Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 January 2012

‘Is it because I is white?’ Diane Abbott’s comment may have been racist, but it’s not quite black and white

There was a real storm in a teacup yesterday over a tweet by black Labour MP Diane Abbott in which she stated: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.” A predictable row ensued, in which a host of – it has to be said – mostly white and right-wing commentators and tweeters lined up to accuse Ms Abbott of racism, and demand that she be sacked or resign.

For her part, the MP issued a forced retraction and tweeted that her remark had been taken out of context; although, as she has deleted the tweet, it isn’t easy to work out what the context actually was. An article in the Guardian makes this clear: it was part of a Twitter conversation with a black constituent, Bim Adewumni. Writing in the context of media coverage of the verdict and sentencing in the Stephen Lawrence murder case, Adewumni had said it was annoying how the media always talked of the ‘black community’, as if it were a homogeneous entity, and how they were for ever wheeling out supposed leaders of the said community – including the inevitable rappers or reformed gangsters – whom most black people would not recognise as ‘community leaders’. Abbott’s comment was clearly a defence of the value of the concept of ‘the black community’, as denying this was playing into a (white) “divide and rule agenda”, as Abbott had written earlier in the conversation.

Let’s give Abbott some credit and consider whether, in its context, her remark should be adjudged as racist. Abbott was clearly alluding to a version of the history of relations between black and white people in which white people are viewed as having always divided blacks among each other the better to exploit them. The reference to colonialism suggests the story of slavery, in which some African tribes were employed to capture and enslave others. It also evokes the European carve-up of the African continent, in which the boundaries between the European nations’ various colonies were drawn up in such a way as to include rival tribes within the same territory, thereby enabling the colonialists to ‘divide and rule’, and resulting in the terrible post-colonial story of bitter rivalry and civil wars amongst competing clans. By defending the concept of a single, united ‘black community’, Diane Abbott is affirming the principle of black solidarity: black people standing together, and not allowing themselves to be divided and exploited (by whites) as they have been in the past.

Now, no reasonable person would deny that there has been a terrible history of racist exploitation of and discrimination towards black people by white individuals and white-dominated societies. The context of Ms Abbott’s remarks should indeed be borne in mind: the conclusion of the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, where the sentencing had taken place only that day. That murder was of course a most bloody reminder of the continuing reality of the racism of some white people towards blacks. Although much progress may have been made since that crime in terms of the Metropolitan and other police forces overcoming their “institutional racism”, as the Macpherson Report called it, there are arguably still many instances of such racism today, including the fact that young black people in inner cities are disproportional targets of police stop and search tactics, and, anecdotally, you hear many accounts of victimisation of black individuals by the police.

The problem, however, was with Ms Abbott’s choice of words: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule'”. This can be read as implying that ‘white people in general take delight in setting black people against each other and dominating them’. In other words, Ms Abbott could be construed as saying that white people, as a ‘race’, are cruel and exploitative towards blacks. Such a statement would indeed be racist. But I really don’t think Diane Abbott seriously meant to say that or even thinks it, because whatever she is, she isn’t stupid. Indeed, semantically, her statement can just as legitimately be interpreted as saying that ‘certain white people (not necessarily all) take pleasure in disunity among black people and like to lord it over them’, e.g. people in the media, the police or politicians.

Indeed, the hysterical reaction to her remark on the part of right-of-centre media and politicians, and the Twittersphere, did seem to bear this out. Her remarks were pounced upon as an instance of ‘outrageous’ anti-white racism in a manner that simply would not have happened if a white politician had made the same comment. Note what I say: if a white politician had written the same words (i.e. that ‘white people love playing divide and rule towards blacks’), not if a white politician had said that ‘black people are racist towards whites’ or had made some other ‘racist’ comment about black people. By implication, it is OK for a white person to criticise their own race for their history of racism, but not for a black person to do so. But in that instinctive, knee-jerk reaction, can we not in fact see another instance of ‘institutional racism’, except this time the institution is establishment (white) politics and power? It was as if people were saying: ‘OK, Ms Abbott, we may tolerate you rising to a position of relative power in a white man’s world; but don’t you dare imply that the structures of power within British society are still “endemically” racist’. Ms Abbott was a black woman speaking out of turn and had to be slapped down.

