Given that it has become the bugbear of all right-thinking right-wingers, does it strike anyone as odd that the word ‘woke’ is almost unheard, except in the protestations of right-wing people? I have literally never heard the word used by anyone I would consider left-wing in their views. Sticking my neck out here, but it has occurred to me that woke might be an ideological fiction, some sort of mythical enemy on the level of ‘reds under the bed’ or, for those too young to remember Bolsheviks that were such an ever-present danger to our bedrooms in the Cold War, the Illuminati and the paedophiles in high places. As a consequence of their near-mythic status, it is hard to see the card-carrying followers of woke, even on a clear day. Perhaps, like fairies, they perish if you stop believing in them.
There is something about the slogan in the picture above that bugs me. I know, I’m being pedantic here, but wouldn’t ‘wake up’ have worked better than ‘awake’? It’s a moot grammatical point, I grant you, given that ‘woke’ is a solecism in the first place, an erroneous past tense form of wake that ought more properly to read ‘awoken.’ ‘AWAKE NOT WOKE’ is a play on words, but what does it say about the state of modern American English that, given an opportunity to correct the appalling grammar of the original, the sloganeer opted to compound the error?
Anyway, we are where we are. Woke has reached the level of public consciousness because those on the conservative side of politics keep banging on about it. As a new publication by the Common Sense Group, a small bunch of enlightened right-wingers in the Tory party, puts it:
‘It is worth noting that recent polling evidence now suggests that the general public have woken up to the change in society…’
Does that make the public woke, I wonder? Sorry, I’m being facetious. Let the man speak, for God’s sake:
‘A ComRes poll of 2,000 people commissioned by the actor Laurence Fox in February 2021 showed that 50 per cent agree ‘freedom of speech is under threat’ while only 24 per cent disagreed. This, Fox argued, directly comes from the assault on traditional and conservative values. It is hard to disagree with his conclusion.’
Freedom of speech is, of course, under siege in this way from the exponents of woke. Now I am also in favour opinion polls, as I consider them an infallible guide to the thoughts of the Great British Public, but a poll by YouGov taken a year ago suggested that most Britons (some 59%) had no idea what ‘woke’ meant, over half of whom (30%) had never heard the term. The pollsters were curious to know if people thought Joe Biden was woke:
‘In January of this year Boris Johnson was caught off guard by a question on whether incoming US president Joe Biden was woke. The prime minister ultimately didn’t answer, although he did say there is “nothing wrong” with being woke. Of those who understand the term, only 22% see the US president as woke. Another 39% say that although he is not specifically woke, he probably holds some woke views, while 16% think Biden is not woke at all.’
YouGov politely omits to tell us if these same respondents thought Joe Biden was ‘sleepy’. The nub of this whole matter is what people consider woke to be, and here the picture starts to get a tad more complicated.
‘When it comes to what constitutes wokeness, the view most commonly associated with the term is supporting the removal of historical statues with links to historical abuses like the slave trade, according to 60% of those who say they know what the term means. Similarly, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is considered woke by 56% of this group.’
If only it were that simple. However,
‘Supporting equality for transgender people is woke according to 52% of those who say they understand the term, compared to 43% for supporting equality for gay and lesbian people, 40% for supporting gender equality and 39% for supporting racial equality. Being left wing is not a sufficient qualification for being considered woke, with just 21% saying so. Similar numbers say the same of those who want to re-join the EU (19%). Being politically correct is more likely to see a person tarred with the woke brush, at 46%.’
None of this vagueness is surprising, given the way the avowed opponents of woke have tended to keep the term deliberately nebulous. Something similar may be going on with the present use by the Kremlin of the term ‘Nazi’ or, as per a recent press release, ‘Nazist’. In the West, a degree of democratic freedom does not always correspond to appreciably greater political literacy than can be found among the inhabitants of the Federation. It doesn’t help that our attention spans are diminishing at an alarming rate; soon we will be unable to concentrate long enough to understand the Queen’s Christmas message. In this climate, vagueness has the virtue of allowing just about anything voters don’t like at any given moment to be ‘tarred with the same brush’. The Queen herself is in danger of being considered too woke.
