Ever been called ‘woke’?

I’m waiting for that moment myself, but I’m sure it will come sooner or later. From some of my friends, I’d take it as a compliment. From some of the people I argue with, it might be intended as an insult. It pretty much depends on your point of view.

A couple of days ago I stumbled on a fascinating little post about a trial involving Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. During which his lead lawyer was asked to define the word ‘woke’. His answer?

‘It would be the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.’

Recent investigations here in the UK have highlighted similar systemic injustices in many of our own institutions – most notably those that seem to positively encourage ‘laddish’ behaviour. Such as the army, the police, and the fire service. Though, sadly, the behaviour I’m talking about is all too obvious elsewhere in our society.

I ‘woke’ up to that a good many years ago – and long before the term ‘woke’ was coined. At the time I was a member of the AVA – the Audio Visual Association. In fact I pretty much wrote and laid out their quarterly magazine. I’d booked to attend a delightful AVA event on a Thames riverboat – a celebratory dinner, in excellent company. But… I didn’t have a date.

A good friend kindly suggested that a woman he knew might like to accompany me. Her name was Rosemary Boateng – the sister of Paul Boateng, a prominent Labour MP at the time. He also happened to be black. As, of course, was she…

As we walked along the Embankment we had a pleasant conversation on a range of different topics. I can’t, in all honesty, remember what triggered a discussion about the police. But I do remember what Rosemary told me. Because it fundamentally changed my perception of something I’d taken for granted. All my life.

She described – with commendable frankness – how she’d endured racial and sexual abuse from policemen in the street. In a supposedly respectable middle-class neighbourhood. When she was a young schoolgirl. In other words, when she was exactly the kind of vulnerable person they were supposed to protect.

Rosemary was an intelligent, attractive, and politically aware woman who made an equally positive impression on my dinner companions. I had no reason to question what she was telling me. And I was forcefully reminded of the equally atrocious behaviour of some classmates at Caterham School, back in the 1960s. In a lightbulb moment I saw at once how schoolboy behaviour – like boastful and largely imaginary sexual point-scoring – could become something far more malevolent. And that evening the great-grandson of Richard Scott, a Metropolitan policeman, learned to question his unswerving faith in the probity of the police for the first time in his life.

Nothing I’ve heard since has made me change my mind – though contact with police at all levels, through my business and my role as Chair of our parish council, has made it very clear to me that funding and manpower cuts are making their work less and less attractive to the best talent. Of course there are good, dedicated people there. Just not enough of them.

We can argue about whether or not there is ‘systemic’ racism and sexism in any given police force, fire service, or army battalion. But the evidence of what I’d call ‘routine or everyday’ sexism and racism is all too clear. And if I’m ‘woke’ for saying so, then so be it.