By Anna Noble
Like our friends across the Atlantic, the UK seems to have descended into a culture war. At least so we have been led to believe.
The Murdoch publications, The Daily Mail, and the newly launched GB News seem hell-bent on propagating a culture war and styling themselves as ‘anti-woke’ crusaders. Yet, it is the government’s embrace of this culture war that is concerning.
For the Tories, the ‘war on woke’ appears to have become a shield, with Afua Hirsch writing in The Guardian that ‘the Tories’ plan is clear: incite a conflict where there isn’t one to distract from problems for which they have no answers’ – dog-whistle politics attempting to appease a base and create a helpful diversion.
The recent example of Tory MPs blaming discussions about ‘white privilege’ for harming white working-class children, after a report highlighted that one million working-class children are struggling, is a prime example.
Tory MPs on the education select committee argued using the term white privilege ‘may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities’ and ‘contributing to a system of neglect’. This is a clear and dangerous attempt at a red herring to distract from the reality that working-class children are struggling in the UK largely because of Tory policies over the past decade.
The number of children living below the poverty has increased by 38% since 2010, and the use of food banks in this country is up by 3900% since 2010. For the first time in history, UNICEF has had to help feed British children.
However, it is not just poverty alone that is causing working-class children to suffer; there are also the effects of budget cuts to schools. Schools in 2019 had the most pupils and the least funding they have had since the 1970s, according to the IFS, with schools in deprived areas seeing the most significant cuts.
Last week, the National Audit Office found that funding per pupil on average in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% (2017-18 to 2020-21). In contrast, in the least disadvantaged areas, fifth funding rose by 2.9% in real terms.
Labour MPs on the committee responded, arguing that blaming ‘white privilege’ attempts to fulfil “a specific agenda which borders into aligning itself with legitimising narratives which are quite dangerous around white supremacy”. It is also embracing a distorted narrative around the concept of ‘white privilege’.
The phrase ‘white privilege’ is not intended to mean that white people face no challenges or to imply that they live inherently privileged lives in all respects, as reactionary critics have claimed; it means that their lives are not made harder as a result of their skin colour.
This tactic of blaming the ‘woke agenda’ is becoming increasingly prevalent. Following the backlash to the government allocating a measly £50 per pupil in post-pandemic educational catch up – in the US, the figure was £1600, in the Netherlands £2500.
Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson responded not by addressing the needs of pupils but by vocalising their outrage that Magdalen College at Oxford University had removed the Queen’s picture from their common room as it represented “recent colonial history” that may make some students feel unwelcome.
Furthermore, facing backlash for having pretty much ignored the plight of university students, sending them back to campus only for campuses to become a hotbed of Covid-19 infections. Instead, the government focused on combatting ‘woke’ universities by appointing a ‘free speech tsar’ to fine universities that ban controversial or hateful speakers.
What is also clear is the government’s embrace of distorted language with the ongoing row about the term ‘white privilege’ and how it defines ‘woke’.
The terminology ‘woke’, originated in black communities predominantly in America and is defined as ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’, by that definition being ‘anti-woke’ is to ignore injustice. Yet, the right-wing press has demonised the term, painting being ‘woke’ as mass hysteria threatening to erase history.
Thus, the right-wing press and the government’s attempts at propagating a ‘war on woke’ should be seen for what they are: attempts to overshadow difficult conversations — that need to be had about the UK’s role in injustices and as a diversion the failings of government policy concerning both Covid-19 and a decade of austerity.
Image: Dylan Nolte