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Artillery Row

Will Boris go for woke?

The Common Sense Group is seeking to stiffen the government’s resolve

This week the prime minister will receive a letter from more than 25 members of the sixty-strong Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs, urging him to take a tougher line on institutions like the BBC and the National Trust, who they accuse of pursuing a woke agenda to the detriment of their wider obligations.

An advance copy of the letter, seen by the Daily Mail, goes beyond previous public statements made by the group which have decried what it sees as a liberal agenda to traduce British culture and heritage by those entrusted to be its custodians. The letter to Boris Johnson sets out practical measures aimed at bringing the institutions into line, including decriminalising non-payment of the BBC’s licence fee, alongside the threat of removing the National Trust’s charitable status and a new more patriotically-minded panel to vet senior appointments.

Having met with Johnson, there is confidence among Common Sense Group members – who are led by Sir John Hayes – that they have a prime minister who is sympathetic to their aims. He just needs to be converted to their methods. The letter’s intent is to concentrate his mind at a time when he is naturally distracted by the response to Covid and to concluding a deal with EU.

The apparent willingness of cultural and educational custodians to associate their institutions with politically-progressive causes has generated a response amongst many Conservative MPs ranging from eye-brow raising weariness to indignant fury. The Common Sense Group seeks to channel the latter. Tory MPs in northern constituencies that breached the “red wall” are well-represented in the group and the anti-elitism of their cause (the belief that a small cultural elite is utterly dismissive of what most ordinary Britons hold dear) is believed to play especially well with former Labour voters who have crossed over to the Conservatives for social, cultural and identity-focussed reasons.

There are, though, difficulties with turning fury into action. For instance, the removal of the National Trust’s charitable status would be a matter for the charity commission, not the government. But there is a government role in this, given that it is the government that decides who succeeds Baroness Stowell as chair of the commission when she steps-down in February. Inevitably, the decision will be viewed through a political, or at least politicised, prism. Indeed, back in 2018, the choice by Matt Hancock (at that time secretary of state at DCMS) of Stowell, the former Conservative leader in the house of Lords, was seen by critics in that light – including the refusal of the DCMS select committee to endorse it.

Nevertheless, bringing state oversight to the appointment of charities such as the National Trust, is an area fraught with difficulty for natural conservatives. It creates a precedent that the group may not be so keen to sustain should a future woke-minded government use the same leverage to swing the boards of national institutions back in a politically progressive direction. It is simply a sign of the frustration with how refusing to intervene has turned out that has driven the Common Sense Group’s members to propose such radical measures.

We need to match and indeed exceed the left’s determination and learn from their relentlessness

Should the targeted institutions be worried? On 10 November, Oliver Dowden, the DCMS secretary of state, formally announced the composition of the public service broadcasting advisory panel. It will make recommendations on the BBC’s licence fee after 2022 and, more broadly, how the Corporation should adapt and reform. The panel is hardly a locked and bolted safe space for Guardianistas, being chaired by the Conservative peer, Lord Grade (formerly chairman and executive chairman, respectively, of the BBC and ITV) and including current or former executives from Endemol Shine, Sky, BT, Facebook and Liberty Global, including the Conservative MP, Andrew Griffith. In addition to some BBC old-hands, alternative media platforms and streaming services that threaten the BBC’s dominance are well represented.

Beyond some introductory pleasantries, Oliver Dowden’s accompanying letter to the BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie, and chairman, Sir David Clementi, was robust in the range of financial information he is seeking from them to justify current and future costs. It put them on warning that reform is expected.

If this is intended to frighten the BBC out of its wokeish wits, then there is, as yet, little sign of it working. Whilst Tim Davie has told BBC staffers to stop tweeting politically partial content (what is remarkable is that this instruction needed to be made), the BBC remains wedded to showboat wokery that is at once tokenistic (the latest casualty, the lyrics to Fairytale of New York, by those notorious reactionary diehards, The Pogues) and profound.

In the latter category is the reaffirmation that the BBC’s diversity drive is going ahead, with a 50/20/10 policy instituted to ensure that half of all BBC staff are women, 20 percent of them BAME and 10 percent disabled. In the case of BAME recruitment, the 20 percent quota is particularly intriguing, given that only 14% of the UK population falls within this category. No target, let alone expectation, has been set concerning the percentage of BBC staff that will be employed purely on ability.

It is this sense of major institutions’ all pervasive invulnerability, even indifference, to what the rest of the country may think that has goaded the Common Sense Group to attack the leadership of bodies that previous generations of Tories would have instinctively upheld as part of the essential fabric of the nation. Such have times changed. “We can’t continue with this attitude that moans ‘We can never do anything about this, it’s too far gone and we can never win this battle’,” says the Group’s leader, Sir John Hayes, “that is a melancholy of loss that conservatives naturally have.” “We need to match and indeed exceed the left’s determination and learn from their relentlessness” he advises. “You have to help shape and decide the national conversation, the narrative”. The prime minister’s busy week is about to get busier.

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