'The Rise of the Woke': A scary movie the right-wing press writes daily to distract from the government's true horrors

Today's scriptwriter? Fraser 'the Far Right excuser" Nelson.

It was inevitable really that Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator — Britain’s top fanzine for race-baiters, barely closet fascists, and people who actively seek out Toby Young’s opinions — would write his Friday column in The Telegraph on the ‘culture war’ and the bloody print of the Queen. Nothing, not even his comically perverse accent, has been better for Nelson than the ‘culture war’ — it’s allowed a magazine full of people so close to government figures they could operate them like flesh puppets to act like they’re victims actually.

Nelson often uses his Telegraph column as a place to imply that the Tories have a ‘big’ problem to solve on some issue and that he has the answer. That’s what he delivers again today with a piece headlined The Tories still don’t know how to fight the madness of identity politics. And we’re straight in with the Queen’s picture stuff:

Does it really matter what a common room in Magdalen College does with its portrait of the Queen? Students have long liked to provoke – and wind each other up. The historian Niall Ferguson has spoken about how his Oxford friends would throw parties to welcome the arrival of Cruise missiles to Britain (with invites showing a mushroom cloud emerging from a bottle of Bollinger). They once requested that the college library purchase the Collected Limericks of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. “The joy of this kind of thing,” he wrote, was that “the Left always rose to the bait, no matter how puerile.”

Comforting to know that Niall Ferguson has always been a prick. But it’s also interesting to look at the article Nelson is quoting in that paragraph. He’s gone back 23 years to drag out a piece Ferguson wrote for The Independent in 1998. It tells you two things:

  1. The ‘culture war’, a concept that had rattled around in US newspapers for decades but was codified in James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, was already a convenient column topic for right-wingers in the late-90s.

  2. Fraser Nelson cannot quote accurately even if he has the source material in front of him.

Ferguson’s execrable account of his trollish ways as an Oxford student does not talk about “[requesting] that the college library purchase the Collected Limericks of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu” but says instead:

In the library suggestions book at Magdalen, every time the college’s resident Maoist recommended a book on class-conflict and hegemony in the Prison Diaries of Gramsci, we would counter with the Collected Love Songs of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

The end of that passage is where Nelson found the Ferguson line, “The joy of this kind of thing was that the left always rose to the bait, no matter puerile.”

Now, you might say that getting the details of a prickish historians recollections of being an undergraduate bully-boy right doesn’t particularly matter. But I’d counter that even the minor diversions from reality show how willing right-wing columnists like Nelson are to shape or outright ignore facts to suit them.

While leaning on Ferguson’s nostalgia for being an irredeemable arsehole in the 80s, Nelson tries to argue that there is somehow a greater clash of ideologies at work in universities and that the Right — despite having all the levers of power and enjoying a press that skews heavily to the right — is somehow ‘losing’.

After a quick whip around the Magdalen MCR picture ‘row’ — a situation entirely whipped up by human grease mark Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes — a brief chat about the England cricketers’ tweets teacup storm, Nelson says:

There are real concerns about the emergence of a new racism: the idea of making assumptions about someone based on their skin colour, it seems, is back. White working-class parents resent being told they are “privileged” regardless of their circumstances – especially if their children are, now, less likely to get into university than any other group. By indulging all of these fashionable doctrines, Labour ended up coming across as a party that would do anything for the working class, except like them.

As is par for the course in Telegraph columns, Nelson doesn’t provide examples of “white working-class parents being told they are ‘privileged’”. And if you go looking for them, you’ll find a range of right-wing commentators and academics asserting that it’s true. The top Google results for “white working-class parents privileged” are a BBC news story about comments by right-wing think-tanker and politics lecturer Professor Matthew Goodwin, a Spectator article, also from last year, headlined Working-class boys and the myth of white privilege, and two articles on the same topic with the same line from The Daily Mail and The Article.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a huge issue with the education system failing white working-class boys — as it does many other groups — or that no white working-class parent has ever been told they’re privileged. But Nelson is, like his compatriots in the US who have openly admitted that they are actively distorting the meaning of “critical race theory”, making assertions to anger his readers.

Telegraph readers are very receptive to the notion of a “new racism” — one in which they are the victims — because they’re terribly, terribly bored with the ‘old’ racism which they like to ensure you doesn’t exist while conspicuously avoiding anyone darker than Grand Wizard white on the Dulux colour chart.

And to get the pack truly frothing at the mouth, Nelson grabs his dog whistle and really honks on it:

If universities are turning into woke madrassas, with even Oxford dons engaging in statue-toppling games (as 150 of them are doing at Oriel) it becomes serious: it is, now, politics.

Woke. Madrassas.

Nelson knows exactly what he is doing here and does it without hesitation while retaining just enough deniability. Tell him that he’s stuck an Islamophobic dog whistle into his column and he’ll roll his eyes and dismiss you as one of those easily-offended ‘wokistas’. To be a British columnist is to also work overtime in the gaslight factory, while fittingly denying any such factory exists.

Having presented the latest version of the scare story about ‘culture war’, Nelson comes to his ‘solution’:

This isn’t about culture war, but a simple ability to explain and defend values. Margaret Thatcher1 spoke at length, often quite movingly, about what she stood for: not just the liberty and the rights of the individual but our responsibility to each other. How people, if entrusted with a greater share of what they earn, tend to make better decisions for themselves, their family and their community.

