Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.
We all know Benjamin Disraeli’s leading idea in Sybil about the division of Britain into two nations, the rich and the poor. But that was then. Disraeli was still only a minor politician, looking to make waves and define himself against the Prime Minister, Robert Peel. His analysis was simplistic, easily invoked because too imprecise to act on.
By comparison with 1845, also the year of Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, we are all rich now. Old-fashioned Labour activists keep the issue of poverty going for a bit longer, but only by using a relative, not an absolute, measure of it. Rightly, those of us with modern values now care more about ‘minorities’ than about ‘the poor’. Natural rights and victimhood are our key ideas, not capitalism and poverty.
So the people need a different binary choice to simplify political problems to the point where they can understand them, and side with the winners (ourselves). Happily, recent events have provided such a distinction, and we have made it our own. Consider the two places that sum up the big choices in the UK today.
One is Workington. We heard all about it during the general election (though rather too often, don’t you think?) We have never been there, of course; although, to be fair to ourselves (and we spend a lot of time being just that) nothing in our lives ever took us there. But, then, we didn’t really need to visit. Given our social consciences, we already have every sympathy for a place in which there is little else to do but race whippets up slag heaps on wet Sunday afternoons.
We have read George Orwell, and know all that we need to know. You can’t fool us: we’re aware that Workington doesn’t have a pier (we looked it up on Google Mapping, just to check). But the tripe! Well, let’s just say that Waitrose doesn’t stock it, and leave it at that. We don’t plan to devolve our offices to Workington. Managed decline will be our gift to its inhabitants.
The other symbolic place is Wokeington. This is where we now live (my friends and I, of course). We understand its values instinctively. It really is a global village; everyone passes through. Greta was here last week. And I met Titania McGrath at a dinner party the week before: we hit it off at once.
It really has developed an appropriate sense of itself quite recently. I looked up the 1993 edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (no internet then), and, of course, ‘woke’ had no general meaning: it was just a past tense. Now, it stands for the future. Look how far we’ve come since the 1990s! We have given up trying to be posh; why would we even try? We are woke, since wokeism tells us who we are.
We don’t even remember when we adopted the identity. It was just a natural response to the world we live in. Wokespeak derives from a series of individual campaigns for separate causes, like the Palestinians, abortion, climate change, and gay rights. But these issues (admittedly, unrelated) were cleverly merged into an ideology, articulated in a new language. Like a knowledge of Latin and Greek in eighteenth century Britain, command of wokespeak now often leads to fame and fortune. Fluency is proof of membership of the elite.
Workington schools still do their best to fit their pupils for the world of work, but that’s steadily less useful there: we have done our best to take the work out of Workington. Far better to outsource manufacturing to China, where the carbon emissions don’t count as part of the UK’s figures.
We have a higher calling: the University of Wokeington fits its graduates for the world of woke. Nine out of ten of its academics are militant wokeists (we did have a prominent Conservative professor, but he was squeezed out; diversity has its limits). How could the young vote Conservative, after such a value-based education?
Wokeington is now a power in the land. The service economy is a perfect environment for us. We dominate the media, the BBC, the quangos, the universities, the Supreme Court. From these commanding heights of the post-industrial economy, we terrorise the Conservatives. When addressed in the new language of wokespeak, they run a mile (or, as we say, a kilometre). When wokeist issues arise, they capitulate; they know in advance that they can’t deal with them.
Once, the Conservatives learned how to reply to Marxist economics, but all that is long in the past. The doctrines of wokeism explain how our post-imperial, post-industrial, post-patriarchalist, post-sexist neighbourhood really works. In the new language of identity politics, wokespeak has a crucial advantage: it combines identity with unarguable virtue. Hardly anyone notices when a new outlet is captured for wokeism, like the Thought for the Day slot: there’s no contrast with the reliably woke Today programme.
The general election of 2019 was a setback, yes; but take a wider view, and you will appreciate that it aligned the Conservative Party irretrievably with the declining world of Workington. Its citizens won this battle, but Wokeington is now certain to win the war. Wokeington, diverse, inclusive, victimhood culture, is the future.
Oh, and Brexit? No need to worry about that. We still staff the civil service, and will ensure that the slogan of 2020 (behind closed doors) will be ‘Get Brino Done’. Almost all the graduates of the University of Wokeington are Rejoiners, and they will lead us back to membership of the United States of Europe after a decade or two. Indeed, the UK’s temporary absence will accelerate the EU’s drive towards federal unity.
Meanwhile, we can be confident that the future is ours. Wokeington is steadily growing in numbers and moral authority; Workington is steadily shrinking. As Shelley, our favourite poet, justified a threat of revolution: ‘Ye are many – they are few’.