Ironically, however, Ms Abbott is in some ways as ‘culturally white’ as they come: Oxbridge-educated, well-spoken, in a well-paid ‘middle-class’ profession, and sending her son to a public school. In other words, Ms Abbott’s ‘cultural background’ is pretty much white-English. And this is perhaps where the real, insidious racism lies, on both sides of the picture. Ms Abbott’s remark was not so much a case of the racism of a black person towards white people, but of inverted white racism: the internalised racism of some white people towards others or towards the ‘white race’ in general. That is to say, Ms Abbott has imbibed the white, liberal, middle-class received wisdom that white people have always been, and perhaps always will be, racist towards blacks. She is to some extent a white woman in a black woman’s skin: brought up in a white world, living and working in a white world, and identifying with mainstream white, liberal ideology in the area of racial politics. So in that sense, Ms Abbott was speaking almost as a white establishment politician.

Equally, the over-the-top reaction by mainstream right-wing politicians and media perhaps ultimately expresses indignation at the fact that Ms Abbott was speaking as a culturally white, black politician, and yet had the temerity to blame the system of which she is a part for anti-black racism. She was, as it were, an ungrateful black arriviste who was biting the hand that fed her. The subconsciously perceived ‘hypocrisy’ of this was, so to speak, akin to Ms Abbott’s supposed hypocrisy in sending her son to a public school: ‘don’t criticise the white political and social elite when you’re part of it’. Ms Abbott’s problem was that she had ‘got under the skin’ of her white-Conservative critics by trying to be ‘whiter than white’ in the area of race.

This is the ultimate transgression: literally trans-gressing – crossing over, trespassing across, transcending and so negating – the unspoken, invisible barriers between black and white. Ms Abbott’s ‘crime’ was being racially black but culturally white, and yet accusing the white culture, and race, of anti-black racism. But most of all, she was wrong to assume that she could be both black and speak from the ‘position’ (social and subjective-perceptual) of a white person on matters of race, and thereby be entitled to accuse white people of racism, which only white people are ‘permitted’ to do. How dare she! She should get back in her black box!

Ironically, of course, this is precisely what Ms Abbott reserves the right to do when she defends the concept of a homogeneous and, to that extent, exclusive ‘black community’. As soon as you set up the concept of a ‘black community’, as a distinct and separate sub-group within a mainly ‘white’ society, you are yourself perpetuating racial divisions, and creating the conditions for racial ‘divide and rule’. This is the most fundamental ‘racism’ and racial divisiveness of all: the very division of the ‘human race’ into racial sub-categories. Ms Abbott and her critics ironically share the desire for this division (the categorial division between black and white) to be perpetuated, and woe betide anyone who seeks to be a white woman in a black skin, or a black youth in a white skin (like the ‘feral’ white youths attacked by Professor David Starkey last summer) or, even more radically, someone who seeks to negate racial and ethnic-cultural antinomies altogether in the manner in which they lead their lives and conduct their relationships!

Ms Abbott’s personal tragedy, if that is not too strong a word, is that she has internalised this most fundamental form of racial divide and rule: she is a white woman in a black skin, who speaks like a white woman (both accent and content), and yet also wishes to speak for the ‘black community’. The lesson of yesterday’s furore appears to be that, in the British establishment at least, you can’t have it both ways.

English parliament

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1 January 2012

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

I remember with fondness a TV ad from a few years back (but I genuinely can’t remember the product it was advertising!) in which a small girl was asked by a schoolteacher, “What is the capital of England?” The girl pondered for a minute and said “E”. This humorous episode was followed by another in similar vein, in which a boy wondered if the sea was caused by someone leaving the tap running.

