Woke, cancel culture and white privilege – how the UK’s culture war debate is evolving

New research by Ipsos and King's College Policy Institute shows that the public increasingly feel the country is divided by “culture wars”.

The author(s)

  • Gideon Skinner Public Affairs
  • Glenn Gottfried Public Affairs, Ipsos North
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The UK public increasingly feel the country is divided by “culture wars”, with a majority of 54% now agreeing this is the case – up from 46% in 2020, a new study reveals. This is a trend reflected in growing awareness of the terms “being woke” and “cancel culture”, as well as a shift towards people seeing the word “woke” as an insult (36%) rather than a compliment (26%).

These changes mirror a continued exponential increase in media use of terms of such as “culture wars”, “cancel culture” and “white privilege”. For example, “cancel culture” first appeared in UK newspapers in 2018, when there were only six articles that featured the phrase – but by 2021 there were 3,670 articles that referenced the term. 

The findings, from research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos UK, are part of a series of studies updating on research carried out in 2020. The series, which is informed by two nationally representative surveys of nearly 3,000 people, provides an in-depth assessment of the culture war debate in the UK.

We’re feeling more divided by culture wars

A majority (54%) of the public now agree the UK is divided by “culture wars” – up from 46% at the end of 2020.

Agreement has risen across different sections of the population, with the biggest increases seen among 20119 Conservative voters (from 43% to 55%) and Labour voters (from 47% to 59%) and those aged 55 and above (from 44% to 57%).

At the same time, 29% still say they neither agree nor disagree that culture wars are dividing the country – down from 37% – and there has been a slight increase in the share of people who disagree, from 8% to 12%.

There has been less change in the perception that the country is divided generally, with this standing at 78%, compared with 74% in 2020.

“Being woke” and “cancel culture” have become more familiar to the public ...

Two-thirds (65%) of the public now say they’ve heard a lot or a little about the term “being woke” – compared with around half (49%) in 2020. Reflecting this growing awareness, the proportion who say they have never heard of the phrase has halved, falling from 32% to 16% over the same period.

Similarly, in 2020, 39% said they had heard a lot or a little about the phrase “cancel culture”, but this has now risen to 60%. And 27% now say they have never heard of the term – down from 49%.

While awareness of both terms has grown among the population in general, some groups have seen bigger changes in recognition than others. For example, 39% of those aged 55 and above said they had heard at least a little about being woke in 2020, but this has now risen to 60%. By contrast, awareness of the term among 16- to 24-year-olds is largely unchanged, now at 74% compared with 72% previously.

Awareness of other terms, however, such as “white privilege” (81%), “culture wars” (59%) and “identity politics” (39%) is relatively unchanged from 2020.

… and “woke” is increasingly seen as an insult rather than a compliment

Just over a third (36%) of people would consider it an insult if someone called them woke – an increase from a quarter (24%) in 2020.

Back then, the public were split on whether the term should be seen as a compliment (26%) or insult (24%), but by 36% to 26% they are now more likely to view it as insulting, with the proportion who say they don’t know what the term means also falling from 38% to 28%.

Changes among particular groups have driven this trend – for example, the share of 2019 Conservative voters who think “woke” is an insult has risen hugely, from 33% to 55%, with a similar shift seen among Leave supporters (from 32% to 53%).

Perceptions of “woke” have become at least slightly more negative among all age groups surveyed, but especially the oldest: in 2020, 25% of people aged 55 and above considered the term an insult, but this now risen to 42%.

The proportion of the public as a whole who consider being woke a compliment has remained steady at 26%, while 41% of 2019 Labour voters now consider the term a compliment – a slight increase on 37% in 2020.

The public are most likely to think the term “white privilege” is unhelpful

Half (51%) of the UK public think “white privilege” is an unhelpful term when thinking about race relations in Britain today – more than double the 23% who do see it as helpful.

There are significant demographic and political differences in views. In particular, white people (54%) are much more likely than people from ethnic minorities (35%) to feel the term is unhelpful, while 70% of 2019 Conservative voters also feel this way, compared with 38% of Labour voters.

UK newspapers have hugely increased their use of culture war terms

Growing public awareness of culture war terms is linked to a massive increase in media attention that these issues have received recent in recent years.

