THE word “woke” is everywhere. Used as an insult, it has become a trigger word for the right, populists, some on the centre-left and those who feel uncomfortable with identity politics and what they see as the onward march of illiberalism and self-righteousness.

Many pose the word “woke” to sow division, to dismiss people who stand for social justice, racial equality and against homophobia, and to close down debate and demands for change in society. All of this does not help achieve a better politics, public ­discussion and public policy – whether in Scotland, the UK or across the West.

The origins of the word “woke” are found in the struggle of Black America, Black consciousness and the civil rights movement. The term was first used (in a context that has links to the present) by blues ­singer Lead Belly in his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys”. In recounting the story of a group of Black teenagers wrongly accused of raping young white women, he sang: “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

In 1971, the American playwright Barry ­Beckham used the word in his acclaimed play Garvey Lives! about civil rights campaigner Marcus Garvey in which one of the characters says: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other Black folk.”

READ MORE: The Greens deserve respect within our politics - not derision

More than 30 years later, another flip was caused by the American R&B and neo-soul singer Erykah Badu invoking the term in her 2008 track Master Teacher which contains the refrain: “I stay woke.”

This lineage has led American conservatives to ­appropriate the term to describe not just Black ­America and the pursuit of racial equality, but ­campaigners for social justice. They use it as an ­insult to criticise left-wingers, liberals and ­anyone who ­believes in enlightened social change and ­diversity and to challenge the status quo.

“Woke” went from clarion call to right-wing insult to now ­being a cliched put-down. The Daily Mail now predictably runs an annual “Woke List” made up of those that it detests such as Gary Lineker, Emily Maitlis and ­Justin Welby.

“Woke” has been weaponised by the descent of the US Republican Party characterised by its capture by Trumpian authoritarianism playing fast and loose with constitutional norms and the rule of law. ­Florida governor and presidential hopeful for 2024 Ron ­DeSantis (below) has made it his mission to make his state the “anti-woke state” in waging war on Disney, LGBT citizens, university courses and autonomy, and what books can be read in school.

The new heart-throb of the Republican ultra-right, Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman who has never held elected office and seen by some as a possible running mate for Trump in 2024, has even penned a bestselling book on the subject, Woke Inc, which rails against “the woke-industrial complex” and ­argues that politics has no place in business.

The National: Florida governor Ron DeSantis (Paige Dingler/The News & Advance via AP)

The rise of the “anti-woke” in the UK

THE remaking of “woke” in the past few years has crossed the Atlantic and become part of everyday conversation not just on the Tory right, but among people uneasy with sections of the left and even in how institutions from the media to voluntary sector ­bodies and businesses operate.

The word “woke” is continually used to define the media with Tory commentator Tim ­Montgomerie talking of “the Remainy-wokey media ­establishment”. Andrew Neil in his brief stint at GB News said it would be “anti-woke”, claiming that: “The direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people.” He continued: “There’s a restlessness, a sense that they’re being talked down to: that much of the media no longer reflects their values or shares their concerns.”

After Neil left, GB News went further into the alt-right biosphere aided by the likes of Neil Oliver who now rages on a whole cluster of conspiracy ­theories from Covid-19 claims to climate change denialism. One strand of this is believing in a “woke elite” who think they have the right to curtail freedom and liberty, reducing the once-proud UK to a “woke Britannia” that goes around apologising for its past and present role in the world.

This agenda has found supporters beyond the hard ideological right in academics such as Matt Goodwin who has increasingly railed against what he calls the conceits of a “liberal elite” who he charges have dominated UK politics and public life for the past 40 years.

Goodwin commented recently that: “Most Brits loathe Woke Political ­Correctness. They think it’s gone too far. They feel unable to challenge the beliefs of the ruling class. They think ­cancel ­culture is ridiculous. And they hate ­being lectured to by hypocritical woke ­corporations.”

“Woke” baiting has found a visible constituency in Scotland via the ­website Wings Over Scotland run by Bath-based blogger Stuart Campbell. Campbell has regularly laid into the “woke SNP” and their politically correct, illiberal, ­authoritarian policies, doing so with ­customary intolerant, abusive language.

A particular catalyst in this as ­elsewhere has been the long-running controversy over trans rights, concerns of women’s rights campaigners and the Gender ­Recognition Reform Bill, which from both sides saw an ­escalation in ­hyper-partisan language and each ­accusing the other of intolerance and ­illiberalism.

The “war on woke” matters

If you think most of this is just a diversion or social media getting overheated, think again. Words matter. The nature of public debate matters. The toxification of language has consequences. The ­language of “woke” is now being used to frame debates by those with influence and even power. This has an impact on all of us, not just in framing how we ­discuss and think of issues, but also through consequences for legislation in Scotland, the UK and places such as Florida.

UK Government ministers now ­casually dismiss calls for progressive reform in key areas by calling such ­demands “woke”. One example was ­revealed in 2021 when three LGBT ­advisers to a government committee resigned at the inaction of the UK Government on LGBT issues.

They revealed that the two Tory ministers ­responsible at the time – Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch (below) – regularly dismissed ­issues of equality and specifically LGBT equality as “woke”. Evidence, facts, ­histories and patterns of discrimination and stigma matter for nothing compared to shutting down debate with the toxic charge of “woke”.

The National: International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch

The right love to use “woke” in the ­context of pejorative terms such as ­“snowflake”, “no platforming” and ­“cancel culture”. But the rich irony is that it is the right that consistently practices a “cancel culture” in attempting to censor and curb legitimate concerns.

It should be acknowledged however that some on the left have also shown an intolerant and censorious nature through the likes of “no platforming” speakers they object to at universities.

