Friday, January 06, 2012

Stephen Lawrence, contrarianism and right-wing anti-elitism

After I finished writing my first thoughts on the Stephen Lawrence verdict last night, I read two articles which gave me pause for thought. One, entitled "Stephen Lawrence and the politics of race", is by David Goodhart in Prospect; the other is "This isn’t justice – it’s politics" by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked. The two articles are very similar to each other, and have some similarities to my post, which is what gave me pause for thought, so in this post I intend to set out why I am not saying the same thing as them.

Both writers make some very good points in their articles. O’Neill makes a similar, but stronger, complaint to mine about the attenuated anti-racism of the post-Macpherson:

In short, courtesy of Macpherson, the problem of racism came to be divorced from questions of power and ideology, and started to be seen as a weird behavioural trait among thoughtless individuals, which was in need of urgent excision. Indeed, one of the key concepts promoted by Macpherson was the idea of ‘unwitting racism’ – the notion that people often discriminate ‘through unwitting prejudice [or] thoughtlessness’. Here, racism is reduced to a form of bad manners, an unthinking uncouthness, something ingrained in us without us necessarily knowing it. Such an historic rewriting of the concept of racism allowed the better-educated sections of society to pose as the guardians of racial etiquette. 
Goodhart and O’Neill both, like me, decry the stereotyping of the white working class by what both of them, like me, called the liberal elite. O’Neill even quotes the same (excellent) Roger Hewitt book I recommended, White Backlash: “As one author argued, ‘journalistic expressions of hostility towards “racist thugs” dovetailed well with The Sunday Times’ return to the issue of the British underclass’, while the Guardian could pursue its metropolitan crusade against ill-educated Brits through the Lawrence prism.”

However, Goodhart and O’Neill on one level accept these stereotypes. O’Neill remembers the same insulting Mirror article I did, but mistakenly says Norris grew up on the council estate to which the reporters descended. Similarly, Goodhart writes:
Already by the early 1990s Britain was becoming more relaxed about racial difference and overt racism was becoming rarer, though not as rare as it is today. But there were certain places, like the working class suburbs of south London, and certain institutions, like the police force, where the liberal tolerance of metropolitan Britain was not embraced. That is probably still true today
But how true is the generalisation that the working class suburbs of south London did not embrace liberal tolerance? It is probably partly true in relation to 1993, but overstates the case, given that there was a substantial black community in Eltham by the 1990s. (Read Sunder Katwala on living in on Well Hall Road then.) It is completely untrue now, as Goodhart would know if he spent time in the area.

And how true is it that the killers were creatures of white working class suburbs? Although the Brook Estate is often mentioned in reports about the killers (usually preceded by the callous word “notorious”), David Norris, son of a wealthy gangster, actually grew up in privilege in a mock Tudor mansion in Chislehurst. I think Dobson also lived on one of the smarter streets in Eltham. Probably, in fact, it is the middle class suburbs that are most hostile to liberal tolerance. (As Sunder says in his recollections of the period, "Eltham was pretty white, by London standards, certainly by contrast with Plumstead and Woolwich, though not markedly more so than posh Blackheath a couple of miles up the road.")

Another point Goodhart makes is that the case has contributed to an “excessive racialisation of the public domain” and a racial grievance culture. This might partly be true, and the Diane Abbot twitter storm in a teacup illustrates it well. But it is also the case that some racisms remain utterly acceptable. While terms like “nigger” and “paki” have been eliminated from the public domain, partly due to the liberal trend the Macpherson report was part of, but insults about “pikies” and “bogus asylum seekers” are completely commonplace, as are racism against Eastern Europeans and Muslims.

And if Goodhart and O’Neill are partly right in seeing the Lawrence campaign as part of a grievance culture and as taken up for the wrong reasons by metropolitan elites, this is only half the story. The heart of the campaign was the Lawrence family itself, supported by the wider (overwhelmingly working class) black communities that rallied to them long before the Daily Mail did. Is it not possible that the sentencing this week was both a victory for justice and (surely less importantly) for certain elites, rather than claiming it was the triumph of the latter at the expense of the former?

Goodhart also argues that the case has helped create a white grievance culture too, once again associating this with the working class (and not just the suburbs now):
This is not because many people in Eltham sympathise with the obviously extreme and anti-social behaviour of Gary Dobson and David Norris. But there is a widespread feeling that the whole area, perhaps the whole culture of white working class south London, has been traduced as dumb, violent and racist throughout the Lawrence story.
Again, Goodhart gets it partly right here. But the grievance is also fed by well-off members of the chattering classes, like Goodhart, telling them that they ought to have a grievance.

Boris Johnson, for example, described the police as victims in the case, and wrote a series of articles for the Telegraph and Spectator from 1999 to 2002, undermining the Lawrence family and casting and the Macpherson report as a left-wing witchhunt against the establishment and police: “It is an article of faith on the Left that those five, seen on video engaging in racist rants, were guilty, and that only police incompetence failed to nab them.” The likes of Johnson, Goodhart and O’Neill encourage and sustain grievance culture at a local level.

