July 12, 2021

Back in 1963 a landmark study by academics Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba called, The Civic Culture, looked into why the British did not follow the Germans and the Italians into the abyss of fascism, and why communism has similarly failed to take root here. They concluded that the country’s political culture made it inhospitable to radical ideologies. The British didn’t do ideology.

Decades later, and Britain seems a more hospitable place for foreign ideologies, importing America-style culture wars over “wokeism”. Or at least, this is the finding of a major study released this week by American pollster Frank Luntz. Based on three nationwide surveys and two focus groups, Luntz argues that post-Brexit Britain is rapidly following America into the abyss of highly-polarised culture wars over populism and wokeism.

“It’s not what the British public want”, Luntz told historian Niall Ferguson at one event this week, “but it’s coming anyway”. The research has already attracted a storm of criticism, mostly from British pollsters and academics who, as Nate Silver can testify, have always taken issue with American analysts daring to intervene in Britain’s domestic debate.

The case against Luntz’s thesis is not a hard one to make. The first and most obvious point to make is that most British people do not even know what “woke” or “wokeism” mean.

Recent polling by YouGov finds that while nearly 60% of British adults have heard of the term “woke” they have no idea what it refers to. Luntz himself found that not even 40% of Britain is familiar with the term and only 15% feel “proud to be woke”.

The second argument against Luntz is that, contrary to what many liberal progressives would have you believe, Britain is not America. We live in a society where debates about class are more important than debates about race. While the British continue to debate the legacy of Empire they have not had to contend with the dark legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. The parameters of our debate about race are completely different from the ones in America.

Our political culture, as Almond and Verba argued, is defined by our history. Unlike the highly-charged, emotional, divisive and resentful politics that took root across the Channel, Britain’s civic culture was long hailed for prioritising the critical importance of tradition, consensus, moderation, tolerance, compromise and pluralism.

From one generation to the next, this civic culture left the British hard-wired to feel proud of their institutions and traditions, to instinctively see the best in their country and to be sceptical of radicals whose shrill, dogmatic, messianic and angry politics were seen to threaten this precious inheritance.

Much of this was reinforced by a significant barrier, which is that Left and Right offered broad and unifying narratives of belonging that transcended appeals to individual groups. Throughout the 20th century, Labour and the Conservatives certainly appealed along class lines but they also stressed national citizenship, a moderate patriotism and a sense of obligation to the wider (national) community. On both Left and Right, politicians were not afraid to celebrate Britain’s distinctive identity, its achievements and contributions to the world. Being born in Britain was not a marker of shame; it was the greatest privilege of all.

But how much of this is true today, after four decades in which academia has gone from leaning Left to being overwhelmingly progressive? Wokeism might not yet be a term used by the masses but it is rapidly going mainstream. Take last week as an example. Excluding references to Luntz’s study, the terms “woke” or “wokeism” appeared in a large number of articles across a diverse array of UK media, from debates about sustainable investingemployee trainingWilliam Shakespeare and television advertisements to debates about local councilsAlienLove Islanduniversity reading liststhe England team and trigger warnings for university students, to name only a few.

As training sessions inspired by critical race theory continue to cascade out of universities and into corporations, government departments, councils, media, schools and religious institutions, as British people continue to debate football players taking the knee, the role of white privilege and the causes of racial disparities – all of which originated in America – the salience of these debates will only increase, pushed on by striking generational divides. The idea, popular on the Left, that wokeism is merely a fringe obsession among right-wing culture warriors appears increasingly absurd.

Britons who argue that wokeism is exaggerated ignore the generational tides shaping the country’s future. While YouGov found that “only” 41% of British adults had ‘heard of the term woke and know what it means’, this spirals to 63% among 18-24-year-old Zoomers. This group are also more than three times as likely as older Baby boomers to say they are woke and three times more likely to say that this is a “good thing”.

