Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I made a spectacularly inaccurate forecast. The coronavirus, I predicted, would end our obsession with identity politics.
In a grimmer and harder world, we would be less inclined to indulge ourselves in abstruse debates about ‘cis privilege’. Businesses fighting to remain solvent would no longer fret about gender pay gaps. In the scramble to find vaccines, no one would give two hoots about the sex or colour of the researchers.
Boy, was I wrong. Woke had become a religion and, like all religions, it pressed new events into its existing theology.
Indeed, as has happened down the centuries, plague pushed the faithful to demented displays of devotion. Some self-flagellated, some smashed statues – white BLM supporters unconsciously mimicking their mediaeval forebears
I don’t intend to repeat my inept forecast. The Ukrainian war will leave a lot of people poorer, colder and hungrier. The spike in food and fuel prices will mean that almost everyone will end up working longer hours or being able to afford fewer things or both. But that does not mean that there will be any retreat from identity politics.
The war hasn’t weakened woke, but it has revealed it. It has exposed, for example, the way in which woke is only ever used against the West.
Vladimir Putin’s government includes few women and fewer people of colour. He is no friend to LGBT rights. But people who insist on seeing the world as a pyramid of hierarchy and oppression have struggled to extend their critique beyond their customary targets.
Consider, for example, the worldwide rage over Prince William’s almost stunningly banal observation that “for our generation, it’s very alien to see this happening in Europe”. Immediately, the grievance merchants piled in. Typical was the reaction of Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King:
“Horrific comment. European people ran roughshod over the continent of Africa, pillaging communities, raping women, enslaving human beings, colonizing for profit and power, stealing resources, causing generational devastation.”
As usual, a purity spiral kicked in, with the original remarks being exaggerated at each repetition. The Prince, it was averred, hadn’t just been insensitive, he had been colonialist. No, he had been outright racist. Much of the fury was whipped up by Nadine White, the Independent’s race correspondent, who repeated and then refused to retract that “Prince William said it’s rather normal to see war and bloodshed in Africa and Asia but not Europe”.
How readily wokies reach for the concept of “my truth” when it suits them. A week before the Duke of Cambridge’s mundane remark, I had written an article making the same point: that it was shocking to see a full-scale war in a consumerist European society whose people “use Netflix and Instagram, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers”.
Ever since, Google Alerts has been tipping me off to mentions of my article in various overseas journals, mainly in South Asia and the Middle East. Except that, in this imaginary version, I am reported as having written that we should care about Ukrainians “because they look like us” or “because they are white”.
To repeat, wokery works only against the West. No one thinks it odd that, say, Arab countries are more bothered by violence in Palestine than violence in Papua. No one complains that the Pakistani government focuses more on Indian-controlled Kashmir than on Russian-controlled Kherson.
Double standards are intrinsic to wokies. Identity politics insists on seeing race in everything. It defines people by their sex and ethnicity. It demands that the collective identity of some groups be elevated: that, for example, US policy towards Africa should be guided by the sensitivities of African-Americans.
Yet it is simultaneously outraged when Western public opinion is influenced by geographical proximity, cultural congruence, or ties of kinship.
In reality, these ties are inevitable. Britain is bound to feel more responsibility towards, say, Hong Kong than Macau, more kinship with the Falklands than the Faroes. All human beings feel empathy when they can imagine themselves in a similar situation.
The reason that, for example, the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram caused more global revulsion than the deaths of children in Syria is that, while few of us can imagine being shelled in our homes, we can all imagine how we would feel if our kids did not come back from school.
These reactions are part of the human condition. Adam Smith famously observed that “a man of humanity in Europe”, hearing that “the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake,” would feel very bad for them, but would sleep as soundly as if no such thing had happened. Told, by contrast, that he would lose his little finger the next day, he would not sleep a wink.
People often stop the quotation at that point, but Smith goes on to explain that we would none the less sacrifice our finger to save hundreds of millions of lives, because our conscience would kick in with or without a direct emotional connection to China.
That, it seems to me, should be the guiding principle of our foreign policy. We should treat all lives as sacrosanct, all human rights as valid, all nations as entitled to their independence. But most of us will naturally feel closer to, say, Canada than to Kazakhstan, and there is no dishonour in that feeling.
Ah, say the critics, but are we really treating other peoples equally? Were we as generous to Afghans and Syrians as we are being to Ukrainians?
It depends who you mean by ‘we’. If you mean Britain, yes we were. We airlifted some 17,000 people out of Afghanistan when the government fell last year, and have taken in more than 20,000 Syrians, not counting then tens of thousands more we support in states contiguous to Syria.
If by ‘we’ you mean the EU’s border states, such as Poland and Hungary, then I can only invite you to spend a couple of days there and you’ll see what the difference is.
In 2015, I worked in a hostel for some of the youngsters who were crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. They were bright, resourceful kids who had had hellish journeys. I hope I would have done the same thing in their position.
But they were not refugees, at least not as we define that word legally. Almost all were men. On the Polish-Ukrainian border, where I spent last week, the picture is very different. Lines of women with young children queueing patiently in freezing temperatures.
Another demand of woke is that must act as if gender is a social construct. But Poles and Hungarians haven’t yet learned to play along. They can see the difference between men who have left their families behind and families who have left their men behind. It is tempting to think that a European war might jolt us into seeing the same thing. But it won’t. Nothing will. Woke has won.