The ‘war on woke’ has become a major theme in the Tory leadership contest and the right-wing media. Candidates compete to stress their hostility to trans people and migrants, and claim that the country has been captured by a left-liberal ‘blob’. Scapegoating oppressed groups is a key factor in this – but, Colin Wilson argues, arguments about ‘woke’ also reflect deep divisions on the right.

Trans+ Pride March, central London, September 2020 – photo: Steve Eason

In the last few days, rail workers have taken further strike action, with widespread public support. CWU members are on strike today. Energy companies have announced huge profits while people can’t afford to pay for fuel. Millions won’t be able to afford heating this winter, war in Ukraine threatens to cause global recession and a climate emergency continues unchecked.

The Tories have no answer to any of this. And so the right-wing press diverts attention from the crisis by scapegoating minorities, with Daily Mail front pages about trans people two days in a row. The Tory leadership contenders compete over who is more transphobic. Sunak is for keeping trans women out of changing rooms and women’s sports, while Truss cites her track record as equalities minister, in which role she derailed plans for people to formally define their own gender.

The Mail claims that attacks on trans people have led to a ‘victory for women’. But the issues affecting millions of women – like low pay, access to healthcare, safety in public spaces and sexual violence – have nothing to do with trans people. Fewer than 1 in 40 rape cases reported to police lead to prosecution, and the vast majority aren’t reported to the police at all. On immigration – another key target of right-wing scapegoating – a housing crisis is happening because too few homes are built, not because migrants have taken them. Yet the government continues its plan to spend millions deporting refugees to Rwanda.

However, the war on woke isn’t just about scapegoating vulnerable minorities. The right is also attacking big companies and pillars of the British establishment. The Daily Mail launched major attacks on the Halifax for three days at the start of this month over the bank’s policy that staff can add pronouns to their name badges. The Telegraph has published a string of opinion pieces condemning “woke capitalism”, from Ben & Jerry’s withdrawal from Israel to Netflix screening Don’t Look Up. The Spectator ran an article this month headlined ‘How the BBC was captured by trans ideology’. A Tory MP plans to set up a parliamentary group to keep watch on the National Trust, after it published a report confirming that some of the country houses it owns were built with money made from slavery.

If you read the right-wing media, things get stranger still. Those of us on the left are typically all too aware of our own weakness. The Corbyn project is over. Union membership has declined. The neoliberalism that rose with Thatcher and Reagan forty years ago dominates the world. Yet many right-wing commentators, far from celebrating their historic victory, are close to despair. Allister Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote a piece in May headlined ‘Tory Britain faces extinction at the hands of a radical hard-Left alliance’. The Tories are heading for ‘electoral Armageddon’, Heath argued, to be replaced by the ‘hard-left’ Labour, LibDems and SNP (!) who will raise taxes, increase trade union rights, erase women and undermine the family. Even Brexit isn’t secure, with Telegraph columnist Sherelle Jacobs writing a typical piece last week headlined ‘I’m beginning to fear that Brexit will be crushed’. Right wingers feel they are marginal and treated with contempt, with various authors claiming that it’s now easier to be openly gay than to tell people you’re a conservative. A sinister left-wing ‘blob’ dominates public institutions and debate.

Various factors are in play here. These articles reflect the need for media websites to gain income from online advertising and thus to win page views – whipping up outrage generates clicks. There’s an element of claiming victim status and the moral high ground associated with it. Columnists pit generations against each other, with Telegraph authors writing about how much they dislike their woke children. But claims that the right has been marginalised, and the war on woke more generally, also reflect real conflicts between different political currents on the right wing.

To understand this, you have to look at the history of neoliberalism since 1980. Neoliberalism has always meant privatisation and deregulation, giving power to economic elites and marking the end of a postwar consensus which sought to guarantee full employment and security through the welfare state. To achieve this, Thatcher built in the early 1980s a coalition including business leaders, Tory voters (mostly middle class) and some workers, who felt they benefited from Tory policies like council house sales. The Tories used that coalition to push back the radicalism of the late 1960s and early 70s – most of all, smashing the miners, who had brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1974. More than that, they overturned the whole post-war consensus over everything from comprehensive education to the role of the state. That project involved major confrontations and state violence, as when cops fought trade unionists on miners’ picket lines and at Wapping.

