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How Britain’s most powerful institutions are hijacking social justice rhetoric

It’s well worth taking a nuanced look at how ‘progressive’ language is being co-opted by elite groups to disguise their real politics, write TOM SYKES, STEPHEN HARPER and MATTHEW ALFORD

A BAREFOOT Prince Harry warns about the “terrifying” impact of climate change. A stony-faced general calls for ethnic diversity in the British army. Universities issue “tokenistic” praise for Black Lives Matter.

Welcome to a country where powerful individuals and institutions conceal their conservatism with the language of political correctness, social justice and identity politics.

Welcome to Wokewash Britain.

Today’s wokewashing frenzy was prefigured by US PR pioneers such as Edward Bernays, who notoriously piggybacked on liberal causes such as women’s suffrage to further the interests of state and corporate power.

These days, Bernays’s influence endures in corporate communications and across a range of British institutions, including the monarchy, the military and universities.

By paying lip service to sexual/gender equality, anti-racism, environmentalism and other progressive values, these bodies seek to deflect public attention away from the violence, bigotry, corruption and exploitation they are complicit in.

In a climate where large organisations seem fixated on discourse, representation, virtue signalling and flimsy initiatives around internal “diversity” and “awareness training,” it is harder than ever to mount radical criticisms of institutional power.

Through its “addiction to spin” and obsession with managing its public image, the royal family exemplifies the problem.

Its double standards, extravagance and political unaccountability — not to mention its racist and imperialist history — are obscured by its championing of worthy issues such as climate change, animal endangerment and social inequality.

In January, Prince Charles flew 16,000 miles in a mere 11 days (at a cost of £280,000 to the taxpayer) before appearing with Greta Thunberg at Davos.

Previously, over a five-day lecture tour to preach about environmentalism, the future king’s private jet generated five times the average Briton’s annual carbon emissions.

Indeed, Charles typically travels with a large entourage and even landscape paintings; he once took his entire bedroom including orthopaedic bed, furniture and toilet seat.

Following in his father’s jet-stream, Prince Harry last year took a helicopter (cost of journey: £6,000) from London to Birmingham, just two days before telling a packed Wembley Arena to “wake up” and act “on the damaging impact our ways of living are having on the world.”

With equal hypocrisy, Harry “pledged to do all he could to save animals threatened with extinction in Africa” in 2014, just before a photograph emerged of him standing beside a water buffalo he had killed on an earlier hunting trip.

Prince Philip — emeritus president of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), no less — has alone killed tens of thousands of animals in blood sports. 

And the royals’ attitude towards civil liberties is no less fraudulent.

Despite the 2018 establishment of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust — an organisation nominally committed to justice, transparency and democracy around the world — the monarchy has interfered with countless parliamentary processes, chummed around with unsavoury tycoons and brokered huge deals with the worst dictatorships in the world.

Since the 2008 publication of the Inquiry into National Recognition of the Armed Forces, the British military has also been trumpeting multicultural and humanitarian values, not least through its recruitment policies and communications strategies.

A particularly invidious aspect of military wokewashing has been the weaponisation of women’s rights, human rights, democracy and Western secularism to excuse disastrous military adventures in the Middle East which have killed over a million black and brown-skinned people.

Closer to home, this wokespeak was undermined spectacularly by a serving general who claimed in 2015 that the British army could launch a coup d’etat against a potential Jeremy Corbyn government (something many genuinely liberal-minded voters would have welcomed).

Meanwhile, a “disproportionate” number of BAME and female military personnel have registered complaints about bullying and harassment.

In 2019, a black lance corporal, Kerry-Ann Morris, appeared on recruitment drive posters aimed at millennials, but was immediately attacked on social media by white colleagues for “playing the race card” to secure career advancement.

Worse still, two black paratroopers were racially abused over many years by co-workers who festooned the barracks they shared with Nazi and Confederate flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler.

Even higher education is not immune to the wokewashing virus.

While the military and the monarchy have always been conservative to their core, British universities were once known as bastions of liberal humanism.

Nowadays, though, marketisation has pushed the academy rightwards — while its more questionable operations are increasingly cloaked in right-on rhetoric.

While universities’ promotional materials seek to appeal to BAME students and signal their bona fides on issues of race and gender, such messaging comes with a bitter taste given universities’ commercial relationships with defence contractors (worth £40 billion in 2018) that produce armaments largely used against people of colour in the world’s poorest countries.

Indeed, the UK is the second-highest funder of military research and development in the world.

At the same time, universities have bruited their commitment to training schemes to combat sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

But according to just one Guardian investigation, 300 bullying cases were reported between 2013-18 across the sector.

Separate recent studies have found that hundreds of BAME and LGBT staff and students in British higher education have experienced “bullying and harassment.”

A radical resistance to wokewashing must not mirror the superficial conservative denunciations of wokeness that have become so popular online in recent years.

Right-wing pundits are preoccupied with left-wing activists’ trivial contortions of language and admittedly highly dubious political tactics such as “cancellation,” social media pile-ons and call-outs.

For these commentators, “going woke” is a ploy of leftists or “cultural Marxists” to corrupt the Establishment and curtail freedom of speech.

But a more serious critique must go beyond this analysis. In response to the right, it should expose the institutional dimensions of wokewashing, as we have begun to do above.

Yet it must also challenge the liberal identity politics out of which wokeness itself emerged — a politics that has, as Asad Haider argues, been co-opted by “political and economic elites,” leading to “the neutralisation” of effective movements against oppression.

And such movements are now needed more than ever to counter capitalism’s existential threats to humanity: nuclear war and ecological catastrophe

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