You don’t have to be a lexicographer to know how easily words can be debased by overuse. “Problematic”, “political correctness”, “stakeholder”: all have been beaten into semantic submission and vacuity. But no word in recent times has been so battered by lazy misapplication and over-exposure in headlines than “woke”.
In African-American vernacular English, it initially signified, quite clearly, awareness of racial and social injustice, and, by implication, the need to stay vigilant to these structural threats. But now it is deployed much more loosely: as a compliment or boast, to signal general political virtue and moral superiority; or, by rightwing detractors, to denounce anything or anyone to the left of Ken Clarke.
On yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show, Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, was asked what she had meant in a Guardian interview last week in which she described the newly-inaugurated US president as “a woke guy”.
Joe Biden, she explained, “is somebody who knows exactly who he is and what he stands for and is very comfortable with it. He’s happy to stand up and fight for the working classes in America and to stand up for minority rights. He stands up against aggression from America’s adversaries and he looks out to the world and wants America to be an open, self-confident, tolerant country that plays a role on the world stage… the important thing is that under his leadership America is self-confident, it’s comfortable in its own skin, it’s a reliable partner.”
All of which is very flattering to the president – busy as he is trying to save the American republic, in the middle of a plague. But I’m not sure what it has to do with “wokeness” – which, as far as I’m aware, is not generally associated with geo-political strength or diplomatic dependability. What Nandy really meant was that Biden was not Donald Trump (true enough) and, by insinuation, that he would end up liking Keir Starmer more than Boris Johnson. (We’ll see: on Saturday evening the prime minister became the first European head of government to speak to the president since he was sworn in five days ago.)
The Tories, for their part, have been busily calling everyone who disagrees with them “woke”. In a recent Sunday Telegraph article, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, framed plans to deal with local controversies over statues and memorials as a battle against “town hall militants and woke worthies”.
On Thursday, with the cosmic predictability that is his trademark, Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons that the “woke brigade” had “done the nation a service” by objecting to politically contentious monuments last summer – reminding us all, he claimed, of our “proud” history. Does the leader of the Commons, I wonder, seriously think that Bristol would be better off if the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston (1636-1721), were still standing?
No less predictably, the prime minister was flummoxed by the whole question. Asked on Sky News last week whether he thought Biden was a “woke guy”, Johnson delivered an unintelligible reply that merits full transcription: “I… I can’t comment on that. I… I… I… I… What I know is that he’s a fervent believer in the transatlantic alliance, and, um, and, er, that’s a great thing, and a believer in, uh, a lot of the things that we want to achieve together. And… you know, insofar as, um, nothing wrong with being woke – but what I can tell you is I think it’s very, very important for, er, everybody, er, to, and, certainly, I would put myself in the category of people who believe that, er, it’s important to stick up for, er, your history, your traditions, things, your… your values, and things you believe in.”
That’s leadership in action for you. Why so tongue-tied? Because the PM knows that he has ground to make up with the new Democrat administration, many of whose senior members have sharp memories of his snide remarks about President Obama in 2016. Following reports that a bust of Churchill had been removed from the Oval Office, Johnson speculated in the Sun that this was “a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”. Obama was distinctly unimpressed, concluding that the future prime minister was “their [Britain’s] Trump.”
Right now, in late January 2021, this is absolutely the last thing Johnson wants to be, conscious that he must make friends with Biden, secure a trade deal with the US, and preserve what he can of the “special relationship” now that post-Brexit Britain is no longer America’s gateway to the European Union.
As always, however, he wants to have his culture war cake and to eat it. Before he left Number Ten to return to his home planet, Dominic Cummings was researching the potential use of “anti-wokery” as a campaigning tool, especially in what is now called the “Red Wall” of formerly Labour constituencies in the North and the Midlands.
Jenrick’s crass bid to turn the delicate local politics of statues into a contemporary version of Margaret Thatcher’s battle against the municipal “loony Left” shows that this approach has survived the departure of Cummings from Number Ten.