However, after Thatcher won those battles she continued with a confrontational approach to the point where she became a liability for the ruling class. Protests in March 1990 against the Poll Tax developed into the largest riots seen in central London in living memory. By November, Tory MPs had replaced Thatcher as PM with the less abrasive John Major. Major attempted to push Tory right positions with a campaign called ‘Back to Basics’, generally understood as a defence of ‘family values’ – but this was undermined by a long series of sex scandals involving Tory MPs.

There then developed, during the 1990s, a new version of neoliberalism. Neoliberal economic policy continued as before – when Labour was elected in 1997, for example, they didn’t renationalise utilities like gas and electricity, they continued attacks on benefits, and they made the Bank of England independent of political control. But in terms of social policy, there was a move away from a Thatcherite ‘social conservatism’ characterised by nationalism, racism, homophobia and support for the ‘traditional family’ towards a ‘social liberalism’ which claimed that capitalism could be made compatible with individual ‘empowerment’ and social justice – characterised by formal legal equality for oppressed people, as eventually enshrined in the 2010 Equalities Act.

The development of social liberalism happened at varying paces in different countries. Its origins, more than anywhere else, lay in the European Union, established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and characterised by moves towards a federal state and a single currency. This was a thoroughly neoliberal project – the key role of the European Central Bank, for example, was from the start to manage inflation rather than meet any social goals. As part of that project, an ideology of ‘Europe’ developed, which referred to a caricature of the Enlightenment and asserted that European capitalism was more stable and sustainable than other variants – such as that of the US, Europe’s major economic competitor at the time. This supposed stability was rooted in social characteristics like smaller disparities in wealth, the existence of welfare states, the lack of a death penalty, less gun ownership, and rights for oppressed groups. Anyone with money to invest, then, would be wise to look to Europe rather than America.

As social attitudes changed during the 1990s and the first ten years of the 21st century – for example, as acceptance of queer people grew – social liberalism came to dominate ruling class ideas throughout the global north. This took time – New Labour only passed the Equalities Act after 13 years in government, and Barack Obama only came to support marriage equality in his second presidential campaign in 2012. The American version of social liberalism was more explicitly pro-capitalist, characterised by the claim that companies could profit from ‘diversity’ in their staff group, which helped them sell products to various different markets.

But, today, social liberal ideas have become completely dominant in the ruling class. That’s the case with institutions like universities and the BBC, but it’s also true of hard-nosed capitalists. Look at the Twitter feeds of big UK investment companies, which control hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of investments, and you see tweets about black history, the climate and building a neurodiverse workplace. The Head of Responsible Investment at Aviva Investors says ‘Every day, I get to help change the world together with my colleagues, that’s such a privilege’.

Of course there’s a large amount of PR bullshit here, of companies saying things they don’t believe but which they think their customers do. But there is a conscious strategy for capitalism too. The Twitter profile image of Baillie Gifford, a company which manages over $450 billion of investments, includes the slogan ‘Actual investors think in decades. Not quarters.’ We’re looking at a project which aims to make global capitalism sustainable in the long term, as reflected in the editorials of the Financial Times, a key voice of social liberalism in the ruling class. On the economy, the FT is on the right – opposing a windfall tax on oil companies, for example. But socially, the paper supports Roe v Wade, opposes sending refugees to Rwanda, and calls for urgent action over climate.

This social liberal consensus has faced increasing opposition from the right in recent years, and this battle lies at the heart of the ‘war on woke’. It became obvious in Conservative circles that something had gone wrong with social liberalism after the 2017 election – Theresa May was expected to thrash the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn, but in fact nine years of austerity since the 2008 crash meant that she lost her majority. A debate in the Telegraph failed to produce any new or vibrant strategy, but Trump had been elected the previous year, and a group of Tories now began to argue that the best plan available was to import ideas from the US and revive hard-right social conservatism, dead in Britain for thirty years.

