At first, it implied someone who was generally aware and alert; later, it was increasingly used of those who were alert to social or racial injustice, and wished to campaign for change.
In 2020, though – during the early months of pandemic lockdown – awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement began to sweep the globe, following the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis that May; and it was at that point that the word began to attract major hostile attention from commentators and thinkers of the right, who had been mocking the left for their “political correctness” for years, and now switched to the word “woke”, as a crisper and more headline-friendly term for those they had previously derided as “social justice warriors”.
The “war against woke” is also now spreading, via right-wing media, to an ever-widening range of targets, encompassing every kind of radical criticism of the current western status quo, from the growing awareness of the role of slavery in building the wealth of the West, to climate change itself.
To suggest that the British Empire was often inglorious and exploitative, for example, or to face the simple fact that fossil fuel emissions must be drastically cut now to avoid further terrifying climate instability and warming, is to be too “woke” for the British and American right, in its current meltdown mode; and to risk attracting the full blast of anti-woke hatred both from sections of the media, and from some right-wing politicians.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that the word “woke” has loomed very large indeed in the current Conservative leadership contest, with almost all candidates working hard to burnish their “anti-woke” credentials, and to send friendly signals to Conservative party members who will vote in the final round of the election, and are widely perceived to be among the groups most receptive to anti-woke rhetoric.
In truth, though, the candidates’ adoption of the idea that it’s a bad thing to be “woke” is all too unintentionally revealing, when it comes to the parlous state of the Conservative party as exposed by its current leadership crisis.
A single look at the plight of the UK today – deeply damaged by Brexit, hit by one of the highest Covid death tolls in Europe, suffering from a dozen years of gross under-investment in vital public services, racked by a profound housing crisis, and now clobbered by soaring rates of inflation made much worse by the exploitative behaviour of pseudo-privatised utility companies – is enough to make it clear that the current ruling party, and its many wealthy and powerful friends, can only hope to remain in power by ensuring that voters remain largely unaware of their own plight, and of how poorly it compares to the performance of governments elsewhere.
As a result, the Conservatives have become a party that is not only anti-woke, but actively in favour of an unawakened electorate, prepared to sleepwalk both towards its own ever-increasing impoverishment and insecurity, and towards a looming climate catastrophe. Small wonder that they and their supporters now react with increasing fear and ferocity to all those – from climate campaigners to articulate trade union leaders – who dare to suggest that a different world is both possible, and necessary.
And it’s that dependence on a continuing evasion of unpalatable facts – about the condition of the country and of the planet – that goes a long way towards explaining the abysmal quality of debate in the Tory leadership campaign so far.
Even Rishi Sunak, possibly the most competent and realistic candidate in a dire field, seems incapable of thinking beyond the old mantras of “balancing the books”, and achieving ever more economic growth, conventionally measured.
On the changing role of the state in this moment of crisis, on a realistic plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions within a decade, on how to lift millions out of poverty and save the vital public services on which a decent national life depends, they have little or nothing to say.
And when asked for an analysis of where we are now, and what is causing our problems – well, the bamboozler-in-chief, Boris Johnson, hinted at the Tory party’s current answer earlier this week, when he led voters down the rabbit hole of right-wing conspiracy theory by hinting at the existence of a woke ‘Deep State’ that might be plotting to undermine Brexit, and somehow inflicting a raft of left-wing woes on a country that has been continuously governed by Tories for the last 12 years.
It goes without saying that this is lamentable and indeed contemptible stuff, from a party that just a generation ago had such a serious intellectual base, however debatable; and of course, it may mean that Keir Starmer can win the next UK general election by simply looking vaguely sane and statesman-like, and addressing real-world issues such as the cost-of-living crisis.
This Conservative leadership election, though, stands as a profound warning of just how empty and vicious politics can become, when it seeks not to redistribute power through society, but only to manipulate voters into supporting the status quo, in the form of the short-term profits of those already wealthy.
And now that the Tories have brought down their most entertaining exponent of blonde ambition without sense or morality, they are left only with a choice of third-rate support acts; as incapable of confronting reality as their former boss, and far less capable of conjuring up alternative realities that will dazzle enough of the public into compliance, for at least some of the time.