Indeed, it was very much to the credit of the former Tory culture minister, Ed (now Lord) Vaizey, that he so unambiguously denounced this strategy, and the “ridiculously provocative language” deployed by the communities secretary. “If you’d cut and pasted that and put it in Private Eye as a parody article,” Vaizey told Times Radio, “nobody would have batted an eyelid.”
Absolutely true – but there remain a sizeable cohort of Tories, still well-represented in Downing Street, who believe that most voters north of Watford (and a fair few south) are essentially rednecks and that it does no harm to throw the occasional hand grenade into the flammable pit of cultural conflict. “Look, ‘levelling up’ is our big theme,” says one senior source. “But bashing wokeness now and again plays pretty well, too – especially now Brexit is no longer the big divider.”
To an extraordinary extent, these often-contrived rows almost always seem to lead to furious arguments about the same historical figure. After the restoration of the Churchill bust to the Oval Office by Trump, it was removed once more last week by his successor – who has opted for likenesses of Robert F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the labour leader César Chávez.
It was not surprising that Nigel Farage should describe the re-removal of Churchill with puce outrage as “a slap in the face to the British and any prospects of good relations”. Much more embarrassing was the spectacle of senior British journalists stoking this non-story.
Let’s put it this way: how would we feel if the US media insisted that, as a matter of principle, the Queen hang a portrait of Lincoln or FDR in her study? How presumptuous does one have to be to demand a say in how the head of state of another country decorates his or her office?
What underpins this is a veneration of Churchill that does no service to his real-world achievement: a deeply-flawed, often-bigoted, psychologically-troubled character who nonetheless rose to the greatest challenge ever to face a prime minister, holding back the tide of Nazism at the most dangerous moment of the Second World War. To treat him as a sort of cigar-chomping superhero, exempt from criticism, demeans both the man and the historical record.
Yet the insistence of some on the Left that Churchill was an irredeemable villain is even more ridiculous. Those who recite the charge sheet – the Boer War, Tonypandy, the Bengal famine – as if this were news merely reveal that they have not read any of the standard biographies, all of which deal extensively with these and other episodes in his life.
What fascinates me, above all else, is who, exactly, today’s young critics of Churchill would have preferred as Britain’s wartime leader? Lord Halifax, who wanted to strike a deal with Hitler? Or Clement Attlee, another supporter of the Boer War who, in 1948, would try to divert the Empire Windrush from these shores to Tanzania, fearing what he called an “incursion” of West Indian immigrants? Who, in other words, could possibly have satisfied the criteria of those who now find Churchill wanting?
The present is shaped by the past, but the past does not offer reciprocal rights. History is a discipline and should be conducted with rigour. Its function is not to comfort or console anyone. Symbols certainly matter, and the removal of Colston’s statue last June has intensified a legitimate debate about whom we choose to celebrate in public spaces. Yet those who hyper-ventilate when Churchill’s name is mentioned reveal an infantilism that makes such a debate all but impossible.
It is all so performative, on Left and Right: what the liberal US political scientist Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyism”. And there is no space for such indulgence at this particular moment: as more than 1,000 die every day from Covid; as it is disclosed that the UK’s overall contribution to the EU budget since 1973 has amounted to £223bn – less than Rishi Sunak has spent in ten months on the pandemic; as the spectre of mass unemployment and deprivation looms over the land; as the UK itself seems closer to disaggregation than it has since the partition of Ireland a century ago.
This – as David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, has put it – should be the hour of “implementation”; of the hard yards of practical achievement, not sloganeering or posturing. The greatest threat facing people of colour in this country right now is not statuary but a pathogen that is twice as likely to kill them than white people. Which is why it is so imperative that ethnic minorities be a priority group in the next round of vaccinations.
There’ll be plenty of time in years to come to argue about who is or isn’t “woke”, if that is what really bothers you. For the moment at least, let’s all just focus on staying alive.