Dr Lee Rotherham is author of Land of the Superwoke, second edition available on Kindle, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Vivek Ramaswamy is an American entrepreneur who has exposed how big business panders to political correctness. His engaging 2021 book, Woke, Inc, reveals how corporates use politically correct agendas for their own ends – cloaking themselves in the latest trends in order to appear virtuous, but in the process themselves corrupting the society and democracy in which they thrive.
I thought the book somewhat exaggerated for a UK context. But a few days ago I returned to a favoured haunt, the British Museum (BM), and spotted an alarming insertion. Prominently confronting visitors as they enter the Great Court, two garish new statues loomed straight into view (see here). Overspill, it turned out, from a temporary exhibition on Feminine Power (now concluded).
The theme itself is arguably contentious as a political choice of topic. I haven’t seen the exhibition myself so reserve judgement, though friends who have criticise it instead as disjointed and contextually incoherent. If so, that’s a presentational rather than content and messaging issue.
Where have these front pieces themselves come from? It turns out that these are in fact 3D prints originally part of a group of eight, made of sportswomen and activists and put together as a PR stunt by Adidas. The group had previously been briefly on show outside City Hall.
Wait a moment. Sportswomen and activists? Adidas does boots doesn’t it, not politics?
Adidas got two quick wins from the photo op: it was able to market its sports bra range (the firm was incongruously highlighting that women often wear the wrong size), but the event also importantly allowed it to tick the right boxes to affirm its woke credentials. It demonstrated its newly-found solidarity with culture warriors complaining about statues representing the wrong sort of people.
Why were these figures here, though, in the British Museum? It was after all a modernistic and not a historic insertion. The BM’s Social Media team explained, “To celebrate our #FemininePowerExhibition, we’ve partnered with @adidasUK to bring statues of two female changemakers into the Museum’s Great Court.” And again, “Our #FemininePowerExhibition highlights the many faces of feminine power – ferocious, beautiful, creative or hell-bent.”
Changemakers? That sounds both a bit contemporary and involving people trying to shift other people’s opinions. Yet the purpose of the BM is not to engage in social engineering. It is “to hold for the benefit and education of humanity a collection representative of world cultures, and ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”. To interpret education in a way that pursues a particular change, I would suggest, goes beyond its remit.
Let’s test that hypothesis: what would have happened if a replica of, say, Ann Widdecombe had been deployed to challenge people’s assumptions on womanhood and change? Adidas would never have considered making it for a moment. What then do we imagine the museum’s trustees might have said to the offer of a temporary loan of the Margaret Thatcher statue? I expect some flimsy excuse about insurance and security would have been found, rather acknowledging the point in a back handed way. But then the BM is also, by dint of the Charities Act 1960, not subject to the Charity Commission and therefore something of a law unto itself.
As it happened, none of this vexed me on the spot. The Overton Window has been working in favour of woke expectations for some time. I didn’t at the time know anything about this particular activist. The other statue meanwhile was just an uncontroversial rugby player. Plus there’s that typically British reaction: why make a fuss, time to go home and put the kettle on?
But then I caught sight of a small addendum. Another corporate sponsor added their own support for the project, because they wanted to affirm their own backing to what they saw as a supermarginalised black LGBTQ+ community.
I regret not having taken a picture (and with the exhibition over the statues have now gone). But at a stroke, this stopped it being just about showcasing any one individual or narrow programme. It was now about self-marketing and virtue signalling by a business.
And that’s what took me back to the thought-provoking chapters of Vivek Ramaswamy. His warnings are not just about a trend to be found at Wobbly Wall Street and Crazy Seattle: the woke business ink blot is spreading out here too. Anti-Israeli ice cream was just the outrider.
Why then do some companies push this? There are several possible incentives. The obvious is as a marketing ploy to sell more sports bras. Similarly, if you are a consultancy company, at a time when gender politics is taking over from Health and Safety as a big fees industry, it pays to be seen as a professional change leader – to be consulted on a problem which you’ve incidentally helped to reinforce.
These are also vexing times for those businesses facing the most aggressive of the female changemakers. BM sponsor Goldman Sachs has had an XR protester glue her bosoms to the street outside their London offices. Fellow BM sponsor McKinsey saw an XR protest mob wheel an elephant outside. Another sponsor, Morgan Stanley, had a woman speaker outside its office lead an XR crowd in a chant of “de de decolonise”. Propitiating here might offer up a lunch pass in other areas later, when activist huddles work out where to picket and vandalise next. If you like, it’s proxy appeasement – and in an area unlike fossil fuel consultancy, risking a lot less revenue loss.
Or perhaps this is too cynical. Ramaswamy himself observed that many inside business genuinely do believe these ideals. Perhaps corporate wokery is even now merely a self-licking lollipop in parts of the UK too. Once companies recruit staff to fill senior slots to demonstrate their support for an agenda, the phenomenon then reinforces itself with every passing job interview, obligatory training course, and promotion board.
And what does the British Museum get out of it? The BM for its part keeps big sponsors happy by displaying a fetish in a very prominent place. It too gets to appease left-wing activists, and atone for recent funding by an oil company. The statues are set up only a few yards away from where I’ve previously seen a flash mob protesting against BP’s generous support.
As for what the visitor gets, that’s most problematic. Because it’s an unhealthy symbiosis, especially if it involves a contentious political agenda. In a field where extremists bully moderates, there’s another word for it: cowardice. And this in a location that houses coins of Aethelraed II – the man who paid the Danegeld.
The Museum’s Chairman – sorry, Chair – is one George Osborne. If something like this can be going on under his tenure, then it speaks loudly of the rip tide effects of the undercurrent running across the sector right now – pandering to pervasive and largely unchallenged left-wing narratives about national guilt, decolonising museums, identity politics, microaggressions, and climate justice.
When Conservatives in Margaret Thatcher’s day said that Marxist-driven Political Correctness deserved to be put in a museum, we never meant it literally.