Politics

Nobody knows what Esther McVey's new 'anti-woke' cabinet job means – except for even more culture wars

Esther McVey has been unofficially designated Britain’s “common-sense tsar”, charged with leading the government’s anti-woke agenda. What will she do?

Esther McVey

A shadow looms over Britain.

It’s not our shortage of affordable housing, soaring energy bills, or the climate crisis. It’s the “scourge of wokery”, a new position created in this week’s dramatic cabinet reshuffle would suggest.

But concerned Brits can sleep soundly in their beds. Former GB News presenter Esther McVey is here to sort it.

Officially appointed as a minister without portfolio, McVey has been unofficially designated Britain’s “common sense tsar” charged with leading the government’s anti-woke agenda.

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The term ‘woke’ was originally coined in the Black community to describe someone who is educated about social injustice. But in the last few years it’s been co-opted by conservatives to rail against progressive values.

So what, exactly, will Esther McVey’s new ‘anti-woke’ job entail? Well – no one’s quite sure.

“Roles and responsibilities for junior ministers get set out in the days following a reshuffle,” Sunak’s spokesperson said.

But speaking to GB News, the new common sense tsar’s husband Philip Davies – a fellow Conservative MP ­– was a bit more direct.

“There’s a huge amount of taxpayers money wasted on this equality, diversity and inclusion thing, in national government and local government,” he said. “There’s no doubt she’s got her work cut out, because there’s a huge blob in there in government who are very keen on all that.”

Campaigners for equality, diversity and inclusion have slammed the decision.

“It’s a distraction technique. It’s dog-whistle politics,” said Sophia Newton, co-founder of Anti Racist Cumbria.

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“Common sense to us looks like treating people equitably, and giving everyone a fair crack of the whip. But the whole ‘anti-woke’ thing does the opposite of that, it sows hate and division.”

By creating the new role, prime minister Rishi Sunak has attempted to appease the right wing of his party, who were incensed by Suella Braverman’s sacking. It’s “playing politics” with people’s lives, said Cleo Madeleine, communications co-ordinator for Gendered Intelligence.

“When we say someone is woke, what we mean is aware of structural inequality,” she said.

“But in a right-wing political context, it’s become an insult. It simply signifies to a right-wing base, we will throw queer and other marginalised groups under the bus to fight these culture war battles.”

What is Esther McVey’s track record?

Esther McVey is a staunch right-winger, particularly on social issues.

In 2019, she said parents should be able to withdraw their children from lessons on same-sex relationships, claiming “I believe parents know best for their children.”

As a presenter at GB News, she’s hosted a segment slamming “woke universities”, contemplated banning burqas in the UK, and hosted academics who urge Brits not to “apologise” for their past.

Rishi Sunak has previously vowed to prevent “left-wing agitators” from bulldozing the nation’s history – so McVey’s new role may well involve ‘common sense’ alterations to the curriculum.

History is a particularly sensitive cultural war issue, Newton explains.

“We’ve been socialised to be really proud of our history. So I can understand why people get defensive about it,” she said.

“There are parts to be proud of. But there are parts of our history that are horrific, like the slave trade. Putting them on the curriculum isn’t rewriting history, it’s putting the whole truth out there.”

Queer rights are another key battleground in the war on woke, with the government promising to crack down on gender-neutral toilets and cancel culture around pronoun usage. But it’s a distraction from other crises such as the cost of living and energy prices, Madeleine said.

“Trans people are ordinary people trying to get on with our lives. But we become a political football,” she said.

What are the consequences of culture wars?

The government is staking its electoral chances on fighting these culture wars. But it might not work out for them.

Six in 10 (62%) people now agree politicians invent or exaggerate culture wars as a political tactic, findings from the Policy Institute at King’s College London show – up from around four in 10 (44%) in 2020.

But regardless of the election outcomes for the Tories, the damage they are doing to public discourse could be permanent.

“There will always be differences in the cultural visions people have for the country. But pushing a very simplistic binary between woke and anti-woke is dangerous,” said professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at KCL.

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“An increasing number of people identify as anti-woke. As soon as you roll so much into a single term, it becomes a tribal identity that is really hard to break away from.

Short-term political calculations threaten to bring about long-term division, Duffy warns.

“Culture wars are a process, not a difference on one agreement,” he said. “Over years, nuance and the ability to compromise disappear. Are we setting up our politics for that?”

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