[Content note: references to racial violence and rape]
Welcome to a world where Diane Abbott stumbles to say what David Lammy states fearlessly. Where The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh did what Ed Miliband couldn’t. James O’Brien elegantly provided an open door but leading political figures declined the offer. Contrary to what appeared to many as obvious, Cameron and Miliband chose to denounce the sin but not the sinner. Ed Miliband went as far to defend Farage as “not a racist”.
To castigate Miliband for failing to strike Farage is to miss an important point. Richard Seymour did and claims that Labour’s base doesn’t respond well to racism. On this point, I think Miliband has got a better appreciation of public opinion. Farage unlike Miliband is popular if not the most popular party leader among a large and potentially election defining constituency, older working class semi-skilled men. Whether Farage is racist or not, he appears to be a vote-winner. So from the only view that Ed is interested in, the strategic electoral one, it would be political suicide close to election day to upset Farage. Miliband’s generosity to UKIP’s leader is a result of this calculation. What I want to examine is how can Farage be portrayed as “not-racist” and what makes his brand of xenophobia apparently unassailable? By doing so I hope to reveal what “racism” means in Britain today and how popular culture and therefore political power has been shaped by it.
Redefining the Boundaries of Racism
To the credit of anti-racist movements from the previous century, the label “racist” has become a powerful social death grip. Once that label is firmly attached to anyone or anything they or it becomes irredeemable. This victory came at a cost, as Adam Elliott-Cooper excellently argued Anti-racism has been reduced to a politically correct exercise. In 1999, the Macpherson report officially accepted institutional racism as a social phenomenon which operates in organisations as structures of oppression discriminating against racialised groups. Blair’s government largely ignored the concept in public debate and limited it as a problem specific and unique to the Police. Structural racism established by the State remained a taboo seldom discussed outside academic circles.
The State’s response to racism mirrored its treatment to non-lethal drink-driving, an issue of morality not power. As the drink-driver would be offered re-education or state punishment, the proven bigot would be offered either diversity training or imprisonment. Liberals then regarded the issue near-fixed as New Labour were reforming British culture through state managed multiculturalism. A lesser considered rationale was that the normal governance of British society and its ill-gotten resources is dependent upon structural discrimination for maintaining its current distribution of wealth and power.
The public conception of racism as a thing which only exists as an individual belief is useful in at least two ways. First, this individualist definition only requires an anti-racist person and, by extension, society to enact their opposition to racism through disavowal and scorn towards anyone who publicly displays unambiguous racist opinions. Secondly, it diverts attention from power structures and thus gave space for the State to further extend its power to oppress racialised communities and individuals. This is what led Labour to being cloaked as progressive and “anti-racist” while building Europe’s biggest immigrant detention centre and locking up unprecedented numbers of refugee children.
This dictionary definition which the Sun used to attack Farage depicts racism as a personal judgement not a collective power structure. On this basis, racism is only effectively challenged by stopping individual bias which is proven to exist in the individual’s mind. So the BNP and now UKIP are defeated by “exposing” the personal beliefs of their leader as opposed to what policies and structures they want the State to impose. So long as the Prime Minister, or other leading officials haven’t revealed any bigotry, their actions cannot be deemed racist even if it produces racially biased outcomes. The powers of the State or their office may be misused by rogue individuals but are fundamentally out-of-scope in analysing racist behaviour or effects in society.
How Immigration Became a “Not-Racist” Issue
In 2004, with an election looming Teflon Tony was starting to lose his shine, an unpopular war in Iraq and growing social inequality after seven years of Labour’s macroeconomic policies. A flexible labour market coupled with the strictest labour laws in Europe meant for millions economic insecurity on irregular poverty paying jobs. A shrinking welfare system targeting “benefit cheats” and an influx of pliable and well-educated migrant labour compounded anxiety among working class voters.
Thus Michael Howard’s ill-fated attempt to unseat Tony Blair, took social and economic concerns and situated with in the context of newly expanded freedom of movement, this replaced the critique of Labour’s economic structural reform, which the Conservatives approved of. Lynton Crosby, the 2005 and 2015 Conservatives Campaign Manager broached immigration debate in terms which was widely criticised as a “dog-whistle” strategy. His direction led to billboards draped across Britain declaring ” it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and underscored with the cryptic campaign slogan: “Are you thinking what we are thinking?”
The Conservatives failed for a variety of reasons but this particular campaign strategy could now retrospectively be criticised not because it was racist but for not being explicitly racist enough. Rather than challenging the “middle-class metropolitan privately educated elites” that Blair represented, it conceded too much by simply being apologetic and not being blunt. Nevertheless the seed had been sown into the public consciousness, you could complain about the presence of Polish migrants and Eastern Europeans and it was OK, after all they were white so, went the theory, it couldn’t be racist.
