A populist war designed to distract? Yes, that’s what it’s all about…

I see they’ve been doing the hokey-wokey again.

“You put your right arm out
Your right arm out,
In, out, in out
Knees as bent as your mind,
You hit imaginary enemies on the nose.
In, out, in out
You strike a silly pose…”

First up for a dance was Gavin Williamson, the education secretary whose stint has certainly been an education for the rest of us. He is now turning his attention to free speech in universities.

This is such a problem that Williamson is going to appoint a new “free speech and academic champion”. You might have thought he’d have weightier matters trundling through his narrow mind. Such as when schools might open. Or how universities are going to cope as the pandemic winds on.

But why sweat the big stuff when you can pander to one of the boss’s pet subjects. Yes, that old walnut again about the country being run into the ground by those devious lefties. You know, the ones who aren’t in power but take the blame for everything. In the Daily Mail, news of this initiative sees woke hate mobs summoned by professor Matthew Goodwin. Even academics can join in the hokey-wokey.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden is next in line for a dance round the Cabinet table, possibly taking home secretary Priti Patel for a twirl (“You put your leftie lawyers out…”). Dowden is to hold a heritage summit that will, according to the Telegraph, “be British culture’s last stand against woke zealotry”.

The heads of 25 cultural bodies are being summoned as “too many are possessed by a left-wing spirit”. I’ve swallowed a shot or two of that spirit in my time, but not enough for me to be hauled before Dowden.

Free speech is a fine thing, of course. But with this intolerant lot, you can’t help but suspect that free speech means you are free to speak as they want you to. Free speech is the freedom to tell history the way they want it told; free speech is telling historians what should be taught and the BBC what should be reported.

Thank heavens then for historians such as the estimable David Olusoga, who tells a version of history that departs from their well-trodden track of British magnificence.

Many facets of our history are magnificent; others are not. Cherry-picking the good while overlooking the bad and the ugly isn’t history. It’s propaganda in a union jack waistcoat.

There are always different stories to tell, different aspects to catch the eye. Future historians looking back at where we are now will be able to argue among themselves about whether Boris Johnson’s government handled the pandemic well or badly. If they consider only the vaccination programme, his efforts may end up being painted a success; if they include the shockingly high death toll, the verdict may be one of tragic failure. What’s certain is that Johnson will spin and splutter one of those for years to come.

As for the hokey-wokey, isn’t this is a tawdry dance turned against anyone who thinks differently to those in power, a vaguely sinister populist war designed to distract?

Yes, that’s what it’s all about.

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