UK Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden recently spoke at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. decrying the pernicious “woke” ideology. He describes the ridiculous theories and the dangers to Western democracies at this historical moment. Below is an excerpted transcript of his speech in italics with my bolds and added images. H/T Tyler Dowden and conservatives.com.
For nearly half a century “Heritage” has been central to the revival of conservatism. It has always flown the flag for limited government, for free markets and for individual responsibility. And as someone who grew up under Thatcher and Reagan I am proud to say that those values shaped my politics. So, it is a huge privilege to be here speaking to you as Chairman of the Conservative Party the oldest and most successful political party in the history of the democratic world.
And the tireless work of institutions such as Heritage in promoting those values is becoming more important, not less. Today, a social media mob can cancel you merely because you have dared to challenge one of the Left’s fashionable nostrums. The enemies of the West are finding fresh confidence in their eternal battle against liberty.
So, conservatives themselves must find the confidence to mount a vigorous defence of the values of a free society. In a speech that is really remarkable for its foresight years before many had woken up to the fragility of the West’s victory in the Cold War Margaret Thatcher warned of a tendency of democracies to relax when the worst appears to be over.
She warned that new dangers to the West were also being ignored. Now, that is certainly true for China. The idea that Beijing’s partial embrace of free markets would automatically lead to greater social and personal political freedoms has proved to be breathtakingly naive. The world watches the relationship between America and its allies not only must we stand together we must be seen to stand together.
But there is another dimension to this crisis afflicting the West that she could not have foreseen. Rogue states are seeking to challenge the international order.
And at the precise point when our resolve ought to be strongest a pernicious new ideology is sweeping our societies.
An ideology that if not confronted threatens to rob us of the self-confidence we need to uphold those very values. It goes by many names. In Britain, its adherents sometimes describe themselves as “social justice warriors”.
They claim to be “woke”, awakened to the so-called truths of our societies. But wherever they are found they pursue a common policy inimical to freedom. In their analysis free speech is not a fundamental right necessary for the discovery of truth. To them it is a dangerous weapon that should be curtailed to prevent “harm”. “Free speech is hate speech” is one of their more bizarre slogans.
Each of us is accorded a level of “privilege”, that has nothing to do with our own personal struggles, but is based on our membership of a particular group. So, by their own shallow logic: as a man who went to Cambridge University and who now serves in the British Cabinet, I am a pinnacle of so-called “privilege”. It is apparently completely irrelevant to them that my parents were a shop worker and a factory worker who lost his job during a recession.
If I am privileged it is because I have a loving family and enjoyed an excellent education at my local state community school. But even to question my supposed privilege is deemed to be proof of how privileged I am.
Now, you might have noticed that the woke warriors take a particularly interest in history. Clearly history is a living subject, one that will inevitably be revised. But these activists are not interested in real scholarship or nuance or in explaining the context of the bad things that our ancestors did alongside the good. They are engaged in a form of Maoism determined to expunge large parts of our past in its entirety.
For them, nothing is sacred. Winston Churchill was central to the Allied victory in a fight for survival against Nazi tyranny. Yet some seek to trash his whole reputation and deface monuments to him in wanton acts of iconoclastic fury.
It is tempting to assume that this onslaught can be passed off as a passing fad. That it is so ridiculous so detached from what the majority think – and many have argued this – that it can simply be ignored. Universities from which so much of this unthinking revisionism has emerged have, of course, for decades been prey to Left-wing excesses. There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elites to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large. And of course, we conservatives have frequently confronted it.
But this ideology is now everywhere. It’s in our universities but also, in our schools. In government bodies but also in corporations. In social science faculties but also, in the hard sciences.
But I tell you, it is a dangerous form of decadence. Just when our attention should be focused on external foes we seem to have entered this period of extreme introspection and self-criticism and it really does threaten to sap our societies of their own self-confidence. Just when we should be showcasing the vitality of our values and the strength of democratic societies, we seem to be willing to abandon those values for the sake of appeasing this new groupthink.
There are several interlinked dangers to all of this.
