Boris Johnson’s historical hero, Winston Churchill, was openly racist and the British Empire relied heavily on slavery and exploitation. But these historical facts make a lot of British voters, who have built their national identity around Britain’s greatness, pretty uncomfortable. The prime minister knows that and has clearly spotted an opportunity.
On Tuesday, Johnson’s government announced its latest naked attempt to force its opponents into a culture war over what they disparagingly dismiss as “woke” opinions and actions. Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson—who you might have assumed would be more busy finding a way to reopen schools and universities—unveiled his new measures to tackle alleged “silencing and censoring” at empty campuses.
In a press release that gave no tangible examples of the supposed free speech violations his new policy is designed to tackle, Williamson said: “I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”
The proposed measures would introduce fines for universities that are deemed to wrongly restrict free speech, make it harder for students to cancel speaking events for people with dubious views, and even open up a way for people to receive compensation through the courts if they suffer loss of income as a result of being canceled for their opinions.
While there has been no shortage of media coverage in recent times of supposedly “woke” university campuses silencing right-wing speakers, there’s very little actual evidence to back that up. One British parliamentary report from 2018 said there were a scattering of high-profile examples, but concluded clearly: “We did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”
However, Johnson’s ministers have clearly decided that a so-called “war on woke” plays well with their socially-conservative voters. The anti-cancellation measures come at the same time as a separate government intervention against museums and other historical bodies that are carrying out work to reevaluate Britain’s colonial history.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has reportedly summoned Britain’s biggest heritage bodies to an urgent meeting after he became infuriated to learn that government money has been used to pay for research into colonialism and the British countryside. One government source told The Telegraph Dowden aims to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down.”
Earlier this year, the government also confirmed it was planning new laws to protect statues in England from being attacked or pulled down. As in the United States last year, statues of historical figures have been damaged by anti-racism activists in Britain. One statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into a canal in June. In October, a man was fined for painting “racist” on a Churchill statue in London.
Johnson and his ministers have decided that their key voters aren’t ready to reevaluate the darker corners of British history—and they’ve found a way to not only reassure those voters but also to dare their opposition into looking unpatriotic and soft by taking the other side.
As David Olusoga, a historian and broadcaster, wrote recently, “The politicians looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity. All that matters to them is that struggles over the history, whether real or confected, play well in focus groups.”
The problem with that, however, is that you can look stupid if you declare war on something without truly believing in the cause. Johnson is well-known for his bumbling speech patterns but looked at his most panicked recently when asked if he personally considered his new U.S. counterpart, President Joe Biden, to be “too woke” for his liking.
“I can't comment on that,” Johnson said, after a long hesitation. “What I know is that he's a fervent believer in the Transatlantic Alliance and that’s a great thing and a believer in a lot of the things we want to achieve together and, insofar as there’s nothing wrong with being woke.”
He went on: “But what I can tell you is that it's very, very important for everybody and I would put myself in the category of people who believe it's important to stand up for your history and your traditions and your values and things you believe in.”
Now, it’s hardly “we will fight them on the beaches,” is it?