The ‘War on Woke’ & the Great Free Speech Czar Paradox
Otto English explores why the Brexit battle’s successor should be pushed back against now – if Britain is to be stopped from continuing down a much darker path still
Like revolutionary movements throughout time, the Brexit Government, forged out of the European Union civil war, defines itself by its enemies.
In the previous four years, it was very clear indeed who that enemy was. Remain, the EU and Europhile ‘establishment’ politicians were the bad guys and perpetual insurgency against these forces was necessary to attain the glorious Brexit revolution.
The struggle gave the Old Etonian former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson a cause. But now that war is over. And a new enemy is needed.
In lieu of anything more substantial, the Brexit Revolutionary Council has decided to declare a ‘war on woke’ with one hand, and uphold ‘free speech’ with the other.
In January, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick issued the first diktat of the purge, declaring that his party would: “Save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past.” Guards would be mounted. Fences installed. Slave owners protected from the mob.
This week, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has begun to set out legislation that will ‘protect free speech’ in schools and universities. The new proposals will include a ‘free speech’ requirement for academic institutions and fines if the rules are not upheld. The Government also plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ – a sort of ‘anti-woke commissar’ – who will encourage students to report on their teachers and colleges if they deem them to be breaking the rules.
I imagine that Toby Young is already busy working on his CV.
The Meaning of History
‘Woke’ in its original sense means to be ‘alert to injustice’, which is a noble ambition.
But we can’t be having that sort of thing take root, so the word has been deliberately and pejoratively repurposed by the right to mean ‘anything we don’t like which we deem to be progressive’. In a sense, branding someone ‘woke’ is the new ‘Project Fear’ – a blunt but effective weapon deployed by Twitter and Government trolls to shut down debate and nuance.
None of this is new. The ‘anti-PC’ brigade have been around for decades bemoaning the passing of a world in which they can no longer enjoy racist, sexist and homophobic comedy. But the woke rebrand allows the franchise to extend to include history, statues and anything else the right-wing thought police deem to be ‘un-British’ or a threat to their delicate sensibilities.
Whether you want to or not, you are obliged to pick a side in this war and its either ‘Brexit history’ or ‘woke history’ – with no room for anything else in between.
The anti-woke crusade is political catnip for Boris Johnson and his fellow travellers. They believe that history is ‘their’ thing and ‘reclaiming’ it has long been part of the broader libertarian and think tank mission.
‘Kings and queens’ and ‘Empire’ history forms a blueprint for post-Brexit Britain among the ‘Hannanite’ Conservative tendency who see CANZUK – a free trade area between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain – as the future, with Britain, leading it. An Empire 2.0 in all but name.
For that narrative to work, you first have to get people believing that the original Empire was a good thing. And that poses a problem because history is complex. A lot of what many Britons grew up believing about our collective past is open to debate and that extends not only to Empire but also to figures such as Sir Winston Churchill.
Yes, Churchill did show outstanding wartime leadership. But he was also guilty of some fairly egregious deeds and held some equally awful opinions, which were fairly revolting even by the standards of his age. To debate such a point is history – not an attempt to cancel it. But the anti-woke Brexit brigade would have it otherwise.
When they say they want ‘free speech’, what they really mean is that they want their version of it and history and practically everything else to prevail. Indeed, the great burning paradox at the heart of this anti-woke free speech crusade is that it seeks to do exactly what they’re accusing others of: they are seeking to dictate what history is, how it should be taught and what is ‘wrong’ and what is ‘right’.
And at the risk of invoking ‘Godwin’s Law’, that is exactly what the Nazis did. Under Hitler, the school curriculum was rewritten, expunged of alternative viewpoints and purged of academics who didn’t toe the line. Members of the Hitler Youth were likewise encouraged to report teachers who held views that didn’t conform to the party line.
The Nazis were not the first, nor by any means the last, political movement that sought to control learning environments and what was said on campuses.
Across the world today – from North Korea to China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia – many dictatorships and failing states seek to dictate the educational narrative. Russian history books, for instance, no longer teach children about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin in August 1939. History has been erased to ensure that Russia maintains its place as the unimpeachable good guy that defeated the Nazis. To suggest otherwise is to be ‘anti-Russian’.
While I am not suggesting that this is where we are at in the UK, this is exactly how these things begin.
The ‘war on woke’ and the ‘free speech crisis’ might make good material for LBC and talkRADIO phone-ins, but there is no evidence that such a crisis exists or that such a war is needed. Despite searching and searching and challenging right-wing correspondents to show me the evidence, I can find no cases of ‘alternative voices’ being shut down or people being silenced for their views in universities.
This then is a confected row. It exists to divert attention from the Government’s appalling record on the Coronavirus pandemic and to fill the space left by the Brexit Uncivil War. It needs to be challenged and the motives behind it called into question.
Forget the ‘war on woke’ – we need a ‘war for truth’ instead.
what the papers don’t say
Thank youfor reading this article
New to Byline Times? Find out about us
Our leading investigations include Brexit Bites, Empire & the Culture War, Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.
Support our journalists
To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.
But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees: