Neil O’Brien: Johnson should instruct a team of Ministers to wage war on woke

21 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.

The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.

In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar.  The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.

I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.

Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive.  Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades.  Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.

For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.

They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’

While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.

I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind.  That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races.  That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.

Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races.  That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture.  That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.

Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane.  That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.

I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.

If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?

There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.

But what should we do as a Party and a Government?

While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.

Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control.  The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments.  The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?

In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.

But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.

Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble.  But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.

That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.

For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”

Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.

When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?

The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.

To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly.  The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.

Ed West: So far, 2020 has proved my most pessimistic expectations to be horribly true. How very satisfying.

7 Aug

Ed West is the deputy editor of UnHerd, and author of Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Constable).

As anyone who takes an obsessive interest in politics will understand, there’s nothing more satisfying than being proven right, even if it’s to confirm your original prediction of unending, doom-laden misery.

Pessimism is rooted in my political philosophy, the belief that humans have evolved to have a wildly unrealistic idea of their own capabilities, and are therefore prone to invest in utopian schemes that end in failure.

I spent years writing a book about how pessimism informed my politics, called Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, and the very week it came out, we were hit by the worst pandemic in a century, all the bookshops were closed, and people retreated into their homes. Sure, they were still buying books, but as with the 1930s it was mostly fiction and escapism – people want to read stuff like Gone with the Wind during a depression, or fantasy stuff about wizards and dragons – not Ten Reasons Why You’re Going to Spend the Next Decade Queuing Outside a Soup Kitchen Before Getting Shot by a Nazi.

When the Coronavirus hit, politics seemed irrelevant but then, after the death of George Floyd and the general insanity that followed, it seemed to have returned, more depressing than ever.

Pandemics have often accelerated huge cultural changes; back in the 3rd Century the Plague of Cyprian led to a religious transformation in the Roman Empire. Pagans who had seen Christianity as a fringe movement of a few city folk suddenly found that the new faith was everywhere, and previously upstanding Jupiter-worshippers were joining in the excitable rituals of the new faith. They must have felt bemused, and worried, that all of a sudden tradition had given way and something alien had taken its place. These Christians were everywhere – who knows, maybe even their children could be turned by the cult?

I’d certainly empathise with how these conservative Romans felt, watching the new Woke religion suddenly all-dominant; seeing huge crowds across the world getting down on their knees in collective rituals to protest something happening in a city 5,000 miles away. That they were doing so during a deadly pandemic, when the smallest gatherings were banned for everything else, added to the general apocalyptic air.

But this was one argument of my book: that the decline of Christianity simply results in progressivism becoming most people’s moral lodestar, a process that is seamless because progressivism is a sort-of heresy of Christianity, a point made by a number of writers before.

The almost-complete submission of conservatism in the face of this, even with mobs violating the Cenotaph or targeting a statue of Churchill, also confirmed my previous belief that we were losing.

One conservative response is to say that “there will be a backlash because young people will rebel against the new woke intolerance”. But they won’t. It’s a myth that the youth are rebellious – they’re among the most conformist section of society, which is why secondary school is so awful for so many. Young people have always been enthusiastic enforcers of orthodoxy, from the wars of religion to Mao’s China.

That you or I might find modern progressivism irrational, based on completely utopian and untrue ideas about human nature, makes no difference either. Plenty of 3rd Century polytheists were pretty confident that the people wouldn’t stand for worshipping a common criminal from Judea, or the myriad supernatural claims of his followers. The backlash will come any minute, I’m sure. And when was the last time you met someone who worshipped Jupiter?

There won’t be a backlash, because – and this was my argument – the Left now controls almost every institution in Britain. It doesn’t matter who’s in government, because the generation growing up – including my children – will be bombarded with progressive messages and signals, all equating Left-wing social ideals with morality, and conservatism with low-status, bigotry and failure.

