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"Divide and rule"? Diane Abbott was right, says Laurie Penny

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

Racism, as the British National Party and its neo-fascist street imitators have been arguing for years, cuts both ways. On 4 January, a black British woman MP hammered out a comment on Twitter which could, taken entirely out of context, be interpreted as a a generalisation about white people. Diane Abbott MP is now Britain's best-known racist -- in a week when the nation's top story has been the prosecution of the murder of a black teenager by a gang of white youths and the subsequent "institutional racism" that was unearthed in the handling of the case by the Metropolitan police.

But hang on, what was it that Abbott actually said? Let's have a little look at the generalisation over which the Hackney MP got a public dressing-down from her own party. Abbott said that "white people" like to play the game of "divide and rule". That's rude, isn't it? Clearly she thinks that ordinary white people like me spend the waking hours between tooth-brushing and the office dividing and ruling. It couldn't possibly be a comment on the structural imposition of power along lines of race and class, particularly not from a veteran anti-racist campaigner, and especially not in a week where institutional racism is in the news. That would just be silly.

Dorian Lynskey's comments on the matter are worth quoting at length. He points out that Abbott, who has a track record of saying the right thing in just the wrong way -- "she should have said 'white people in power' or 'certain white people'" -- was essentially on the money.

[Abbott] clarified that she was referring to 19th century colonialism when, to take just one example, the Belgians colonising modern-day Rwanda strategically favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus and sowed the seeds of attempted genocide a century later. But you don't need to go back that far. The US government's efforts to disrupt the civil rights and Black Power movements are a textbook example of divide-and-rule. It is what dominant powers do. To read her tweet as an indictment of every single white person in the world requires either paranoia or malice. Most of all it means denying that power matters.

The British right has always been allergic to any structural understanding of racial politics, and all week, the commentariat has been coming out in hives. A day before Abbottgate, a Telegraph leader wrung its hands over the profound impact of the Lawrence trial on racial awareness in British public life, complaining that "people" have "found themselves denounced for harmless, if inappropriate, remarks". Elsewhere, former Prospect editor David Goodhart wrote that:

If the Stephen Lawrence case may help to diminish a black grievance culture, it is likely to increase a white working class one . . . this is part of a broader story of how parts of white working class London, especially in the east and the south, felt that they had to accommodate the changes required by post-war immigration...and then had to endure lectures about racism from middle class liberals whose lives had not been changed at all.

The argument that the "white working class" has had anti-racist politics forced on it by "middle class liberals" is an insult to those white working-class people who have spent years, sometimes lifetimes, fighting racism in their communities. In Barking and Dagenham in 2010, thousands of the borough's residents mobilised to stop the British National Party gaining a foothold in Westminster. Goodhart's lazy generalisations play right into the language of the modern far-right: that anti-racism is itself racist, and that any gains for black people must produce equal and opposite losses for white people, in a world in which privilege and prejudice can never be fought, only redistributed.

There's a term for that tactic. The term is "divide and rule".

It's a tactic, as Abbott herself put it, "as old as colonialism" - and it's also a tactic as modern as Twitter. When those with an ideological or personal stake in defending the interests of privilege feel themselves under threat, their first line of defence is often to persuade the underprivileged that it is they who are under attack.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney defend tax-breaks for the super-rich by telling blue-collar Americans that Democrats and union workers want to cut their paycheques: divide and rule. David Cameron denounces industrial action by encouraging low-paid private sector workers to complain that the pensions public sector workers are striking to protect are higher than theirs: divide and rule. David Willetts tells unemployed men that it's all these selfish women in the workplace who have taken their jobs: divide and rule. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne, not to mention Ian Duncan Smith, defend the dismantling of the welfare state by persuading the working class that those in receipt of housing benefit are scroungers scamming the system. Divide, dismiss -- and rule.

Everywhere, the right fights public awareness of structural injustice by re-phrasing it as a personal attack by one vulnerable demographic on another. Structural injustice itself cannot be wedged into the story of neoliberalism, which reduces everything to a cloying moral syrup of personal responsibility lectures -- except where the banking sector is involved, of course.

What's missing from the story -- what's always missing -- is power. Defenders of privilege and hierarchy will do anything at all to distract attention from power, and to re-phrase attacks on power as attacks on the powerless. The chorus of faux-outrage over Abbott's tweet isn't just cynical; in a week when structural racism is in the news, it's a classic game of divide and rule.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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