Opinion

Under the government's new war on woke, who's going to be at risk?

Plans for a free speech champion are strangely illiberal, says Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

Leeds University students protesting

Much of what is proposed for the free speech champion will be focussed on universities. Credit: Alarichall

In 1981, Glasgow granted Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city. They were the first in the world to honour him in this way. It was a bold decision. The Free Nelson Mandela movement hadn’t taken hold. He was still seen as a terrorist by establishment figures and national governments. The debate over whether Margaret Thatcher, a few years later, called him and the ANC, the organisation he represented, terrorist, is still unsettled.

However, Glasgow pushed ahead. Mandela paid tribute after his release.

“While we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth,” he said, “a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system, and declared us to be free.”

The city didn’t stop there. In 1986 they renamed St George’s Place as Nelson Mandela Place. There was a certain Glaswegian gallusness to the location choice. It was where you’d have found the South African consulate-general.

Now, 40 years on I’m not sure such a change would be possible. I believe that the decision to do something as risky today would be slammed as woke, that it was snowflakes trying to rewrite history because they’re upset at perceived injustice. Then social media would burn and fester, those behind the move would be vilified and plans would quietly melt away.

We should be able to make mistakes in language and approach without being cancelled for them

The news that the government is launching a “war on woke” and will appoint a Free Speech Champion is not surprising. The signals had been growing in recent times. In this new battlefront, charities and other institutions that rely on some public purse backing will be told to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

There is no longer implication. This is outright hostility. You’re with us, completely, or you’re against us. Ironically, this state-sponsored torchlight is an illumination of EXACTLY the sort of illiberal identity politics the Free Speech Champion is claiming to be combatting.

The argument goes that woke is hard left and anti-nation. But really, a large part of it as framed in “defending our culture” is holding government to account. Woke, by this definition, is challenging the prevailing, orthodox view. It happens that for coming up on 11 years the Westminster government has been Conservative-led. I suppose, you could argue, a challenge to that is a challenge to the party. But we’re not in a Soviet state. I’m unlikely to be censured for stating that the austerity programme rolled out in 2010 was a disaster for many of the poorest in this country. That it punished those who had the least and that it damaged the infrastructure and apparatus of the state in terrible ways.

However, under the new war on woke, am I now at risk?

I understand a level of anger and confusion at what is seen as a judgemental culture pushed by some, in the main, younger people. We should be able to hold views that not everybody agrees with. We should be able to say some things that others find offensive. We should be able to make mistakes in language and approach without being cancelled for them. 

But this cuts both ways. Much of what the government plan for where the Free Speech Champion will operate is at universities. Students should be allowed also to say rash things and do rash things without them getting cancelled by the government. People can learn and change and develop.

However, there is a line. Some things are clearly, objectively, wrong. Language that prides itself in condemning and inciting on grounds of race and religion and sexuality should be called out. There is nothing wrong with examining how that was delivered and memorialised in the past. We should be robust enough to examine history.

And when it comes down to it, there’s nothing wrong with annoying both sides in an argument.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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