February 28, 2023 - 4:40pm

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, today warned that radical social justice activism and identitarianism are causes of major division in British society. Speaking in Westminster this afternoon, Gove went on to explain that he did not, however, like to use the word ‘woke’ to describe these divisions: 

The world of the radical social activists is divided into those who bear original sin, whether ‘whiteness’ or some other privilege, and those who suffer, which is linked indissolubly to their identity and gives them the moral authority to reorder this modern world. Now this movement is often described as ‘woke’ activism. I dislike the use of the word, both because it can at times seem to trivialise — and render simply eccentric and amusing — what is actually an increasingly powerful and destructive force in our society; and also because I believe that being awake to genuine injustice is a distinctive part of the Conservative tradition.
- Michael Gove

At Right-of-centre think tank Onward’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ event, the minister cited institutions which are both under attack and unsure of their own importance, such as the police, the heritage sector and the education system. “Underlying all these problems,” he said, “is the quest for community and the question of authority.” He pointed to the arguments of Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who has compared the identitarian movement to a “new authoritarianism”:

Our cultural and social life has become increasingly polarised. A growth in identity politics has encouraged division between those who must check their privilege and those encouraged to nurse their grievances; between those who organise their lives around acronyms and abstract nouns, such as EDI, and those whose concrete experience is rooted in family planning and community; and between those who see everything through the light of their progressivism and those who are believed to live in the darkness of fading, nostalgic dreams.
- Michael Gove

The Onward event was geared towards generating a new agenda for those committed to protecting and celebrating the tradition and national pride behind Conservative thought, and Gove’s keynote speech was directed at those who, in his words, “are concerned by identity trumping ideas and arguments, who see language forever being policed as a thoughtcrime”. He lamented that these people were “derided as ‘culture warriors’”, insisting that “it’s the radical social change activists who want to identify and magnify divisions; they’re the people who want to tear down and transform, who demand repentance and self-abasement. Where they bring discord, I want to see harmony.”

Gove, who has previously held Cabinet positions at Education and Justice, argued:

There’s a danger in considering that every difficulty endured by our fellow citizens can be seen through the prism of group identity, because it robs individuals of agency and the dignity that that brings. It makes the allocation of resources in our society a competition between groups which try to outbid each other in an auction of grievance.
- Michael Gove

A portion of his speech was devoted to giving an overview of the history of the radical Left, and how its advocates had shifted their focus from the emancipation of the working class to the championing of marginalised identity groups, as a consequence of the “collapse of state socialism” and the “spread of prosperity across the Western world”. The aim behind calls to decolonise curricula and museums is “to delegitimise nationhood and national loyalties,” Gove said, “to make any traditions or affections seem acts of aggression, to uproot the settled and familiar and to make way for a brave new world.” Considering the attractions and pitfalls of this worldview, he claimed:

Involvement in this movement can be intoxicating. Being able to take on the mantle of a civil rights activist, and feeling that you’re on the right side of history against the oppressors is alluring. But seeing the world in such Manichean and binary ways is a recipe for further division and conflict, not progress and understanding. If those with whom you disagree are not just wrong but evil, then the social bonds which unite us sag.
- Michael Gove

By way of a solution Gove suggested, with reference to the debate around gender self-identification, that “we need to develop a response which is both sophisticated and robust, nuanced but authoritative. We need to be clear about an objective scientific truth in human biology. Emotion can’t change your chromosomes.”

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.