Democracy Café: June 2021

A discussion on ‘Wokeness’ and then the role of charities in society

Woke has become a political factor which is being used to try and divide people into ‘woke’ and those who are not. One of the features of the new channel to be launched tomorrow (13 June 2021), GB News run by Andrew Neil, is to host debates and provide a platform to counter the claimed domination of our existing media by wokeness.

One of the politicians promoting the ‘war on woke’ is the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who has issued instructions to cultural institutions saying the government does not support the removal of statues (a serious issue in 2020 in Bristol and elsewhere), that approach to contested heritage should be in line with the government’s position, reminding them of the spending review and asking for them to notify the department in advance of any actions or public statements in relation to contested heritage and history.

The issue has also flared up in connection with ‘taking the knee’ at football matches. The government refused to condemn the booing which took place at a recent match when players kneeled. It was noted that the England Gareth Southgate asked players if they wanted to do this and the response was unanimously ‘yes’. It was suggested the discord it engendered was ‘manna from heaven’ for the government who wanted to create a divide.

What does woke mean? One definition is: having an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil, racial and human rights. Which seems harmless enough but there is an attempt to make it sound like something you shouldn’t have. There was a deliberate tactic it was suggested to bring in other factors, such as defund the police, to add to the criticism.

In this connection, the process of diversity training was mentioned and how some organisations see it as ‘a joke’. A YouTube video was mentioned called White Fragility in which the author discusses the reaction and responses to racism among white people in the USA. It seems the antipathy was based on fear. This was especially so in America where there is genuine concern that the white population will be in the minority in around two decades time. This fear was also evident in the UK where, although the numbers were a lot smaller, there was still this worry about being taken over or ‘swamped’ by refugees and immigrants. The recent debates about slavery had also caused mixed responses: some felt it was appropriate that this unsavoury part of our past should be discussed and brought into the open. Others (in the wider public) felt it was all in the past and we should ‘move on’. In this connection, a post on the Salisbury Soap Box Facebook page which said: No white person alive today ever owned a slave. No black person alive today was ever a slave. We can’t move forward if people want to keep living in the past was mentioned and the fact it had been ‘liked’ well over a hundred times, presumably by mostly Salisbury people. Many people had written to object to the post but it did reveal an attitude of mind.

The murder of George Floyd in the USA – and the Black Lives Matter movement which it spawned – had changed the world. We were reminded on the Rodney King attack a quarter of a century ago where a black man had been savagely beaten by police who were subsequently acquitted resulting in riots. This time, the policeman was convicted of his death.

Someone mentioned seeing a poster displayed in a house saying ‘British values: kindness’. This drew the immediate response that victims of slavery, those conquered in the pursuit of empire, and victims of the opium trade in China may not see it is as particular British quality. It also rather implied that non-British people were unkind.

The second half of the session debated the relationship between the state and charities from the point of view of who does what. One view was that charities like Help for Heroes should not exist as charities: the government sent soldiers into theatres of war and it has a duty to look after them if they are injured. Using a charity partially absolved the government and the MoD from this duty. It was suggested that this was part of the Conservative philosophy of small government and low taxes. The Cameron notion of the Big Society was mentioned. What did happen to that?

It was also felt that basic needs – housing, health, education and transport were instanced – should be the responsibility of government since it was important that all citizens had reasonable access to these things. Prof Guy Standing suggests that it ‘was a way to procure services on the cheap, transferring activities done by professional employees to those on precarious contracts and ‘volunteers”. He notes that half charity’s income comes from government. It was suggested that charitable activity should be ‘icing on the cake’ not the whole cake.

It was pointed out that disposition of charities was very uneven around the country. The prosperous south had large numbers of people who could afford the time to devote to a cause. In poorer parts of the country, where the need was greatest, had fewer people able to devote such time.

Looking at what charities do reveals that there are popular causes which attract huge sums and other causes which are less popular which struggle to raise money. It was very uneven. A look at the top charities in the UK shows 4 animal charities in the top 20 for example. It was also noted that in the area of disability, the under 18s had fairly generous provision, but once they reached 18, this abruptly stops. Giving was strongly influenced by emotional factors rather than on need.

Another issue was billionaires who sponsored causes close to their hearts. This meant who got help depended on the beliefs of these individuals not on what society felt might be needed. Many paid no tax so that denied the ability of government to offer more help.

Charities did however enable people to offer help and this was a good thing in itself.

We moved onto the question of who helps Syrian refugees for example – should it be the state or charities? Our response was compared unfavourably to Portugal. The worry was expressed that if we were too welcoming this would act as a draw and more would come. Our performance in this regard can be seen on the UNHCR site which discusses some of the myths and misinformation which is common in the press and elsewhere. There was no ‘regular’ way for refugees to enter the country.

Finally, it was noted that it was harder for charities to make problems known because of recent legislation designed to limit lobbying. This has had a ‘chilling effect’ on the ability of charities to voice concerns on behalf of the causes and people they represented. So although charities were playing an important role in society, legislation made it hard for them to speak about it.

Two interesting debates and for once, not closely related.

Books mentioned:

The Precariat, Guy Standing, 2011, Bloomsbury

Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga, 2021, Picador

Not mentioned but readers may find this book interesting in relation to our slaving history:

The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery, Michael Taylor, 2020, The Bodley Head

Peter Curbishley