Anybody who has spent any time on Britain’s university campuses knows that wokeism and its associated ideas – white privilege, decolonisation, unconscious bias – are already part of everyday vocabulary (and not only among students). Academics are frequently asked to decolonise their reading lists and participate in unconscious bias training, even though the methodology for the latter has been shown to be flawed. Unsurprisingly, recent surveys suggest that one in four university students are self-censoring in class, feeling unable to express their views.

The sharp political divide that Luntz finds, whereby Labour voters are more than twice as likely as Conservative voters to describe themselves as woke, is magnified in Britain’s higher education institutions where Labour supporters outnumber their conservative counterparts by a ratio of about 8 to 1 among academics.

The idea that Britain’s traditional class divide will act as a buffer to the importation of these debates is also for the birds. One big lesson from the last decade of British politics is that class no longer has anywhere near as much explanatory power as it once had. The reason why education and age, not class and income, have become the main drivers of politics is because of the much greater influence that people’s cultural values are wielding over their decisions at the ballot box: immigration, multiculturalism, diversity, Europe, Britishness, Englishness, Islam, teachers in hiding and competing interpretations of our history have all become far more central.

A large pile of research supports Luntz’s core argument, namely that these values-based conflicts over culture, identity and belonging are wielding far more power over politics. They are the vessel in which more specific debates over statuecide, Empire, anti-racism, Englishness, Black Lives Matter and academic freedom are carried. Detailed studies at Kings, the University of Manchester and elsewhere chart how Britain is now on the same road as America, albeit a few miles behind, heading into polarised debates about “who we are”. Luntz is not the first to make this argument and will not be the last.

“Woke versus Not Woke” increasingly looks set to become the latest proxy of this deeper fault line, much like Remainers versus Leavers became a more recent proxy of the older divide between social liberals and cultural conservatives. You can already see this in the data, which points to how these groups are oceans apart not simply on Brexit but many of the debates that hang off wokeism: anti-racism, free speech, diversity and equality.

Even today, five years after Brexit, while 52% of Remainers think that immigration has been good for Britain, only 9% of Leavers agree; while 63% of Leavers think that people are ‘less free to say what they think’, only 37% of Remainers agree; while 65% of Remainers support the Black Lives Matter protests only 22% of Leavers do, a similar figure for whether footballers should take the knee before kick-off. Britain might have moved on from Brexit but it has not moved on from the underlying divide that could easily restructure itself around Woke-Not Woke.

This transformation looks set to be encouraged by something else that has changed from the old era: the inability of our leaders, especially those on the left, to offer the broad, unifying narratives that once held earlier generations of Britons together. The British like to joke that they are haunted by the 52:48 divide which delivered Brexit, so here is another 52:48 divide to consider: while 52% of Labour voters believe that Britain is ‘an institutionally racist and discriminatory nation’, only 48% see it as ‘a nation of equality and freedom’. Conservative voters, unsurprisingly, opt overwhelming for the latter.

For the first time in our history, one of Britain’s mainstream parties has become a vessel for an ideology which encourages people to, put simply, dislike their own country. Labour has increasingly turned in on itself and away from the wider country, indulging in narrow appeals focused on the holy trinity of gender, sexual and racial diversity while failing to offer the broad and unifying appeals that used to actually win elections.

This is entrenching the new divide, separating people who are on balance more willing to see the good than the bad in their country from those who see only the bad. It is also quickly becoming a huge problem for the Left, further severing its link with more culturally conservative workers and leaving it even more dependent on progressives who congregate in the cities but are simply too small in number to deliver election victories.

It is indeed no coincidence that as this ideology as moved from the margins to the mainstream, the centre-left has suffered some of its most dramatic electoral losses. As Ronald Reagan once reminded Jimmy Carter, people do not warm to movements that appear to despise their own nation. If Luntz is right and wokeism is going mainstream, then the ultimate loser won’t be white privilege or the patriarchy but the Labour Party.