as a “woke mob” the publishing house which cancelled his book contract over his actions around the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January. 

Much of Trump’s divisive authoritarianism, premised on white supremacy and the stoking of far-right hate, was shaped by his former campaign manager and founder of the controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon – who Trump pardoned of federal fraud charges in the hours before he left the White House. 

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie revealed that it was Bannon who encouraged Trump to promote policies such as ‘Build the Wall’. “Building the wall is not to stop immigrants – most come on a plane – it’s to embody separation,” Wylie told a Byline event in 2018.

This ‘divide and rule’ – already embedded in Britain’s imperial past, of which Boris Johnson is so beloved – was taken up readily by those on the right in the UK. As Nafeez Ahmed has documented for this newspaper, key lobbyists close to Johnson and Michael Gove were at the heart of a ‘white nationalist Trumpworld’. Carrying forward the divisions whipped up by Brexit, the Johnson administration is now on its own anti-woke crusade. 

This is not surprising – far-right ideologue Bannon always saw the Trump and Brexit projects as intertwined and said on camera that he advised Johnson around the time he stepped down as Foreign Secretary and turned against then Prime Minister Theresa May over her Brexit approach. 

But it does explain why Johnson was so flummoxed at the question of Biden being “woke”. The Prime Minister is well aware that the new US administration heralds a definitive break with the Trump era, despised by Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris – and that he is still playing from its rulebook. In fact, he said as much at the end of yesterday’s interview when he mentioned his need to “stick up for your history, your traditions”. 

Apart from its divisive Brexit rhetoric and lies, as part of its ‘War on Woke’ the Government has publicly attacked the National Trust and sent a warning shot to other cultural institutions after the trust published a report on its buildings’ links to colonialism and slavery; amplified debates about whether Rule Britannia should be sung at the Proms; denounced the UK’s supposed teaching of “critical race theory” in schools; and emphasised that a review of race disparity – following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests – would also focus on the under-achievements of white working-class boys. The list is endless. 

Just this weekend, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick – in a Telegraph article headlined ‘We Will Save Our History From Woke Militants’ – said that he would be changing the law to ensure that planning permission was now required for the removal of monuments in local areas, such as statues of slavetraders. 

“There has been an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which, not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it,” he wrote. “This has been done at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies.” 

The commentator James O’Brien was right when he recently observed that the Government’s full-on anti-woke attacks are the new ‘bendy bananas’. 


The Game’s Up

By asking Johnson about Biden being “woke”, Sky News’ Sam Coates held a mirror up to the Prime Minister. 

Johnson knows that his Vote Leave project – both as a campaign and in Government – was won by the fuelling of people’s darker instincts: xenophobia, racism, othering, scapegoating, playing to fears about the loss of white supremacy. 

Trump said Johnson was “Britain Trump”, while Biden has called Johnson Trump’s “physical and emotional clone”.

But, with Trump now gone, so has the Vote Leave project’s superpower enabler and protector. Biden, proud of his Irish roots, has already made clear that he is no fan of Brexit and the peril it creates for the Good Friday Agreement. He also has little time for Johnson’s neo-imperial fantasies.

Ahead of November’s Presidential Election, The Times reported diplomats as saying that “Biden will be cool towards Johnson because of his comments about Barack Obama during the 2016 Brexit Referendum, in which he criticised ‘the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.”

Meanwhile Lisa Nandy told the Guardian yesterday that “I wouldn’t underestimate how deep the strength of feeling about Boris Johnson goes, particularly with members of the administration who previously served under President Obama” and “the Democrats feel, in the conversations we’ve had with them, that it’s not clear what Britain wants out of the special relationship any more”.

The central message of Biden’s inauguration speech – a clear denunciation of the Trump presidency – was unity. 

“Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage,” he said. “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit… We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

These words are the very opposite of Britain’s ‘rump Trumpocracy’ under Boris Johnson, with its central policy of divide and rule.

With Brexit proving to be more costly and disastrous every day, and Britain isolated from the rest of Europe, Johnson can no longer look west over the Atlantic for relief convoys – only for an uncomfortable confrontation with the truth he does everything to avoid.

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