But who are Goodhart and O’Neill to pronounce on these issues anyway?

Goodhart is a formerly centre-left journalist who edited Prospect, which became known for its excellent quality writing and "contrarian" dissent from centre-left received wisdom. For example, Goodhart, along with Trevor Phillips, was one of the leading centre-left voices of the early noughties "death of multiculturalism" meme. Prospect also regularly published the Stoddardian/Spenglerian racial eclipse fantasies of David Coleman, the intellectual guru of MigrationWatch

O'Neill, editor of Spiked, is another ex-leftist, part of the shadowy cult once known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, who now writes for the Conservative broadsheet the Telegraph. A fine writer, he claims a "contrarian" mantle, using his columns to attack "well-off liberal commentators", "the sisterhood" of "cliquish and pious feminists" and other such targets. A number of RCP cult members have written for Prospect too, such as the brilliant Munira Mirza, who guest edited a 2010 feature on the failures of multiculturalism. Mirza is an advisor to Boris Johnson and wife of a David Cameron speech-writer.

Spiked and Prospect have both provided a huge amount of the intellectual substance for the David Cameron project (Cameron himself, and his closest allies, being distinctly lacking in substance): setting out a plausible "muscular liberal" critique of multicultural failure, which Cameron has adopted; a harsh numbers-based restrictionist agenda on immigration, which helped him carry the 2010 TV debates; a curmudgeonly libertarian critique of health and safety legislation and other forms of "nannying" regulation, which gave him cover for dismantling much consumer and worker protection; skepticism about climate change and other ecological issues, which has excused the complete lack of green action from a government claiming to be the greenest ever; and so on. 

In particular, in the one surviving remnant of their former leftism, Prospect and especially Spiked have made their interventions in the name of a supposed working class constituency and articulated it as an attack on the elite. The word “elite” occurs 16 times in O’Neill’s short article: “new political elites”, “the cultural elite”, “the authoritarian elite”, as well as “the chattering classes”. Goodhart talks about “minority-friendly elite liberalism” and “middle class liberals whose lives had not been changed at all” (as if Goodhart’s life has been particularly affected by the demographic changes of the last decades, or as if he knows what it’s like to live on the Brook Estate)*.

This apparent anti-elitism and claim to speak for the benighted sons and daughters of toil is particularly useful for a Tory government led by some of the poshest people to rule the country in several decades.

These writers claim to have some privileged access to the souls of the proletariat. Maybe some (such as Mirza) come from working class backgrounds. But if the term "elite" means anything, they are surely part of it. Mirza graduated from Masfield College, Oxford; David Goodhart was educated at Eton; David Coleman is an Oxford fellow. They have sinecures paid for by public money, write for influential publications, advise prime ministers and mayors – and yet they deride leftism for being the politics of the elite.

O’Neill argues that: “Having occurred at an historic moment when the working classes were losing their political clout, and when the elites were becoming ever more estranged from the masses, [the Lawrence case] became the perfect tool for elite expressions of both fear of and pity for the mob.” However, the politics O’Neill and Goodhart prescribe offers no political clout to the working classes. It offers no solutions to the everyday problems on the Brook Estate. It merely offers targets for blame: the immigrants and the elites.

And their “contrarian” anti-elitism lets off the hook the real elites – the financial elites, the parliamentarians, the old Etonians, the Oxbridge cabinet ministers, the businessmen – who actually make the decisions that make the difference to everyday life on the Brook Estate.



*I know nothing about David Goodhart’s private life or upbringing; apologies in advance if I am wrong.

Previously: No-one like us, we don't care
Further reading: Sunder Katwala "Why we will remember Stephen Lawrence";  Roger Hewitt "Young Racist and White"; Nick Jeffrey "The sharp edge of Stephen's city [pdf]"; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown "To craft a new society"/"Imagining New Britain [pdf]"; Paul Thomas "Youth work, racist behaviour and young people Education or blame? [pdf]"
Listen again: Roger Hewitt on Thinking Allowed.
Books: White Backlash: and the Politics of Multiculturalism; and Routes of Racism.

2 comments:

damon said...

This article lost me right at the end. It was quite informative up untill then.
With even the Daily Star joining in and calling for the heads of the rest of the racist killers from the gang, and Mrs Lawrence being in close contact with Operation Black Vote, Lee Jasper and Jesse Jackson etc, I think the Spiked people are right to take a ''contrarian'' view to this mainstream political grouping.
It's the same ''No Justice- No Peace'' movement which sparked off the rioting in Tottenham. Which claims the police are ''always racist'' - so much so that the BPA was until recently still recommending that BME people didn't join the Met.

Will said...

the police are always racist. they are also scum