I've changed my mind. Let the EDL march

I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. A willingness to show compassion and understanding to friend and foe alike.

I possess none of these qualities. The world is black and white. I am right, you are wrong. If you are my opponent I must crush, not merely beat you.

That is how I have always conducted my politics. It has not been wholly successful. But it has got me as far as this web site, so I must have done something right.

None of us, though, have a monopoly on wisdom. Nor are our life choices set in stone. Occasionally one should listen to the views of others. Turn over a new leaf. Reach out.

You may have read in other places my criticism of the English Defence League [EDL]. I have used harsh, even coarse language against them. Most recently I have insisted their boots should not set foot on the streets of Tower Hamlets, and been critical of those who have adopted a different stance.

Here, today, I would like to make amends. I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism, and those others who, on a point of principle, have spoken out for their right to free assembly and protest.

Let us compromise. Why don't we put aside our differences, and find a middle path.

Here is my offering. The EDL should be allowed to march. But with pre-conditions. One or two safeguards that will enable those of us who have been sceptical of their methods and motives to be reassured of their good faith.

My first offer is this. The EDL can demonstrate. But with a commitment that for the 24 hours proceeding and following their protest, none of those participating consumes alcohol. Not a drop. None of those strange alcopop type drinks favoured by EDL leader Tommy Robinson. Not even a small dry sherry. Abstinence is the price they should pay to demonstrate their passion for freedom of expression and the rule of law. Oh, and they should agree to be breath tested in advance of the march. Not that I don't trust the boys you understand. But as I said, it's a sign of good faith.

If this seems too draconian, I have a second offer. Again, they can march. But it must be in fancy dress. A certain percentage of the EDL's followers must embark on their demo wearing nun's habits. A further percentage in those weird Emu like costumes Bernie Clifton wears to run the London marathon. And so on. Oh, and there's one final control order. Tommy Robinson himself must wear a tutu. Not just a tutu, obviously. That would make him look ridiculous. And slightly obscene. He can still wear his jeans and black puffer, or his EDL hoodie. Actually, wer'e banning hoodies these days aren't we, so that's probably out.

And there you have it. The EDL nuns and emus can march proudly through streets of East London, and the rest of us can take our sandwiches and watch. The kids would love it.

Or if that doesn't work, perhaps because they can't get enough habits and tutus in such a short space of time, I have a third suggestion.

Much has been made of the fact that other marches have been proscribed by the Home Secretary. That is indeed troubling. So I propose this.

Instead of banning the marches, we merge them. The EDL, Unite Against Fascism [UAF], and East End gay pride should march together. As one. Divided by ideology, yes. But united in their commitment to free political expression.

Of course, and you knew this was coming didn't you, there's one further catch. They must hold hands. Not in one long line of solidarity. That would be impractical; Brick Lane is very narrow. But two by two.

I'd love it if we could manage boy-girl, boy-girl, but I'm not sure the EDL have enough female members. So it would have to be by group. EDL member/gay pride member, UAF supporter/EDL member, etc.

To add another nice twist, they should intersperse their chants. Though I find the regular protest chats of all three groups a bit dull. So we should spice it up a bit. The UAF should sing some rousing patriotic anthems. Land of Hope and Glory. Jerusalem of course. The odd rendition of "Five one, even Heskey scored". Meanwhile, the EDL could try a few show tunes. "I am what I am", "I'm gonn'a wash that man right out of my hair", "Gee, Officer Krupke". And Pride could have a go at some of the hits from the most recent Love Music Hate Racism gig; a bit of Captain Dale, Petrichor and Shredded Lives.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. Understanding.

You know what, it's actually quite fun. Anyone got Tommy Robinson's phone number?

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The lesson of 2016 is that identity matters – even for white people

Talking about being white American, or being religious, isn’t considered "identity politics". But that doesn't mean people don't identify with those traits.