When Nick Griffin Became “Not Racist”
It is a well-worn trope that whenever an odious public individual makes a “gaffe”, the mainstream media plays the politically incorrect “GOTCHA” game where the person has to profusely apologise and disavow the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler. Like all rituals, over time, its efficacy had waned and became viewed with tiresome cynicism. Public discourse had turned into questioning if the accused *really* harboured unambiguous racist beliefs? Could it be they merely misspoke out of tiredness? Failed to update their old-fashioned vocabulary? Or were they bravely just trying to be “honest”? The once all-powerful label of “racist” became less so and increasingly unreliable. If the label didn’t stick or the attacked isn’t popularly conceived as such, then the accuser is portrayed as cynical, morally bankrupt and trying to silence “legitimate” debate.
In 2006, Nick Griffin deployed this ambiguity with great success during his trial and subsequent re-trial in Leeds, after being recorded by an undercover BBC journalist calling Islam, a “wicked, vicious faith”. Griffin said he had nothing against Asian people but as a Qur’an scholar he was making cultural and “religious criticism”. His beliefs were not according to the jurors unambiguously racist, therefore Nick Griffin freshly acquitted from race hate crimes, declared neither he nor the British National Party “could be described as racist”. The electoral mould of “insurgent outsiders”, willing to tell the truth that the liberal media wouldn’t dare to, had been set. With a favourable economic and political climate, the BNP made progress in ways that Howard’s Conservatives didn’t, unabashedly blaming African migrants for housing shortages and immigrant labour on reducing job access, pay and conditions. They with fellow travellers in tabloid media cultivated a sense of unique white working class victim-hood. It wasn’t migrants’ skin colour, it was their culture which was the problem.
From 2006 to 2009 the BNP went on to win a large number of councillors in largely Labour held councils. The peak moment was at the European Elections of 2009 when Griffin and Andrew Brons became elected as Members of European Parliament. The English public had spoken, it was official, the BNP were not racist, they were vocalising the concerns of the disregarded white working class. Stephen Lennon aka Tommy Robinson picked up the baton on this later. However what crystallised in the public conception of what should pass as “not-racist” comment was typified by a chance encounter Gordon Brown had during an election trail.
The Legacy of the “Bigoted Woman” Slur
The seed sown by Howard’s Conservatives germinated five years later with the event centred on the perfectly ordinary form of a pensioner-aged woman called Gillian Duffy. Duffy, a life-long Labour supporter, was dismayed that her concerns about Eastern European immigration could be described as bigoted. Ed Miliband who was the chief author of the 2010 Labour manifesto will remember that audio clip being played, the shock on Mrs Duffy’s face and the grovelling Brown had to perform for days afterwards. It was a fatal mistake which cast Labour once again as the out-of-touch, metropolitan elite that didn’t understand working class people and their interests.
Brown who in 2007 utilised the BNP slogan “British Jobs for British Workers”, was now calling a working class woman “bigoted”. Whether he was right or being hypocritical was besides the point, the message was read that Immigration had become a taboo subject and none of the ruling political class was being honest about it. Racism was no longer a problem in “multicultural Britain” but a bogeyman to silence dissenters. Issues of Immigration and Nationality became the province of Border Security. So it became “not-racist” to manage the movements of foreign nationals using biometric data. It was not racist to put asylum seekers on vouchers instead of cash benefits. It wasn’t racist to lock up predominately Muslim men for up to 42 days without charge. It wasn’t racist to ape Australia’s immigration point based system for non-Europeans. On the contrary it was too little, too late.
A Modern British and European Value
Nigel Farage is riding a bubble created by persistent discontent and distrust with mainstream politics. Britain doesn’t like its racism deployed in blunt terms, which is why xenophobic language of immaterial and ill-defined “anxiety” is much more palatable. Xenophobia is a word seldom used in modern Britain, it has become imperceivable as it is the background music that sets the rhythms of everyday life. From the creation of the UK Border Agency to the unopposed Immigration Bill 2014, governments led by Labour and Conservative have managed a liberal authoritarian state. This is while liberal anti-racists perpetuate the myth that the State is essentially “anti-racist” and that UKIP represents a new external racist paradigm.
In truth, all political parties seek to continue a nightmarish system that covers up therepeated rape of women migrants on our supposed behalf. A State that spends time and effort to popularise traditional racist slogans such as “Go Home”. UKIP cannot be denounced by the established parties when UKIP’s popularity rests on intensifying a political and social consensus created by Labour and Conservatives. This consensus can accurately described as British ethnic and cultural superiority. Many people are rightly embittered by an economic order that has laid waste to their towns which was once industrial heartlands. Over a generation, it has become clear that traditional loyalties are redundant when each successive government are complicit in their impoverishment and committed to maintaining it. So whether in building Fortress Europe or Fort Britain, politicians and media commentators happily swap economic anxiety for a cultural one. Miliband like all of Europe’s aspiring political leaders cannot admit to recognising systemic oppression or the attitudes that lead to it. Political expediency and capturing power relies on their wilful blindness even as the tide washes in the piles of black bodies subjugated by it.