To begin with, perhaps an obvious one. Those of us who grew up under Thatcher and Reagan or indeed, under Roosevelt and Churchill, were inspired by those leaders. But we also had an instinctive pride in our national story, a pride that joined even political opponents in a common sense of endeavour. But if they cease to be sources of pride that unite diverse population in a common understanding of who we are and what we stand for, then we lose that essential unity of purpose.
And it is particularly striking that the two countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, where the woke agenda is pursued the most aggressively, those are also very same countries where patriotism is most open and welcoming. Why on earth else would we be such magnets for migrants seeking to build a better life on our shores?
In Britain first, second and third generation migrants are among the most fervent champions of the countries they have chosen to call their own home. Yet increasingly they are told that the pride they feel is somehow misplaced. Or even worse than that, and even more offensively, that their patriotism is some kind of “false consciousness”.
Moreover this woke ideology encourages a bizarre form of moral relativism, a view that western nations are so compromised that they have no right to denounce the rogue states of today. For all their fury at historical “imperialism” , these activists have absolutely nothing to say about Vladimir Putin’s modern-day empire-building. Indeed, one of the perversities of this worldview is that the “imperialist” West is always at fault, even if that is in standing up for a nation that has experienced the horrors of life under an actual evil empire, in our own living memory.
And yet day by day that worldview gains traction in elite circles. We risk a collapse in resolve if all we hear is that our societies are monstrous, unjust, oppressive. Why on earth would anyone fight to sustain them? It’s a narrative that almost guarantees demoralisation and despair. And of course there is an opportunity cost of our irrational introspection. A West confident in its values would not be obsessing over pronouns or indeed, seeking to decolonise mathematics. Now you might say that’s rather difficult when the numerals we use are actually Arabic, but I’ll leave that to others to explain.
The West should be pointing out to would-be aggressors the strength of the values of a free society even in the most desperate of circumstances. To the Hong Kongers fighting for their rights in the face of extra ordinary odds. To the people of Ukraine determined that their nation should have the right to determine its future. To the women of Afghanistan prepared to defy Taliban rule even at the risk of their own lives.
Yet we allow ourselves to be obsessed by what divides us rather than what unites us. And, it shouldn’t just be conservatives who stand up for what made the West great. There was, of course, a time not very long ago when the mainstream Left was just as committed to free speech as the Right. Or when so-called “liberals” actually had something in common with those great champions of freedom the likes of Gladstone and John Stuart Mill, both of whom, incidentally are currently at risk of cancelled.
The UK joined Nato under a Labour prime minister. And, when Left-wing parties were dominated by working people rather than professional activists, they were just as patriotic as their conservative opponents. Sadly, the Left has abandoned the field. Its leaders are either too weak to stand up for our own common values or worse than that, they’ve embraced the doctrine of woke themselves.
It seems that we conservatives must find the strength to defend the principles of free society on our own.
So, our Conservative government in the United Kingdom is legislating to protect free speech on campus. We will stop the sinister phenomenon of academics or students who offend left wing orthodoxies being censored or harassed. As Culture Secretary I challenged those cultural institutions, those institutions funded by ordinary taxpayers but which promoted politicised agendas. We have made it clear to schools that it is illegal to teach the concept of “white privilege” as though it were undisputed fact.
And we must also not be frightened to expose the behaviour of some corporate giants. And you know, all of us know, the sort of corporations that I’m talking about. Ones that denounced perfectly legitimate efforts to reform electoral laws in democracies, whilst at the very same time, keeping a profitable silence whilst flogging their goods to authoritarian regimes.
We Conservatives, instead, are on the side of people who believe that we are a force for good in the world. The US and the UK may certainly be different societies but we are joined by the same fundamental values.
Neither of us can afford the luxury of indulging in this painful woke psychodrama. It will take courage to resist it. Too many people have already fallen for the dismal argument that standing up for freedom is reactionary, or that somehow it is kind or virtuous to submit to these self-righteous dogmas. Well it plainly is not.
Instead as Margaret Thatcher said to you almost 25 years ago the task of conservatives is to remake the case for the West to proclaim our beliefs in the wonderful creativity of the human spirit, in the rights of property and the rule of law, and in the extraordinary fruitfulness of enterprise and trade. She refused to see the decline of the West as our inevitable destiny. And neither should we.