There is no “moral majority” anymore, there is no backlash; the generation born after about 1975 are not moving to the Right as their predecessors did, and those born much later are way more progressive than previous cohorts; younger women in particular are overwhelmingly Left-of-centre, and historically faiths that attracted females tended to predominate through “secondary conversions”, people joining the religion of their spouse. The first Christian Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kings both converted to follow their wives – they were on the right side of history.

And so the most depressing thing about 2020, and in particular June, was how it confirmed all my prevailing beliefs. It was not just that the Left would win, because they had the religious dynamism that ensured victory – the other plaguey historical comparison is obviously the Flagellants, who went around Europe beating themselves to atone for humanity’s sins. It was also how politics trumps everything; on the one hand, there were medical officials declaring that it was fine to protest during an epidemic because racism is a worse disease, or something. On the other, people on my side turning the whole miserable event into a political-tribal issue, even to the point of not wearing a mask to own the libs.

And so my basic thesis that political tribalism has become a second Reformation, and Britain as much as America is in for years of tedious conflict, doesn’t seem to have been proven wrong.

The crisis has also further deepened my belief in conservatism. So for example, while various columnists tried making the argument that “populists” handled the crisis badly, both Hungary and Poland – led by the two most effective national conservative governments – did well, with death rates at one-tenth and one-thirtieth of the British respectively so far. Sure, they still face the problem of keeping the disease out, but as we learn more about the virus we’ll get better at tackling it, and it’s never a good idea to be the first one with a new disease.

What these critics meant was that Boris Johnson’s government had done badly, but the Prime Minister is not a populist, he is at heart a (right-wing) liberal optimist who was aghast at the necessarily authoritarian measures that needed to be taken early. In contrast, true conservatives like Orban see the world as a place of danger, something I’ve increasingly come to think these past few months (you can imagine how much fun lockdown has been for my wife).

The crisis has reinforced my social conservatism in other ways, too. Firstly, small countries are much better at handling this disaster because they can control their borders more easily, and government is closer to the ground. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the virus has reminded us that what we do doesn’t just affect us but those around us, too. That obviously applies on a life-or-death level to a virus, but even in our everyday choices our behaviour is viral. Most forms of action – marriage, divorce, even suicide – are contagious, as are political ideas and beliefs. Looking at the world of viruses leads to a more communitarian worldview.

Likewise with messaging, which this Government has also been criticised for. Some people really do need to be told clearly what to do, for the good of society in general; cultural as well as political leaders need to distinguish between what is good advice and bad advice.

We’ve sort of come to assume there’s a marketplace of ideas and that impressionable young people should be presented with a selection of choices. In reality, lots of people – even quite intelligent people – are unwise and will make terrible decision that will make them miserable and damage them and more importantly those around them, especially their family. The marketplace of ideas is rubbish, because the worst options are often superficially attractive.

Then there is the enforced slowness of life, which many people have found quite rewarding, especially in cities, allowing more time with the family. Maybe we should have an enforced lockdown once a week from now on – we’ll call it, I don’t know, “the Sabbath”.

Finally, there is the ritual; I thought at first that the Clap for Carers would be very cringey, but it was actually quite moving and beautiful. My kids loved it, and it gave them something to focus on, a heroic ideal and the lesson that others – strangers – care for us. It was also a reminder that we have lost something deep and profound in our culture with the erosion of communal fasts and feasts.

We weren’t designed to live lives of independent loneliness. To paraphrase E.O Wilson: libertarianism – wonderful theory, wrong species.

I’ve also come to grow stronger in my belief that our economic model, which depends on London being the financial centre of the world, is not much benefit to the average British person, who can no longer afford to live in their capital city, and who are also made more vulnerable to the downsides of globalisation.

But most of all, I suppose, it’s deepened my pessimism. While we’ve had 1,000 different takes on what the post-Covid world will look like since March, I’m inclined to agree with Michel Houellebecq when he says that it will be “the same, but worse”.