These are two images which, in retrospect, seem apt metaphors for our present-day national, financial and EU crises. These days, London scarcely feels like a capital of an entity that might be called ‘England’ or even the ‘United Kingdom’. A capital of international capital it certainly is, however; and David Cameron has scored multiple opinion-poll points in seeking to insulate the City from the impending Euro deluge. This is not so much defending the ‘national interest’ as insuring that our national interest rate remains at a level where we can go on borrowing from the City to pay back the City: keeping ourselves just about afloat (or keeping just ourselves afloat) as the Continent slips below the waterline of a euro debt caused by someone conveniently forgetting to turn off the tap of lending.

London and the UK as a whole do indeed seem to have taken on the character of an “offshore centre taking capital away from the rest of Europe”, as President Sarkozy is reported to have said to David Cameron at the summit meeting of 8/9 December. But have London and the UK also lost their moorings in any sort of grounded reality that one might know as ‘England’; let alone in the financial and political reality of a looming euro and EU meltdown?

Notwithstanding the disconnect between the City and the real (English) national interest, Europhile media and politicians have generally taken the view that David Cameron’s ‘veto’ of an as yet non-existent treaty was driven by and spoke to an ‘English’ point of view. Commentators have referred to an upsurge of ‘English nationalism’ in right-wing Tory ranks and have castigated the ‘Little Englander’ thinking behind resurgent euroscepticism. In so doing, they forget the original use of the term ‘Little Englander’, during the Second Boer War, to refer to people who were opposed to the very imperialist British-nationalist attitudes for which europhiles now criticise eurosceptics.

One example of this sort of critique is a recent article by David Marquand, who is a former chief advisor to Roy Jenkins when he was the President of the European Commission. Marquand characterises the resurgent post-summit euroscepticism as a peculiarly English, rather than British, phenomenon, arguing that it has been transformed from ‘scepticism’ to ‘phobia’: a visceral, in-the-gut reaction of hostility rather than rational, constructive-critical engagement. Marquand compares this ‘English’ europhobia with the supposedly more europhile and euro-integrationist sentiment prevalent in Scotland and Wales. And yet, despite the fact that Scottish and Welsh nationalists have for decades invoked the promise of closer ties with Brussels and the EU as a whole as one of their strongest arguments for separation from England, Marquand still feels entitled to blame English europhobia for potentially driving the Scots and the Welsh out of the UK.. And Marquand’s stance also ignores the evidence from opinion polls that Scots are just as eurosceptic as the English, if not more so: one recent ComRes survey found that 41% of Scots polled would vote for full withdrawal from the EU in a referendum on the issue, compared with between 35% and 40% in different parts of England.

Speaking as a genuine English nationalist, I view the misrepresentation of Tory euroscepticism as an English-nationalist position with a combination of bemusement and dismay. For example, Brian Walker writing in the Slugger O’Toole blog – normally a fairly rational voice of Northern Irish unionism – uncritically reproduces this (anti-)English-nationalist meme when he says: “The Financial Times (£) is alone today among UK national papers in spotting how the English nationalism of extreme Tory eurosceptics feeds Scottish separatism”. Walker goes on to quote Phillip Stephens from the same FT article: “Much of the Conservative party now speaks the language of English nationalism – driven to fury by Europe and increasingly driven out by the voters from Britain’s Celtic fringes”. In a later article, the same Brian Walker wonders why “the English political class . . . are less interested in the future of the British Union than the European one?”.

I wonder who Brian Walker regards as constituting the ‘English political class’. I wasn’t aware that such an entity existed. And no, Messrs Walker and Stephens, the Conservative Party precisely does NOT speak the language of English nationalism: Conservative politicians neither refer to nor speak in the name of ‘England’, nor do they talk of the ‘English national interest’; they talk only of ‘standing up for Britain’ and the ‘British national interest’. ‘England’ is banished from the discourse of the British polity in every way, other than as one of the choicest terms of insult in the dictionary; e.g. ‘Little Englander’ itself.