The key ideas behind the new social conservatism were that:

Capitalism was about delivering profits, not social justice.
Formal equality for oppressed people had been achieved, so oppression didn’t matter and any further initiatives were counter-productive.
Competition being a good thing, people should cultivate an individualistic psychological toughness rather than seeking ‘empowerment’.
Internationalism and the EU were to be rejected, as was any claim that national borders were fading away. Instead, we should embrace patriotism, defend the track record of the British Empire and celebrate ‘Western Values’.

What social forces support ideas like this? They are backed by a minority of those with real wealth and power, such as Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and the Koch Brothers. But for the most part, they have their roots in the middle class, among professionals, managers and owners of small businesses. Many middle class people think of themselves as superior to workers, and identify with capitalism – but the truth is that their advantages are marginal and insecure. Most  small businesses don’t make much money even when their owners put in long hours – the Bank of England reported last autumn that one in three is heavily in debt – and many collapse. Middle class people may have a better standard of living than many workers, but those differences are small compared with the wealth of the genuinely rich, such as the intended audience of a recent Financial Times article about the very best Burgundies, priced at over £8,000 a bottle. A particular problem for the middle class is passing their marginal class advantage on to their children, since they don’t usually have the cash to send them to Eton or Harrow. Middle-class people have to buy a house in the catchment area of a ‘good’ state school, or send the kids to a minor independent one, and hope for the best.

The middle classes, with their marginal position further threatened by social crisis – inflation eroding their savings, lockdown threatening their kids’ exam results – feel entitled to look to the ruling class for support. But big capital has enough spare cash to take a longer term view. Multinationals are aware of growing social acceptance of black and LGBT people, especially among younger people. They know that social liberalism is good PR – that it can be used to make capitalism look, to use a favourite Guardian buzzword, “progressive”. The political alliance between big business and the middle class, which middle class people remember from Thatcher’s time and to which they feel entitled, no longer exists.

It’s this sense of frustrated entitlement which leads to the embittered tone of many supporters of the war on woke. The battle for social conservatism has not been going well, after all, beyond repeated attacks on trans people and migrants. Boris Johnson was far too slapdash and lazy to develop a right-wing consensus and develop a broad coalition in its support. The Covid epidemic demonstrated how all our lives are intertwined – very far from sharp-elbowed individualism. Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests organised around Britain in 2020 showed that struggles against oppression had widespread support.

Indeed, the war on woke has gone so badly that a Spectator article in May suggested that the Tory party was ‘in desperate need of revival’ and that it might be in the interests of ‘smart young Tories’ to lose power at the next election, so they could develop a more coherent strategy in opposition. All the government has managed, the article suggested, is to mount attacks on wedge issues that keep Tory backbenchers and core voters happy, but it has no long-term strategy on key issues like housing or industry. It’s not even clear that culture wars are actually popular, for all the right-wing talk of speaking for the excluded, commonsensical masses. The defeat of the Liberals in the Australian elections, after they made issues like gay marriage central to their strategy, suggests not. And focus groups among Tory party members by Opinium in the last few weeks suggest their main concern is the cost of living, not trans people.

What should we say in response to all this? First, that capitalism and the ruling class remain the key reason why people’s lives are miserable; all working people are our siblings; we reject scapegoating and division; we stand with the oppressed. Second, our rejection of social conservatism shouldn’t mean we accept the limitations of the social liberalism embraced by the Guardian or the Halifax. Pronoun badges are all well and good, but if you talk about them without addressing the cost of living crisis, you only increase the risk that working people see struggles around oppression as a bit of an indulgence.

But the most important thing to say is that the war on woke is failing. The Tories are divided about their future strategy. The Sunak and Truss debates veer on the abusive. Cutting taxes is good Thatcherite orthodoxy – but it implies cutting public services, and how do you reconcile that with ‘levelling up’ and holding on to the ‘red wall’ seats? Most people have a low opinion of politicians and the media, and see issues that obsess these groups as unimportant. What they are bothered about is whether they can afford to heat their homes this winter – an issue where neither of the Tory contenders have anything to say, which is why they would rather obsess about single-sex toilets.

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