How do white people feel about being white? It’s a difficult question. First, majority identities are rarely as deeply ingrained in our psyches as those that make us feel threatened, or different from the norm. “The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all,” Gary Younge wrote in his book Who Are We. “Those who have never been asked: ‘How do you manage childcare and work?’ or ‘How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?’ are less likely to think their masculinity or Western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.”

For most of the 20th century, to be white in Britain was to be utterly unexceptional. In many places, it still is: Worcester, where I grew up, is 92.4 per cent white. There, white people are just people.

Second, for pollsters there is a huge roadblock when it comes to surveying our attitudes to race: “social desirability bias”. Before answering the question, we do a mental check. Will this make me sound racist?

Yet we must investigate majority identities, simply because so many of those who hold them do feel under threat. The election of Donald Trump was powered by white voters who were concerned about immigration, about jobs going overseas and about becoming a minority in the US by 2045. The places in Britain with the strongest concerns about immigration are those where the demographics have changed most quickly. In Boston, Lincolnshire, where 75.6 per cent voted to leave the EU, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent between 2004 and 2014. And as I have written before, Ukip has its strongest support among those who feel “English, not British”, even though England utterly dominates the UK in terms of population.

Enter YouGov. The polling company offered to work with me on questions that would tease out attitudes to race, and asked them of 1,632 adults (online, to reduce social desirability bias to a minimum).

In total, 46 per cent thought Britain was a “Christian country”, against 35 per cent who did not. There was a split between Remain and Leave voters (only 42 per cent of the former said it was, compared to 54 per cent of the latter). The numbers grew with age, from 19 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds to 65 per cent of over-65s. There was no real class, gender or geographic divide.

The figures for whether Britain is a “white country” told a similar story: 40 per cent overall said it was, while 42 per cent said it wasn’t. Leavers were more likely to say it was, by six points, but the real split was by age (50 per cent of over-65s said it was, compared to 31 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds) and geography, with London showing the lowest level of agreement.

“It’s not as big a difference as we see in other things between Remain and Leave, which is a story in itself,” said Adam McDonnell of YouGov. He pointed to a whole range of issues, such as the death penalty, benefits and immigration, where there is now a stark “Brexit divide”. (Since the referendum, the firm has added EU referendum vote to its crossbreaks, along with age, gender and class.) One reason for the relatively small split on whiteness might be that voters often adopt the positions held by their favoured parties, “but the idea of Britain being a white country was not brought up explicitly by Leave or Remain”.

YouGov also asked respondents how important eight factors were to their identity: job, parents, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion and where they lived. The most important were parents and nationality: 88 per cent of Ukip voters said the latter was very important or quite important. Other results were more surprising. “Ethnicity is a more important part of people’s identity than religion, with 54 per cent saying it is very or fairly important,” says the researcher Chris Curtis. “Among Leave voters this rises to 65 per cent.”

Looking at the figures, it becomes apparent that older voters are much more socially conservative than Generation Z, and they have a stronger feeling that Britain is a white, Christian country. Because their turnout rates are so much higher, that matters. Any party that wants to win over older voters will need to speak to their sense of patriotism and national identity.

This course will be contentious. In the US, the academic Mark Lilla caused a storm just after the election when he called for the end of “identity liberalism”. Recognising and celebrating difference was “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age”, he argued. Reading closely, Lilla’s problem didn’t seem to be so much with the concept of identity politics as with the right being better at them. He argued that the next decade “will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny” and urged the media to “begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion”. Got that? Talking about being American, or being religious, isn’t identity politics. Only talking about being a woman, being black or being transgender is.

Unsurprisingly, many read Lilla as saying that feminists and minority activists need to pipe down, as it means white men feel neglected. I don’t agree with the prescription but the diagnosis is not absurd: even progressive men often complain to me that left-wing discourse treats them as villains.

The lesson of 2016 is that even those with majority identities now feel under threat – and, as a result, they experience those identities more keenly. And if more white people feel white, that changes politics.

YouGov surveyed 1,632 adults online from 22-23 November. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18-plus)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage