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Who is Esther McVey and what does ‘anti-woke’ mean anyway?

Who is Esther McVey and what does ‘anti-woke’ mean anyway?
Who is Esther McVey and what does ‘anti-woke’ mean anyway? Copyright AP Photo/Matt Dunham - Canva
Copyright AP Photo/Matt Dunham - Canva
By David Mouriquand
Published on Updated
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The British government’s brutal cabinet reshuffle has reintroduced Esther McVey, a minister without a portfolio who will be tasked with combating ‘wokery’. But what does that mean, and how are culture wars at the heart of the Tory leadership’s electoral tactics?

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British politics has been like a particularly addictive hate watch these last few years.

To nerd up the description a bit, it’s like that scene in Twin Peaks when Leland Palmer is having a full-blown dancing meltdown soundtracked to jazz while Sarah Palmer, at the end of her tether, screams: “What is going on in this house?”

Indeed, the UK government is at it again, with PM Rishi Sunak’s brutal cabinet reshuffle dominating the headlines, showing that the Conservatives could be in serious trouble when it comes to the upcoming general election - which is expected next year.

Former PM David Cameron's appointment as the new Foreign Secretary was a massive shock in Westminster – marking the first return of a former prime minister to government since Alec Douglas-Home in the 1970s.

However, one new appointee who caught our eye is Esther McVey.

The former work and pensions secretary, and previous presenter for GB News (the British free-to-air opinion-orientated news television channel which is more right-leaning than someone with their right leg blown off), was brought back into government as a minister without a portfolio. It is understood that the staunch right-winger is likely to take a prominent role in the media and that her brief is to be the "minister for common sense", with her focus expecting to be combating "wokery".

But what does that even mean?

Esther McVey
Esther McVeyRui Vieira/AP

The definition of "woke" changes depending on who you ask.

The term is derived from African-American Vernacular English, used in racial justice movements in the early to mid-1900s. To be "woke" politically in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality, as Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines.

One of the word’s earliest uses was in a historical recording of the protest song 'Scottsboro Boys' by singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter – aka: Lead Belly. The song tells the story of nine black teenagers and young men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In that recording, it was used as a term about staying aware of the potential for racist violence as a Black person in America.

By the mid-20th century, woke had come to mean well-informed, or aware of structural inequality - especially in a political or cultural sense. Essentially, a progressive outlook on a host of issues as well as on race.

The term began to gain more popularity at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, and was used to wake people up to the social injustices of police brutality against the Black community following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

So, hardly a bad thing.

The snag is that the word has since been co-opted by conversatives and right-leaners as a pejorative term to signify... well, anything they don’t like the sound of. 

Identity-based social justice issues; the questioning or denunciation of systemic injustices in society; racial education in schools; LGBTQ+ rights... Everything umbrellaed in so-called culture wars.

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Nowadays, the word “woke” is used to refer to either insincere or performative activism, or in phrases like "woke ideology” or “the woke agenda” - a dog whistle that allows those who use it to air their grievances about progressive values without deploying more extreme (usually racist) language.

The bastardisation of something good and valuable is now an insult or byword for over-righteousness and moralising. Right-wing bases use it to throw marginalised groups and those they don’t like under the bus to fight culture war battles they believe will translate into more votes. It’s also a term that can make those who are hyper-focused on it and use it at length appear as bullies. 

Which is perfect for the Tory government and Esther McVey.

Esther McVey
Esther McVeyAP Photo/Kin Cheung

The appointment of McVey, a “plain-speaking northerner” who has all the easy-going charm of a killjoy Barbie exuding strong “Beat it, you snowflake nerd” vibes, is seen as something of an olive branch to the Tory Right, after the sacking of the controversial home secretary Suella Braverman.

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Terms referring to McVey’s new post like "anti woke agenda" and "common sense Tzar" are GB News catnip, and the sort of thing that damages the public discourse by pushing a simplistic binary division between those who are “woke” and the “anti-woke”.

For reference, McVey was dismissed from Boris Johnson's ministerial team in 2020 (which, considering the shambles that was, is spectacular), and co-hosted a show on GB News alongside her husband, Philip Davies - also a Conservative MP. It’s worth noting that she was still a housing minister when she accepted the GB News gig, and did not apply for clearance from the anti-corruption watchdog first – something said organisation, Acoba, stated broke lobbying rules.

The programme was a hodgepodge of right-wing fare, including blasting “woke universities” and why the UK shouldn’t apologise for historical atrocities.

With her track record in mind, here’s what “common sense” means for McVey.

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It means anti-LGBT education. Her 2019 Tory leadership campaign saw her exposing her views that parents should be able to stop their children learning about same-sex relationships - something her then cabinet colleagues raised eyebrows on, including Justine Greening, who said: “You can’t pick and choose on human rights and equality.”

It means signing in 2022, alongside 40 Tory MPs, a letter endorsing Thatcherite campaign group Conservative Way Forward and their report that argued cutting diversity and inclusion officers could save the taxpayer more than £500 million and get back one million working days “lost” to diversity training.

It means describing Covid lockdowns as imposing “Communist-style control over the public”.

Make of that what you will.

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Tasked with “tackling the scourge of wokery”, according to tabloid The Sun, is simply a way to further embrace a Trumpian strategy of employing divisive rhetoric to win voters.

It is a toxic tactic of playing politics with people’s lives and shifting attention from far more pressing matters like the shortage of affordable housing, soaring energy bills and appalling living standards and poverty levels – something which the United Nations even stated might actually be a breach of international law, due to the government’s failure to help people.

Common sense and wokeness is originally about treating people equitably.

Under someone like McVey, it feels like it will only sow division and promote social ignorance through the simplification of nuanced topics. All under the name of fighting more culture wars to increase electoral chances.

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That scene in Twin Peaks feels positively relaxing right about now.

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