It is, however, true that Tory euroscepticism articulates a certain English attitude towards the EU project, albeit that the sentiment is articulated in ‘British’ terms. As Gareth Young pointed out in Our Kingdomearlier this month, a recent YouGov survey suggested that those who identify preferentially as English (as opposed to British) are more likely to be hostile to the UK’s membership of the EU. There is undoubtedly an insular streak in the English character, which veers towards isolationism in moments of national and European crisis. And there was more than a hint of the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain spirit in the England-based, UK popular press’s account of the Cameron veto moment – the Sun, for instance, depicting the PM in the guise of Churchill holding up a cigar-less ‘V’ sign, as if to say, ‘FU to the FU (Fiscal Union): we survived on our own through the dark days at the start of the War, so we can withstand the euro meltdown and German fiscal neo-imperialism by looking after our own interests now, too’.


This is ‘English’ nationalism, yes, but it’s English British nationalism: the British nationalism that appeals to those English people who still make little distinction between England and Britain, and view Britain / the United Kingdom as providing the strongest guarantee of England’s freedoms, security and prosperity. This attitude is perhaps worthy of the designation ‘little englander’ nationalism in the pejorative sense in which it is used nowadays; but we should write it with a lower-case ‘e’ to differentiate it from Little Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the correct, historical sense of the term as reclaimed by contemporary English nationalists.

The little-englander (lower-case) mentality embodies a petty-minded pursuit of national-British economic self-interest, viewed as being best served by making Britain, and in particular London, a ‘safe haven’ of supposedly sound finance (i.e. somewhere for debt-business as usual), removed from the euro shipwreck: London as the capital of capital if not of England. This would in fact more aptly be termed ‘Little Britisher’ nationalism – at least if we are to pay any heed whatsoever to the actual terms in which it articulates itself.

By contrast, Little-Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the true sense would be more aptly described as embodying a ‘Big Englander’ perspective. Domestically, Big-E nationalism is primarily a political project embodying the aspiration for England to be free to govern its own affairs. This means freedom from the UK state, and from the global corporatism and finance it has bought and borrowed into, just as much as it means freedom from real or imagined subservience to the EU. So yes, in this sense, real English nationalists – as opposed to Tory eurosceptics / europhobes inappropriately tarred with that brush – would in a sense not care, or perhaps care only relatively, if the UK’s departure from the EU were to bring about a break-up of the Union. But this is only because English self-governance is the primary goal, and if it takes either the UK’s departure from the EU or the break-up of the UK, or both, to achieve that aim, then so be it. But English self-rule is far from being the primary goal, or a publicly articulated goal in any case, of Tory eurosceptics – although one suspects that many of that breed would indeed privately not be overly concerned about the UK breaking up if it meant the Tories could exercise virtually perpetual control over English affairs, which is in fact far from being an inevitable or even likely consequence of English devolution or independence, whatever English-nationalists’ detractors might say.

In the international perspective, I think that Big E nationalism, in my conception of it, is consistent with more constructive engagement with the EU than the little-englander / Little-Britisher mentality exemplified by Cameron’s cowardly flight into the ‘British national interest’. An autonomous, confident England is and could be a big player on the European stage. Indeed, it is arguable that what the EU is missing in its present moment of crisis is leadership and support from England as a great European nation, which has been prepared in the past to stand by Europe and come to its rescue in its hour of need just as much as it has taken refuge from Europe in times of peril: the Dunkirk moment turning out ultimately to be a prelude to the Normandy landings. Now as then, the destinies and freedoms of England and Europe are intertwined, and we cannot mount a sustainable defence of England’s national interest in isolation from Europe.

