Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.
My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.
Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.
So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.
They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.
First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.
Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is. And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.
The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.
Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.
So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.
The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.
It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.
They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.
Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.
I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.
Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.
Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.
So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.