Analysis reveals:

  • Between 2019 and 2020, the number of news articles mentioning culture wars in the UK rose from 178 to 534 – but this increase has been dwarfed by 1,470 such articles in 2021.
  • “Cancel culture” is a very recent addition to the language used in UK newspapers – its first mention was only in 2018, when it was used just six times in the whole year. Since then, there has been a staggering rise in coverage, to a high of 3,670 articles that featured the term in 2021.
  • The Mail was by far the top UK newspaper mentioning cancel culture in 2021, accounting for 23% of all uses of the term. The Independent was next, responsible for 14% of all such mentions.
  • In 2019, there were 392 news articles referencing “white privilege”, before a three-fold increase in 2020, when the number reached a high of 1,396, followed by a slight fall to 1,258 in 2021.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

There has been an extraordinary increase in the media’s focus on culture war issues and terms in recent years, reflected in our analysis of UK newspaper content. ‘Cancel culture’, for example, didn’t exist in our national discussions only a handful of years ago, but now there are thousands of articles that use the term.
It’s no surprise, then, that this media and political debate seems to have affected public opinion. Awareness of the key terms is growing, and the meaning of key words is changing – not least 'woke', with a clear shift to seeing it is an insult, rather than a compliment. The overall trend is towards people being more likely to see the UK as divided by ‘culture wars’.
We need to remember that these issues are far from the top of people’s lists of concerns, and the vast majority of people are not as fired-up as the media and social media discussion often suggests. But that doesn’t mean the issues are irrelevant to the public – there are important debates to be had about culture change in the UK. However, the tone of the discussion, as much as the content, matters – and the nature of the conversation we’re currently having is risking increased division.

Gideon Skinner, head of UK political research at Ipsos, said:

Culture wars are not top-of-mind in the public’s daily concerns, but nevertheless there are signs that awareness of some of its key terms is growing, alongside a far greater focus on them in the media.  With that greater awareness is a slowly growing belief that culture wars are dividing the UK, and particularly changes in how people react to the phrase ‘being woke’. The research suggests that certain groups – notably older people, and Conservative and Leave supporters – are moving from a position of not really knowing what ‘being woke’ means to now clearly seeing it pejoratively.
Nevertheless, at an overall level people are fairly split in their views towards woke – there has been no change in the proportion who see it as a compliment (especially among younger people, Labour voters and Remainers), and many people or course don’t have a strong view one way or the other, just as not everyone believes the country is divided by culture wars. So while there are reasons to be concerned about the potential for a focus on culture war divisions to feed polarisation, not everyone yet sits on the extremes.

Technical note

Ipsos interviewed online a representative UK sample of 2,834 adults aged 16+ between 26 November and 2 December 2020 and 2,931 adults aged 16+ between 13 and 19 January 2022. This data has been collected by the Ipsos UK KnowledgePanel, an online random probability panel which provides gold standard insights into the UK population, by providing bigger sample sizes via the most rigorous research methods. Data are weighted by age, gender, region, Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, education, ethnicity and number of adults in the household in order to reflect the profile of the UK population. All polls are subject to a range of potential sources of error.

Technical details – media analysis

The Policy Institute at King’s College London carried out media content analysis based on a sample drawn from the Nexis database of UK national and regional newspapers, through a search for a range of specific terms, including culture wars, cancel culture and white privilege, with a cut-off date of 31 December 2021. The full sample of articles for each search term ranged between 1,208 and 6,272.

After cleaning (ie removing duplicates and false positives), this full sample was tagged manually for geography to determine whether the content referred to the UK or elsewhere.

For the more detailed analysis of content of 2021 articles, a random sample of 200 articles were imported to NVivo. These articles were read in full and analysed in NVivo to identify more precisely the subject focus of the article, terms, key groups described and consequences, reported or perceived.  
Coding was conducted by two researchers, with consistency of coding checked by one reviewer. The codeframe was developed iteratively through multiple rounds of review. The final code-frame captured:

  • Framing (the author type, article type, freedom type, direction of argument relating to freedoms and main storyline).
  • Content (groups reported on and descriptive framing of main narrative actors, the topic reported on, including the arena observed, issue type and descriptive terms used in association with the issues, and perceived or reported consequences).

The author(s)

  • Gideon Skinner Public Affairs
  • Glenn Gottfried Public Affairs, Ipsos North

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