What form would a more constructive, statesman-like, Big-Englander engagement towards the EU and response to the euro crisis have taken at the summit and in its wake? Certainly, a great leader like Churchill, conscious that now was the moment to demonstrate the greatness of the English nation in the face of a crisis threatening the prosperity and security of the whole continent of which England is a part, would engage positively and forcefully in negotiations with his European partners – and not run out of the room brandishing, well, nothing: not even the ultimately worthless agreement that a Chamberlain brought back from Munich in 1938.

We may disagree that the present treaty proposed by the Germans is up to the job of saving the euro, or even that saving the euro – at least in its present form – is worth doing at all. But then we should at least stay the course and press what I will insist on calling the English case, whatever that might have been if England had actually been at the table, and set out an English plan for saving the eurozone economies from their impending shipwreck. But if we want to shape the solution, we also have to be willing to be part of it: if we want to be an influential European power, playing a leading role in creating Europe’s economic and political future, then we have also to assume the responsibilities that go with it, and put our own economic security and national interests on the line for the greater good from which we can ultimately only benefit in terms of economic opportunity and political stature among our European partners.

The ‘we’ I am referring to here is England: to be a big player in Europe, we need (England) to be a big nation. Britain cannot be that big nation, because it fundamentally is not a nation, either ontologically (i.e. in terms of its self-identity) or politically. England is the big nation at the heart of Britain; but the British state and establishment has expunged England from its conception of itself, and is therefore no longer able or willing to act as the political expression of the English nation that it once was. Britain has become a de-anglicised, empty shell whose mission and purpose have narrowed down to an almost idolatrous pursuit of wealth for its own sake and to defence of ‘its’ short-term financial interests, which are fundamentally identified with those of the City of London and of corporate finance.

I’m not sure what we, as England, would or could have thrown into the negotiation with our European partners if we had been present at the table. Maybe we could have proposed that the Bank of England stand alongside the European Central Bank (ECB) to guarantee the outstanding sovereign debt of EU states, on the condition that the ECB start acting like a true reserve bank and be prepared to print money if necessary to prevent a total meltdown of the banking system and the euro. This would be a huge risk, but imagine the leverage and status this would give to England among her EU partners, including the power to drive a hard bargain and insist that other EU countries implement the so-called ‘fiscal prudence’ that the coalition government has made its hallmark! Plus it would mean that England would provide an invaluable counterweight to Germany and provide reassurance to smaller European nations that their democratic freedoms would not be mortgaged to German fiscal and EU political domination.

But no such reassurance has been received. England was not present at the table, only a mean-spirited and cowardly Britain whose ‘leader’ – unworthy though he was of that title – could think only of placating his friends in the City and his stroppier colleagues in Parliament, and of avoiding anything that might put either the UK’s financial credibility or his own political credibility at risk. Heaven forbid that Cameron should concede that the UK might have to make sacrifices to help its European friends, out of enlightened – as opposed to narrow – self-interest, and that the British people might have to be given the opportunity to approve or disapprove of yet another EU treaty, at the risk that the government’s view might be resoundingly defeated! If capital – financial and political – was to be made out of rejecting further European integration, even if this was being undertaken primarily out of desperation to save the eurozone economy, then Cameron was the man to make it!

This is not Little Englander nationalism. This is bigoted, Little-Britisher, short-termist self-interest. England was not at the party: either the European or the Conservative one! A true Little-Englander response would have been ‘Big E’ in both senses: England acting big, as a great nation, towards that other ‘E’ – Europe – which is bigger than merely the EU and the euro but risks being dragged down by their looming demise. England is a European nation, and its destiny is tied up with Europe. It’s the Little-Britishers, on the other hand, that are holding on to their imperial dreams of global (financial) domination and sailing off into the small-e ether of their financial petty-mindedness.

We needed capital E nationalism, not little e (and €) capitalism.


 

English parliament

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