Like many other columnists of his political persuasion, Nelson both appeals endlessly to historical parallels — twisted to fit his argument — and acts as though we are in a unique moment where EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED.

It’s important to deal in hyperbole as a columnist because if you haven’t got your reader beet red with rage by the time they’ve reached your final full stop, you’ve obviously failed.

Watch now as Nelson acts as if politicians have only recently turned to cant and empty platitudes to persuade the electorate:

In recent years, political values have descended into a mush of cliche and platitude. We hear about serving “hardworking families” (who speaks for the slightly more chilled people?) and “aspirational” voters. To this, David Cameron added his incomprehensible notion of “the big society”. The current “levelling up” agenda has become a running joke in government, with ministers teasing each other by asking them to define it. No one has succeeded.

He puts forward this false premise to argue that Boris Johnson — who has said the words “levelling up” more than anyone — is different and more authentic:

When Boris Johnson became party leader, he brought something else: an obvious disregard for the self-appointed thought police. His journalistic oeuvre includes a great many off-colour jokes that his enemies like to quote in hope of exposing him as a monster. His being rude about wearers of the burqa, in the pages of this newspaper, sent his opponents into meltdown.

He didn’t reply that it was absurd to call this Islamophobic, given how many Muslim countries have banned the burqa. Nor did he point out he was defending the right of all women to wear what they pleased. He just kept quiet. He didn’t rise to the bait.

As one of Johnson’s successors at The Spectator and the editor of Taki (praiser of the Wehrmacht) and Rod Liddle (the author of so many racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic statements that you could fill multiple emails with them), Nelson is a past-master of excusing racism but he really works hard here.

Johnson himself made a mealy-mouthed apology for the column in an interview with those hard-hitting truthseekers… Phil and Holly on This Morning, during the 2019 general election campaign. But Nelson thinks the Prime Minister was just “rude” in his comments about Muslim women. It’s funny how these comments are ‘jokes’ until someone says something about a white guy.

And Nelson slips in an assertion — “…it was absurd to call this Islamophobic, given how many Muslim countries have banned the burqa…” — without any evidence provided. So I looked it up. The only Muslim majority country in the world that has banned the burqa is Chad, which did so after Boko Haram used bombers disguised as women in a series of attacks.

Nelson wants the Tories to say more and go further in the ‘culture war’. He says:

The opportunity for the Tories is to say they believe not just in free speech but in forgiveness – that no one should be judged by what they said (or tweeted) years ago. No one should be defined by their worst mistake.

While Labour is captured by identity politics, dreaming up ways of preaching victimhood and setting people against each other, the Tories can counter with a new form of One Nation conservatism: rejecting racial divisions, emphasising what we have in common and celebrating Britain’s status as the most successful melting pot in the world.

Again, this is fantasy politics where the Labour Party he conjures up sounds nothing like the flag-saluting, patriotism-obsessed, gesture politics-practising incarnation under Keir Starmer and the Labour Right.

Nelson needs to set up these dichotomies to even remotely make his arguments work. But we live in a country where Andy Burnham, who was getting lots of King in the North-style press recently, jumped at the chance to condemn Magdalen students for voting to take down the picture of the Queen.

Of course, Nelson frames himself — pun partially intended — as a ‘sensible’ one by glibly saying that the Tories “ought to say that students can put a portrait of Idi Amin on the wall if they want” but he swiftly moves on to throwing out some familiar red meat for the Telegraph readers:

…. things get serious when diversity of thought is threatened, academics are hounded or speakers no-platformed.

Where is the diversity of thought in the British media, where columnists — with less than a handful of exceptions — range from stolidly centre-right to blatantly far right? And what of increasing moves by the government to ensure that those with power in museums, broadcasters, and regulators are right-wing ideologues?

Nelson doesn’t mind all those things because they further entrench the freedom of right speech, something that matters to the right-wing press far more than any hypothetical love of free speech. It’s why he goes on to say:

A Left that cannot win via the ballot box will start a march through the institutions and make decent progress if the Tories cannot say what they stand for and fight for it.

It’s a scary story designed to inspire the Conservatives and their supporters to push for total control. Columnists like Nelson focus on oddities and outliers to suggest there is left-wing dominance of the arts and academia, even as the evidence we can all see says otherwise.

In a week when Matt Hancock sat before parliamentary committees and claimed there were no PPE shortages at the height of the pandemic as if pictures of NHS workers dressed in bin bags were just Halloween done on the cheap, Priti Patel told police to start “zapping” criminals, Michael Gove was found to have broken the law in awarding huge contracts using public money and his department’s efforts to avoid FOI requests were finally exposed, the terrifying tale of The Rise of Woke serves a useful purpose.

While the government actively undermines our institutions, funnels cash to its friends, and luxuriates in the warm filth of corruption at all levels, columnists like Nelson turn their readers’ attention to the imagined zombie hordes of the ‘woke’ shambling towards their homes desperate to tell them that the word they really love saying is actually racist. It’s a cheap distraction but it works.

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1

I’m not saying Fraser Nelson has expelled liquids other than tears over images of Margaret Thatcher but I’m also not not saying that.