Why are British politicians obsessed with the word ‘woke’?

By Gareth Jones

It perhaps wasn’t the most significant political development of last month, but Boris Johnson’s interview with Sky News attracted a fair amount of attention when he was asked a seemingly frivolous question about whether he considered the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden ‘woke’? The Prime Minister appeared extremely uneasy in answering the question and took several attempts, before diverting the subject, complete with terrified sheepish grin.

The clip attracted attention, in part, from confusion about the Prime Minister’s uneasiness. It is not a word widely used in everyday language by the British public and it seemed such a trivial matter to get stumped over. Surely it wasn’t too difficult to say something polite about the newly inaugurated US President and move on? Well, the likely reason this word caused particular anxiety is that it’s very much part of the front-line in the culture war – a fact, which politicians, including the Prime Minster, are extremely conscious of and are often participants in.

In fact, some consider the government’s use of the word as a part of its political strategy. It has been reported for a while that Number 10 wishes to pursue a “war on woke”, which is typically cited when government ministers and Conservative politicians go on the offensive on cultural issues – whether around ‘left wing BBC bias’ or activist lawyers. Members of the Cabinet now use the word with enthusiasm. In December, Trade Minister Liz Truss stated in the Mail on Sunday that a “pernicious woke culture” was distorting the debate on gender and equality, while last month, Communities minister Robert Jenrick wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph, decrying ‘woke militants’ who wish to topple Britain’s statues. Despite this enthusiasm, there remains some confusion about what the word actually means.

The term ‘woke’, as with many aspects of our current political discourse – is imported from the States. It has been used in America since the mid-20th Century to refer to being aware and alert to culture and society, although it was fairly niche and didn’t gain its current meaning – being alert to social injustices, particularly racism – until the 21st Century. It first came to mainstream attention through R&B singer Erykah Badu, who used the phrase “I stay woke” on her 2008 song Master Teacher with Lauryn Hill, referring to the importance of African Americans being aware of their own identity and surroundings. It subsequently gained wider traction among R&B and hip-hop artists and became a watchword on social media as incidents of racial injustice were drawn to people’s attention. In 2014, the #staywoke hashtag became prominent following the police killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and ‘stay woke’ became a rallying cry for activists of the newly formed Black Lives Matter movement. In this context, the potency of the term derived from its message of warning to other African Americans to ‘stay woke’ or remain aware and vigilant of racism and police brutality – as they could be the next victim.

From then, the term was quickly adopted for other causes, including LGBT rights, feminism and climate change – and became very much a word associated with liberals and the political left in its activism of highlighting injustices around the world. For many, the phrase ‘stay woke’ captured an urgency and fearlessness in calling out prejudice. Naturally for such a politicised term, not everyone was enthusiastic about its usage. Some considered the term synonymous with an overly performative style on online politics, in essence ‘virtue signalling’, where more focus appeared to be attached to those raising issues and calling out others – rather than on practical efforts to advance their cause.

Others, particularly conservatives and those on the political right, began using the term pejoratively against their opponents and quickly found it useful in caricaturing them. ‘Wokeness’ quickly became a way of encompassing aspects of liberal left-wing politics that conservatives opposed, such as identity politics and political correctness. Furthermore, being woke was a sign of “cultural elitism”, of metropolitan liberals forcing their values on ‘ordinary people’ – notions that are often considered part of the essence of the liberal-conservative culture wars. As such, ‘woke’ took on particular resonance in the era of Trump.

It was in its use as a pejorative term, which ‘woke’ became a popular term in British politics in the past few years. It has been enthusiastically adopted by conservative politicians and media commentators as a means of attacking liberal and left-wing opponents (a quick search shows that the word is far more prominent on websites such as Guido Fawkes than, say, the New Statesman). More recently, the term has been used by members of government.  There are many within the Conservative Party who see attacking wokeness as a way rallying its supporters – uniting its traditional supporters and its newly won ‘Red Wall’ voters in a shared distain for excessive political correctness and enforced liberal values. This strategy, of course, relies on sufficient numbers of the general public understanding what the word means – and it’s not clear that is the case.

This could change over time. In using the word regularly, politicians raise the chances of it being used in everyday language, but also further shape its meaning. Ministers have been careful when providing examples of wokeness – usually avoiding it in a head-on debate about racial injustice, preferring to ascribe wokeness to people or issues less likely to attract public sympathy, for example, on those pulling down statues or criticising Winston Churchill. Time will tell if this use of the word enters wider public consciousness. If nothing else, it is an interesting case study in the evolution of the words meanings. A word once defined by Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill is now being shaped by Liz Truss and Robert Jenrick.

However, not everyone in the Conservative Party is convinced that declaring ‘war on woke’ is a sensible political strategy. Importing culture war terms from America comes with its own risks – it can come across unnecessarily divisive and give the impression that the government has the wrong priorities (particularly during a pandemic). Moreover, developments on the other side of the Atlantic have changed the dynamic somewhat. Joe Biden has never described himself as woke, but it is clear that he takes the progressive causes (that some would consider to be woke) seriously. Furthermore, it is clear that Biden and the wider Democrat Party have suspicions about Boris Johnson’s populist style of politics, which could make aspects of US-UK relations uncomfortable going forward.

It is possible that these were some of the thoughts going through the Prime Minister’s mind as he contemplated an answer to the question of Joe Biden’s wokeness, before declaring that “there’s nothing wrong with being woke”. Whether this symbolises a change in government approach remains to be seen. It is perhaps too soon to know if the ‘war on woke’ has been called off.