But the list of things woke is also reminiscent of the way the so-called Eurosceptics – and the present (at the time of writing) prime minister is a shining example – used to slag off the European Union. In fact, the way they still slag it off, and, presumably, the way they will slag it off in perpetuity. Here, for the purpose of refreshing the memories of those who are not regular readers of the Daily Telegraph, are just some of those myriad defects the European Union was guilty of: seeking further integration, which will undermine national sovereignty and the nation state; elitism; a lack democratic legitimacy and transparency; being too bureaucratic and wasteful; encouraging high levels of immigration; being a neoliberal organisation and serving big business at the expense of the working class; being responsible for austerity and privatisation.
As if these defects were not enough, there were the more obviously mythical ones, such as those affecting barmaids. This one got The Sun so incensed, it ordered Brussels to get its ‘hands off our barmaids’ boobs’:
‘The EU has declared a crackpot war on busty barmaids – by trying to ban them from wearing low-cut tops. Po-faced pen pushers have deemed it a health hazard for bar girls to show too much cleavage. And in a daft directive that will have drinkers choking on their pints, Brussels bureaucrats have ordered a cover-up. They say barmaids run a skin cancer risk if they expose themselves to the sun when they go outside to collect glasses.’
The bit about skin cancer was the only factual basis of the story. The EU had indeed tried to protect the interests of employees forced to work in the sunshine, but the cleavage angle on the story was pure Sun newspaper embellishment, courtesy of the spirit of Benny Hill. Cue comically sped up footage of a distressed bureaucrat in a suit being chased round a park by a bevy of buxom barmaids.
Boris Johnson has added generously to the catalogue of Europe’s purported absurdities, mostly in a spirit of raillery it must be said, or mendacity if you prefer. In the referendum campaign, he cheerfully repeated the claim that Brussels wanted to regulate the shape of bananas. And in his earlier incarnation as one of the worst journalists England ever spawned, under the headline “Italy fails to measure up on condoms” – once again, the reliable Benny Hill tone – he wrote that Brussels bureaucrats had shown ‘their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions’, despite demands from the Italian rubber industry for a smaller minimum width. Readers were informed the decision had left ‘Italian egos smarting’, and Johnson quoted an official spokesperson, Willy Hélin, who insisted “this is a very serious business”.
That was back in 1991. Three decades later, and Willy Hélin was still serious about it, and still furious about Johnson’s distortions, insisting that the story had nothing to do with national penis sizes, but “safety, because so many doctors were interested to know about the risks for Aids patients” (The Guardian, 14 July 2019).
I do not indulge in this retrospection purely out of nostalgia, but because the man who came up with the running jokes is (at present) the prime minister (N.B., at the time of writing) and has just become the first person in that post to be found guilty of breaking the law. Just as Benny Hill had his running joke of a diminutive bald man whose head Benny used to slap, so Johnson – who has gathered around himself an entire cabinet of curiosities whose chief function is to do the rounds of the television studios defending their leader’s latest sick joke – has the divine Michael Fabricant, MP for Lincoln, who wears a very persuasive wig. Actually, I tell a lie, Fabricant wears more than one wig, as he owns several of varying lengths, the exact number of which is probably unknown even to his wife, in order to create the impression that his hair has grown between visits to his local barber. Lately, he has been wearing his longest wig, possibly in an attempt to revive his youthful days as a mop top, since when his head has shrunk somewhat. This wig, if I’m not mistaken:
In his defence of the indefensible, Fabricant has an uncanny habit of making the prime minister sound more in touch than we thought, just because Fabricant is so much further out of touch, but he accomplishes this feat in such an emollient manner, under so ridiculous a toupée, that no one can summon the indignation to be offended.
The curse of woke is identical to the scourge of Brussels bureaucracy in the way it can never be pinned down. It is what the psychoanalysts would call ‘overdetermined.’ It would take a bitchy Enobarbus to do justice to the infinite variety of its defects. In woke, the Brexiteers have found the true replacement for Europe. They can moan about it, laugh at it, snort at it, and best of all they can vilify it, as fundamentally un-British. Since it doesn’t really exist, isn’t a real word, and most of the British public have only the dimmest idea what it is about, the ‘patriots’ are spoilt for choice. Hence, ‘Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age,’ in which a group of what we might call ‘commonsensicals’ assemble in the gloom of the war room to gird the nation’s loins and offer it nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Their first strategy I will call the ‘Bent Bananas’ line of attack. Trans rights are a favourite here, allowing for endless mock-indignant references to people who have cervixes.
