Rarely a week passes without a rightwing commentator warning about the rise of “cancel culture” or decrying the “woke agenda”. “Wokeness” has been described as a threat to democracy, freedom of speech and – in the words of the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden – part of a wider effort to “do Britain down”. Boris Johnson’s government, cheered on by sections of the British press, is waging a “war on woke” to deal with this alleged crisis, targeting leftwing activists, anti-racists, academics and trans rights advocates.
Some have suggested ministers are stoking this culture war to distract voters from their failures in government. But this explanation underestimates the ideological reasons behind the government’s strategy, which is better understood as an attempt to shift the Overton window to the right while framing the rights of minorities as a fringe concern. The Conservatives seek a post-Brexit Britain bolstered by (among other things) an increasingly nativist and divisive populism, and a national pride in the achievements of the British empire, untrammelled by leftwing critics.
There is a long history in Britain of the right whipping up a moral panic about leftwing activists working within state institutions to promote minority issues that most “ordinary” people supposedly oppose. In the 1980s, the British media portrayed a coalition of Marxists, anti-racists, feminists and gay rights activists as the “loony left”, a trope that was embraced by editors, journalists and politicians alike, particularly during the 1987 general election.
Under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives endorsed a neoliberal free-market economy, but their liberalism did not extend beyond this. The government’s regressive approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality was famously characterised as one of “Victorian values”. For the British right in the 1980s, a war on the “loony left” was part of a broader ideological battle to reverse the social changes of the 1960s, when progress had been made on issues such as legalising homosexuality and abortion, and the increased awareness the “1968 generation” showed towards the rights of women, gay people and Black and Asian people.
After Thatcher’s electoral victory in 1979, the influence that the British left had previously enjoyed withered. Meanwhile, the face of leftwing politics was changing. In the 1970s and 80s, an array of social movements emerged, including the Anti-Nazi League in response to the National Front, the women’s liberation movement and the growing gay rights movement. These pluralist movements indicated that the left needed to take issues such as race, gender and sexuality seriously.
While many leftwing MPs resigned themselves to fighting defensive battles at the national level, local government became a fertile site of resistance to Thatcherism. Councils across London, alongside the Greater London council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone, Sheffield city council and Liverpool city council became places to enact socialist politics in a country governed by majority Tory rule. The GLC funded anti-racist, feminist and pro-LGBT initiatives, while many local councils made strident efforts to denounce apartheid in South Africa and announced nuclear-free zones. In London, Ken Livingstone infamously organised talks with Sinn Féin representatives through the GLC.
Unsurprisingly, this provoked anger among sections of the British press. As James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley show in their book, Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left, the tabloids started using the term “loony left” in the mid-1980s to portray “the rise of a ‘crackpot’ left more concerned with minorities than with class”. Apocryphal stories of what would come to be known in the 1990s as “political correctness gone mad”, such as the alleged banning of the word “manhole” or the censoring of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep by Hackney council, made tabloid headlines – supposedly exposing the left’s fixation with “fringe” and minority issues.
Stories of the “loony left” helped to justify the ultimate abolition of the GLC. The Conservatives made this a promise in their 1983 election manifesto, and alongside the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, the dissolution of the GLC in 1986 can be viewed as a Thatcherite victory over socialist politics. But stories of local authorities engaging with these issues still abounded, leading to further action by the Thatcher government. One of the most significant moves came in 1988, when the Conservatives introduced section 28 of the Local Government Act, which sought to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities”. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Blair government repealed it.
Of course, criticisms of the “loony left” – and the implicit accusation that too much attention was being devoted to the rights of minorities – weren’t exclusively the preserve of Conservatives. Many people in the Labour party also attacked sections of the left that supported these issues. In 1983, the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell ran as the Labour candidate in the Bermondsey byelection. He was criticised by Labour party insiders, and said that the party leadership pressured him to keep quiet about his private life. Under Neil Kinnock, Labour still viewed gay rights as a minority issue that might not appeal to voters, while Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, Labour’s former deputy leader, opposed the party’s Black Sections, the movement established in 1983 to demand greater representation for African Caribbean and Asian people.
There are clear parallels between criticisms of the “loony left” in the 1980s and the labelling of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion as “woke” in the present day. In both eras, Conservative politicians and sections of the British press have demonised leftwing movements and portrayed them as worrisome forces attempting to infiltrate national institutions. While the right sought to rid local authorities of the “loony left” in the 1980s, they’re now raising the alarm over the alleged creep of “wokeness” in cultural institutions such as the BBC and the National Trust.
As the political theorist Lea Ypi wrote last year, this culture war is stoking fears that Britain is threatened by leftwing “identity politics” that are harmful to a particular British way of life. Just as stories about the “loony left” gave credence to Thatcher’s war on local government in the second half of the 1980s, similar fear of “wokeness” and charges of “leftwing bias” or “virtue signalling” have legitimised the pressure that ministers have placed upon institutions such as the BBC. While some of their targets may have changed, the scare tactics of the right have not.
Evan Smith is is the author of No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech