Culture wars: UK needs politicians to be peacemakers, not combatants– Ayesha Hazarika

There were plenty of odd things about Oliver Dowden’s culture war speech to a right-wing Washington think-tank, especially the carefully curated photo released on social media of him rehearsing it on an ironing board in a hotel room.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden shouldn't be stoking the culture wars with the woke left (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden shouldn't be stoking the culture wars with the woke left (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden shouldn't be stoking the culture wars with the woke left (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Since the speech, there has been a furious row on Twitter about wokery and culture wars so it served its purpose because getting lots of leftie, snowflake, liberals to declare their status as hashtag, proud to be woke, is free money for the right.

My issue with the speech is that it would have had some bite three years ago when you could argue that with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour party flanked by an angry army who really did dominate social media and the airwaves, the public did not like what they saw. For many people that’s what they associate the word “woke” with.

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Its origins have a noble root in the black civil rights movement, but the word was revived when Corbynism was at its peak. It came to represent something which was bullying, unforgiving, hectoring and deeply unappealing and, in the 2019 general election, Labour got smashed.

Brexit and Boris were factors but the Corbyn project played a substantial role. That was more than two years ago. The Conservatives won. They beat the left to a pulp. Corbyn had the whip suspended by Keir Starmer, who has distanced the party as far as possible from what went before. You can accuse Starmer of many things, being woke is not one of them.

If we look at who’s likely to hold power for the foreseeable future, it’s the Conservatives. There is no chance of the hard left or the woke getting near power ever again in what is still a socially conservative country.

So, who are the Conservatives fighting? It feels like a fight with young people who are easy targets. They’ve had a really crap time and are, shock horror, quite out there with their views.

Apart from William Hague and Jacob Rees-Mogg, most politically active young people start off with left-wing and out-there views which horrify their parents. There’s a lot of that going on (I’ve been on the receiving end of it) but that’s kind of all young people have right now, given their crappy circumstances.

What about the trans row? Yes, that’s a toxic debate, but it has become like that because politicians are too cowardly to lead a reasonable discussion, creating a horrific vacuum filled by social media.

What about race? You cannot deny the facts about racial inequality. Instead of trying to hinder classroom discussions of Black Lives Matter, what about trying to genuinely level up education and opportunities?

The government is due to respond to the Sewell report, which tried to deny that structural racism exists. I’d like to hope that could be an opportunity to make some real progress, but I fear we will get more of the same old reheated culture war hash.

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It is not brave for politicians to stoke culture wars. It’s the easiest, laziest trick in the book. The brave thing would be to try to bring people together, to find sensible, rational, proportionate and compassionate solutions to issues which rage on social media.

Ayesha Hazarika was previously a senior Labour adviser to Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband



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