So Diane Abbot got involved in a conversation about race relations in the UK and said something overly simplistic and stupid in a Tweet: “white people love playing “divide and rule”. We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism”. Cue Twitterstorm and screeds of outraged commentary from the right and a ridiculous over-reaction from a Labour Party leadership (Ed Miliband phones her in the middle of a TV interview) that is increasingly terrified of race as an issue[i].
Of course you can argue that a politician should be aware that everything they say can be ripped from its context and used to batter them to death (Mitt Romney’s outrageous misquoting of Obama in a recent attack ad proves that) and (as David Norris discovered when his campaign for the Irish presidency imploded when the press dug up a ten-year-old interview of him discussing pederasty in Ancient Greece) an academic, philosophical or historical context is little use as a defence. Certainly Abbot – who has been through all this before with the “Loony Labour” witch hunts of the 1980s – probably should have known better and been aware that she needs to be circumspect about everything she says, in whatever medium. There have long been elements of the press who will stop at nothing to smear anyone from the left of centre as extremists even if they are, as Abbot claimed, talking about 19th Century colonialism.
Nor will it matter that the point that Abbot was making is more or less right (divide and rule was, after all, the basic principle upon which British imperial power was maintained from Ireland to Africa, Palestine and through to the Indian sub-continent) and that if she’d replaced the words “white people” with “imperialists” or “the establishment” no one would have batted an eyelid or disagreed with her statement, even though all those imperialists and establishment figures are, y’know, white people.
There’s something sickening about journalists on The Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph suddenly leaping up and down and screaming about being the victims of racism (exemplified, in all its bluff moral outrage, by this blog by the odious Toby Young) when they are so often silent on or dismissive of real instances of racism, institutional or otherwise[ii]. The day after the long-overdue sentencing of the killers of Stephen Lawrence – a case that laid bare how deep racism runs in British society – listening to the maunderings of poor little white boys about how they are suffering discrimination makes me want to wretch (see this column at Conservativehome who were significantly less outraged by Conservative MP Aidan Burley’s recent Nazi-themed party in France).
But there’s a broader point here.
While Abbot’s remarks may have been an (avoidable and foreseeable) misjudgement they do reveal a fundamental concern about how narrow the space for political debate has become in our society. There is no room where people can engage in serious discussion or be discursive about policy. Every utterance[iii] is scrutinised from all conceivable angles to identify signs of deviation from the norm, from party programmes or from a narrowly defined (and increasingly conservative) moral code. Any suggestion of the irregular, eccentric or aberrant is pounced upon and exploited, feeding whirlwinds of faux self-righteous outrage that whip away any remotely intelligent points and takes with them the prospect for reasoned discussion of the issue at hand.
This is bad for our society and for our political order. There is no sense in which anyone in the Abbot farce (and many, many others like it) are engaging in a serious discussion about race or racism. This is name-calling and score-settling and we can no longer afford to have the political debate shut down by the shrill voices of a rent-a-crowd who are poised to spill forth torrents of plastic indignation at the slightest provocation or opportunity for narrow advantage.
We are facing extraordinary challenges – financial, political, environmental and social – which will require us to develop policy solutions that come from outside the narrow confines of our current political mainstream. Unless there is space in the political discourse for people to speak freely, offer ideas that challenge preconceptions and to say outrageous and (occasionally) even stupid things then we have no prospect of meeting those challenges.
[i] The supposed distance between Labour’s policy in government and views of “the working class” (as represented by the bigoted outbursts of the red tops and the Daily Mail) on the issue of immigration (and, therefore, by frequent but spurious extension, race) has become a tool that the right both in the Labour Party and beyond are determined to use to discredit liberal policies. The idea that because fair and decent policies are unpopular they should be abandoned is wrong. The Labour Party (and those reformers whose efforts to make the world better predate and exist alongside it) exists to challenge the common sense opinions that are taken for granted – on the votes for women, the legalisation of homosexuality, the repeal of the death penalty and countless other issues.
[ii] For all that often disagree with her, no one can deny the courage and long-term commitment of Diane Abbot in the fight against racism.
[iii] Especially statements made by Labour politicians who belong to a party that is faced with a highly critical and aggressive press corps. The stress of decades spent looking down the barrel of the guns aimed at them by journalists have served to make the political debate in the Labour movement dysfunctional bordering on the psychotic.