The deposal of King Boris was just the first act of the Tory leadership saga. Politicos and hacks are now dabbling in their amateur clairvoyance, trying to predict whether the new prime minister will move the party further to the Right. An opinion piece in the Guardian, for instance, argues that this has been the trajectory for years, and that Boris Johnson was simply “a culmination” of a shift to “the populist radical Right” that began with Thatcher.
Many of the fears of a “populist” or “Right-wing” drift appear to have been accelerated by a focus on identity politics, or what has become known as the “war on woke”. A piece in the Metro laments the missed opportunity for candidates to move away from the “shameless baiting” around “wedge issues” such as structural racism and trans rights. Suella Braverman said that the country needs to “get rid of all this woke rubbish”. Penny Mordaunt hit back at those who wish to “damage” her reputation by depicting her as “woke”. Even the frontrunner, Rishi Sunak, has taken a swipe at “clumsy, gender-neutral language”. According to the Metro, all of this represents “a notable swing to the Right”.
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But is it really the case that “woke” politics are in any meaningful sense Left-wing? This movement’s cheerleaders are predominately middle class, and rarely seem to show any interest in the traditional leftist goal of redressing economic inequality. The overwhelming number of feminists who have been targeted for their gender-critical views in recent years have been staunchly on the Left. Yet issues such as free speech, and how the recognition of biological differences between men and women is necessary for the preservation of women’s rights, are now routinely dismissed as symptomatic of a “Right-wing culture war”.
This was particularly apparent to me at an event on Monday at the House of Lords in support of freedom of expression arranged by Riverside Advisory. I was the MC for a series of speeches which featured members of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Far from being a “Right-wing talking point”, the range of political affiliations represented on the bill demonstrated that free speech is, or at least should be, a non-partisan issue.
The first speaker I introduced to the platform was Tory leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch. At one point, she directly addressed the common misapprehension that free speech is “a cover for bigoted middle-aged white men to spout politically incorrect nonsense”. When Badenoch pointed out that she was neither middle-aged, white, nor a man, a heckler shouted: “Are you sure?”
Without missing a beat, Badenoch replied: “I’m sure. I am a woman and I know what a woman is.” This was greeted by cheers and applause, particularly from the strong contingent of Left-wing feminists who were present. The debates that have since raged online about the prospect of Badenoch as the next Tory leader have revealed that she has considerable support from traditional leftists by virtue of her stance on the culture wars. Can this really be described as “a notable swing to the right”?
The political designations of “Left” and “Right” date from the National Assembly established in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Members who felt that the power of the king ought to be restricted sat to the left of the assembly’s president, those who did not sat to the right. The historian Marcel Gauchet has outlined the subsequent “long drawn-out process that lasted more than three quarters of a century”, but by the beginning of the twentieth century the association of the “Right” with traditional values and the “Left” with progressive reform was firmly established.
The rise of the “woke” movement has destabilised these terms to the point of irrelevance. Many people whose socialist credentials could not be more well established have been dismissed as “Right-wing”, “far-Right” or “fascist” simply for insisting on the importance of evidence-led analysis and free speech. Queer theorist Judith Butler has claimed that the “anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our time”. Where there are no shared definitions of terms, discussion becomes impossible. Maybe that’s the whole point.
The way in which culture warriors have taken control of our institutions — including, crucially, the civil service — has meant that their worldview will inform major policy decisions irrespective of whether a Labour or Conservative government is at the helm. We might be able to vote a particular party out of office, but we cannot do anything about the sundry quangos and publicly funded bodies who are in the grip of this ideology.
Take, for instance, the College of Policing, the body responsible for law enforcement training. In April 2021, the Home Secretary instructed the College of Policing to modify their guidance so that police no longer record “non-crime hate incidents”. In December 2021, the Court of Appeal ruled that the recording of non-crime hate incidents was unlawful. To this day, the College of Policing remains committed to this unlawful practice. With this public body seemingly so determined to ignore the Home Office and high courts, we can be certain that it has been ideologically captured.
The redrawing of the boundaries between Left and Right was escalated by the Brexit vote, another political matter that was co-opted by culture warriors. For many commentators the vote was reduced to a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, or racist versus not-racist. Few genuine socialists could have possibly countenanced our membership of a pro-corporate trading bloc with capitalism at the heart of its constitution, but to vote Leave was suddenly perceived as a vote for the “Right”. This made little sense, given that the Remain campaign was spearheaded by the Conservatives, and the most prominent politicians in Brussels at the time — Guy Verhofstadt, Donald Tusk, Jean-Paul Juncker, Michel Barnier — all hailed from centre-Right or neoliberal parties.
The same binary thinking has been imposed onto all subsequent political disputes; even discussions about the efficacy of lockdowns during the pandemic became reduced to a question of whether one was on the “right” or “wrong” side of history. One’s position on gender self-identification, structural racism, free speech, or any of the other “culture war” topics, is now commonly deemed a marker of where one is situated on the Right/Left spectrum. This human tendency to reduce complex discussions to simple binaries is understandable, but it is a temptation to be resisted.
These circumstances have birthed some strange alliances. Many Left-wing feminists are now writing for Right-wing publications, and cross-party support for the principle of free speech is growing. That conflicts on these issues have arisen within both the Conservative Party and Labour should remind us that the culture wars cannot be understood as a battle between Left and Right. Whereas it was once possible to agree on how these terms were defined, such a consensus no longer exists. Perhaps we need to accept that the very concepts of “Left” and “Right” are now beyond the point of utility.