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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.

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Scotland's next referendum will be uglier and nastier

But the sequel to 2014's Indyref may have a very different ending. 

Referendums are like buses: you wait three decades for one and then four come along at once.

That Scotland voted to stay in the European Union but England and Wales voted to leave was always going to punch that particular constitutional bruise. If Brexit does go awry, the prospect of leaving one union to rejoin – remain within – one union becomes more attractive.

Now Theresa May is braced for a second referendum on Scotland’s future, not after but during Britain’s exit talks, the Times reports.“Scotland to demand new referendum, No 10 fears” is that paper’s Ronseal splash. The story is already making itself felt on the currency markets, with sterling down yet further against the dollar at time of writing.

The PM’s options aren’t good. Although notionally the right to hold a referendum is power reserved to Westminster, the prospect of the elected government at Holyrood asking for another only to be refused by the Tory in London is the worst thing that could happen to the Union since, well, Brexit. In any case, there is nothing to stop the SNP holding a non-binding, Scotland-wide consultative poll, putting further pressure on the constitutional settlement between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Let’s say she decides that the best thing to do is go ahead with the contest. A lot has changed since 2014 and the No side's victory. Back then, Ruth Davidson said that a Conservative victory in 2015 was not “likely” and one of Better Together’s key themes was that a Yes vote would put Scotland’s EU membership at risk.

Now all the signs point towards a Tory victory that effectively rules out the chances of a Labour revival in 2025 as well, and Scotland’s EU membership is gone.

Then there’s the Irish dimension. Northern Ireland and Scotland’s constitutional affairs are not the same but in any referendum held during the European talks, the unionist side will have to explain why they are talking up the prospect of a open border between the North and the Republic while warning against a hard border between England and Scotland. What’s good for peace in Northern Ireland and for maintaining that bit of the United Kingdom is not good for the other.

That’s before you get to the questions of who would lead it: Labour are unlikely to want to get back on that particular train and in any case are not the force they were in 2014, to put it mildly, while a No campaign headed by a Tory feels like Nicola Sturgeon’s dream.

But equally it’s not as easy as it looks for the SNP. A second No campaign would go hard on difficult questions about EU budget rules, the Euro, and exports to the rest of the UK. In addition, questions about pensions (at risk) and immigration (likely higher than now) would all be weaponised in ways they weren’t before. Indy Ref 2: Indier Reffier would be an uglier affair than the contest that came before. Those Yessers to the SNP’s left are less inclined to fall in line with the big beast of the Yes side, too.

All in all, it would be a harder and more grueling contest for both sides. Which isn’t to say that the SNP’s chances wouldn’t still be significantly higher.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.