This is all bundled up in the right-wing claim that there is a “war on free speech” – a contention made by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and Claire Fox (of the Academy of Ideas connected to the ­contrarian right-wing Spiked). This can be seen across society ­including ­recent stramashes at the Edinburgh Fringe ­Festival about the cancelling (then ­non-cancelling) of SNP MP ­Joanna ­Cherry (below) and the dropping of one-time ­comedy writer and now uber-anti-trans rights campaigner Graham Linehan by two venues – where all sides felt they were in the right.

All of this is part of the so-called ­ongoing “culture wars” – according to leading voices of the uber-reactionary right such as The Spectator’s Douglas Murray, claiming that they are pivotal to saving Western democracy.

The National: Joanna Cherry QC

On one BBC Question Time, ­columnist Dan Hodges framed yet another Harry and Meghan controversy in terms of “culture wars” and said that because of this “we’re told the country is ­fracturing down racial and generational lines” and unless the left restrained themselves, the UK could see the election of a Trump-like figure.

“Culture wars” are shaped by the ­challenges and claims of once silenced and marginalised groups and of voices seeking to be heard. They go to the heart of the power of how broadcast ­media is portrayed by the right-wing press ­including the Daily Mail and Murdoch empire. The increasingly contested role of the BBC is central – under fire from right and left – and seen by “anti-wokers” as being irredeemably part of a “woke liberal establishment” which thinks it knows best.

Different interpretations of history, ­empire and imperialism, alongside ­Britain’s military past and wars, are in this mix – and arguments about how the past is interpreted are intrinsically linked. History is a never-ending conversation but attempts to reclaim and understand in fresh ways Britain’s past are portrayed by the right as part of “cancel culture”.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, has had a long-running vendetta against the National Trust for England and its ­attempt to collect data and information about the properties it manages and their connections to slavery and empire.

A major strand in coming to terms with British history has been the issue of ­statues upon which the UK ­Government introduced special offences. Debates have arisen about the appropriateness of statues of former slave owners and supporters of slavery such as Edward Colston in Bristol (the toppled plinth into the city dock) and Henry Dundas in St Andrew Square garden, Edinburgh.

Often, as in the case of Dundas, ­campaigners do not want to remove ­statues but to correct and qualify the historical context and to challenge how statues represent their subjects. This is too controversial and charged for some, and in the Dundas case led to a bitter set of exchanges between Geoff Palmer and Tom Devine, the former having headed up an Edinburgh Council review of the Dundas plaque.

A major catalyst in “the war on woke” is the attitude that some have towards the Scottish Greens. This escalated with the heated controversy over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and debate on trans rights. Many who opposed this reform partly blame the “woke Greens” for the SNP’s support of this measure – some wanting to ignore the balance of forces in the SNP and finding it more convenient to blame the Greens.

This backdrop has undoubtedly led to a toxification of public debate in ­Scotland with abusive comments and insults ­coming from all sides back and forth. But it does seem to have reached a new low last week when Scottish Greens ­co-leader Patrick Harvie was called a “deviant” by a member of the public while conducting a BBC Scotland interview. Shocking as this was, what came after was even worse.

A whole host of opinion including ­prominent public voices and groups ­defended calling Harvie a “deviant” ­because they disapproved of his views on trans rights.

The pro-women’s rights group For Women Scotland (along with others), meanwhile, promoted the hashtag ­#HarvieHatesWomen. All in response to ­comments which can only be judged homophobic and indefensible, but sadly not to some.

This is the cultural and political ­landscape that we now live in. One with rival interpretations of past and present, and about who has voice, influence and power, and about how emerging groups as well as the establishment and elites see themselves. This raises questions of why this terrain being fought over ­invokes such heightened emotions, how will it evolve and where might it all end ­(assuming it does)?

One interpretation is that in the past, ruling elites and their views got their way – whether it concerned the BBC ­broadcast or which statues went up and how they were described. Things are much more contested and challenged now, and some in positions of power do not like that.

At the heart of the “anti-woke ­brigade” there is also a deep-seated sense of ­entitlement – from the likes of Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan and Neil Oliver – which invokes a feeling that the present state is not how things once were and that returning to a mythical past and country is preferable. In this, people with ­influence try to appear to speak for those who are powerless, hence presenting a sense of victimhood and being wronged by the “woke liberal establishment” – a charge often put by people who are ­clearly part of the British establishment.

READ MORE: Gerry Hassan: Politicians need to stop thinking and acting small

This touches on another factor in how the “woke” charge is used as a ­diversion from huge shifts in society in recent times. While many people are trying to advance progressive causes in what the right calls “culture wars”, they are not ­addressing the wider parameters of power and the fundamental shift in income and wealth in favour of the ultra-rich and capital which has happened in recent decades or the perilous state of many people in stretched economic times.

These are the “economic wars” of the past 40 years with a powerful “cancel ­culture” silencing serious challenge and posing of alternative ways of thinking about and organising society. Over this period, across the West, we have witnessed the tearing up of the social contract; a huge transfer of wealth to the rich; the vast majority of working people not ­sharing fully in the proceeds of national income and prosperity, and a ­generational gridlock which has excluded large sections of 20- and 30-somethings – all while we are told by the mainstream that there is no alternative.

The war on “woke” is an attempt by those who gain from, and want to ­maintain, the current state of affairs at home and across the developed world to prevent the rest of us from realising this and asking difficult questions. We have to collectively stop them getting away with this – or to collude in this deceit, deception and disinformation.

That entails not just asking difficult questions of those with power and privilege but in finding new ways to seek common language and ground in an increasingly raucous world (while recognising over-zealous “identity politics” can sometimes be counter-productive).

The present environment and spectre of “the war on woke” only aids entrenched interests and the forces of reaction, leaving those who challenge them with the need to best assess how to take on this and to stand for a politics which addresses the big issues facing humanity and the planet.