‘…words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous: in recent NHS public-information campaigns, women have been called ‘people with a cervix’ to avoid offending transgender activists; recent maternity guidance has suggested replacing ‘breastfeeding’ with ‘chestfeeding’ and some corporations have begun spelling ‘women’ as ‘womxn’ because this new word explicitly includes non-cisgender women and is therefore more inclusive and progressive. When feminists such as Germaine Greer and J. K. Rowling point out that non-cisgender women are men, that people who give birth are women and that the enforcement of trans-rights often mean a loss of rights for women, they are shouted down, abused, no-platformed and threatened with violence’ (Gareth Bacon MP)
Ah, the delicious irony of it all, to see a Tory male briefly dressing up as a militant feminist. Picture the scene in the Commons Bar. To the initial dismay of his colleagues, Gareth Bacon, the honourable member for Orpington, enters wearing dungarees and a prominent nose piercing. Sensing the dismay of his fellow commonsensicals, he swiftly allays their fears with a manly guffaw. “Ha! They say politics creates some strange bedfellows, what! I mean, that Germaine Greer is a proper horror to look at these days, and even back when she looked half decent, she was revealed as a harpy the second she opened her mouth to speak. But what the heck? Sometimes we men have to lie back and think of England. I mean, chestfeeding! I tried that once, and I was thrown out of the rugby club! This’ll show those feminist fillies the truth of what we chaps have been saying all along: if you’ve got it, flaunt it! Why agitate when you can lactate? Tits out for the lads! Etc, etc, etc.” The after-dinner circuit beckons.
Alternatively, there is the ‘Our Ancient Liberties’ strategy. These two strategies work best when employed in combination, a joke here, a rousing peroration there. All that time spent poring over the speeches of Cicero in Latin classes comes in jolly handy. Guaranteed to please the punters after any corporate banquet. According to Our Ancient Liberties, the Tory male can deplore the anarchic forces that imperil each and every public monument, from a statue in Oxford representing Cecil Rhodes to the effigy of a slave trader in Bristol, on the basis that the very History of this Great Country is in jeopardy. This is the kind of history the commoners understand – emphatically not the kind taught in universities, to take a random example. Historic events are what TV commentators talk about whenever the monarch rides past in a gilded carriage. Ceremony, pageantry, spectacle. A delighted if bleary-eyed member of the crowd who camped out to be here, saying “We came to witness history being made.”
This is the wholesome, family show version of history we can all get behind. Apart, of course, from those anarchist types, the kind our brave forefathers never imagined they were fighting to protect. Thus, on the noisy side effects of the murder of George Floyd, the family of the nation’s historians can bring the full power of their magniloquence to bear and (ye gods be praised) remind everyone that Britain won the war while they’re at it. Even as I write, from a deceptively peaceful lounge in rural Kent, there is a Battle for Britain going on. There must be, as Sir John Hayes, a knight of the realm, tells me so:
‘We must fight back and proclaim the primacy of our shared values. The battle for Britain has begun, and guided by the common sense of the people, we must triumph for the common good.’
This time round, however, the battle is not taking place in the skies over Kent, which accounts for why I can’t hear the dogfights. It’s not even taking place on Kentish shores, though Nigel Farage would have us think there’s an invasion there too, and on this very day the prime minister (watch this space) has pledged to send the invaders to Rwanda.
But no, this battle is not as solid as the traditional battles of our glorious history. It is being fought in the ether, with the good guys in the Spitfires valiantly defending the precepts of common sense, while the bad guys are threatening to overrun the country with ‘wokery’, ‘wokeness’, or just plain ‘woke’.
Who is to blame for this wokery? Why, the elitists in the universities, of course. The superior attitude of the new ‘woke elite’ has catalysed the metamorphosis of liberalism from a doctrine of tolerance to one of intolerance: ‘Few of the liberals who direct universities, media organisations and large corporations are distinguished by any sense of the complexities and contradictions of ethics and politics. For many, the human world is composed of simple moral facts. Western colonialism was an unmitigated evil; historic national identities are intrinsically racist; religions are no more than structures of oppression. Anyone who questions these supposed facts is in need of political re-education or summary dismissal.’
It’s a plea for nuance. In contrast to such crude thinking, the politics of the commonsensicals must be ambitious, elegiac and significant. Did I say elegiac? Yes, for there is an element of pathos in all this, a sad duty to defend the indefensible, ahem, correction, the defenceless. The Conservative Party must look to its past, to the Tory tradition of elevating the people. It must revive Disraeli’s dizzy notion of ‘one nation.’ Winning the culture war is vital to national rebirth. Here is Gareth Bacon in his serious vein, in a chapter entitled ‘What is Wokeism and How Can it be Defeated?’:
‘Britain is under attack. Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense. Our heritage is under a direct assault – the very sense of what it is to be British has been called into question, institutions have been undermined, the reputation of key figures in our country’s history have been traduced.’
Yes, but what about social media? Personally, I blame Nick Clegg.
‘The rise of the power, reach and influence of social media has been influential in increasing the pace and spread of what is a broadly left wing, anti-British, anti-western and anti-capitalist rhetoric… Yet what has become colloquially known as the ‘woke ideology’ has no democratic mandate – there is no official ‘woke’ political party and the left-wing parties espousing elements of the ‘woke’ agenda such as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were routed at the general election held in December 2019. The woke ideology, such as it is, […] is perhaps more akin to desire for anarchy than to a conventional political ideology.’
Okay, okay, but just because they don’t field candidates, are they not entitled to their views in a free society? Well, no, because they are fundamentally opposed to free societies, silly! They wish to cancel us, remember – pay attention at the back – their basic impulses are totalitarian:
‘…speakers whose views do not correspond with the prevailing ‘woke’ mindset are disinvited from speaking engagements, reading lists are censored, publishing contracts are cancelled, reputations are trashed and ‘safe spaces’ are created where nothing but the prevailing view is permitted to be heard. Disagreement with the ‘woke’ view is labelled ‘offensive’ and, by extension, oppressive… A familiar refrain from those of the ‘woke’ persuasion if their point of view is disagreed with (which is normal in a democracy) is often to claim that those in disagreement with them have ‘invalidated their life experience’ – thus, one hasn’t just disagreed with them, one has oppressed them. A truly ‘woke’ society would be one in which the diversity of how one looks is celebrated, whereas the diversity of how one thinks is ruthlessly crushed.’
And it all comes down to statues, I think I’m right in saying. If you attack my statues, then you attack my past. These thin-skinned, snow flaky, mortally offended recruits of the woke ideology (as it is colloquially known by hardly anyone) came for the slave traders and the empire-builders first, but in time they will topple even the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square – who could forget the menacing views of Afua Hirsch on that topic? – and everyone will forget all the good this country ever did, which the statues alone reminded them of, replacing past glories with woke’s nightmare of history. For, like Anglophobes within, like a miserable, self-loathing fifth column of ingrates and quislings, they are unable to perceive a single redeeming virtue in what has gone before:
‘In modern day Britain, this amounts to attacking the historical concept of Britain by reinterpreting British history in a slanted and de-contextualised manner, using modern viewpoints and value judgements. Thus, the British Empire is no longer seen as a modernising, civilising force that spread trade, wealth and the rule of law around the globe – instead, it is a racist, colonialist, oppressive force that invaded sovereign foreign countries, plundered them and enslaved their people en masse…’
And so, they tear down this, an adornment of great beauty and dignity:
And replace it with this, an unauthorised cast by some dismal, self-righteous Young British Artist of the woman who stood and saluted with her fist after the in-no-way-historic removal of Bristol’s great benefactor:
Then, when tried in a court of law and asked by the prosecution whether, like the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, it was a violent act to forcibly remove a notorious oppressor of black people from his plinth, they have the ingratiating hypocrisy to declare that, on the contrary, it was ‘an act of love.’ Love! I ask you, what codswallop. Thank God there are a handful of clear-eyed commonsensicals in this country who refuse to accept such patent, er, nonsense.
* Note on that column in central London: Just a few months before his death at Trafalgar, Nelson declared that he would always be “a firm friend” to slaveholders, for “I was bred in the good old school and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions; and neither in the field, nor in the senate, shall their just rights be infringed, whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce, and his hypocritical allies.” Oh, how we sniggered, here at the back, when he mentioned his arm. But is it any wonder he ended up on such a tall column? It was one in the eye (sorry, now I’m doing it) for the abolitionists. I guess Afua Hirsch had a point.
** Footnote: In January 2022, the ‘Colston Four’ accused of toppling the statue of Edward Colston were acquitted.