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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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The government has quietly shut the door on vulnerable child refugees

The government has tried to halt the Dubs Amendment, a scheme designed to save thousands of vulnerable child refugees.  

The "Dubs Amendment" to the Immigration Bill of last year, in which the government begrudgingly promised to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from other countries in Europe, was halted this month after only 350 children had been admitted.

It has since become absolutely clear that the government is wriggling out of its obligation to accept child refugees, shutting the door on the most vulnerable. 

The amendment was named after my Labour colleague in the House of Lords. Alfred Dubs, who grew up in Britain and was saved from the hands of the German Nazi regime by Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children virtually single-handedly from Czechoslovakia.

The decision – announced at a time when the media was mainly concentrating on Brexit - has since been the source of much outcry both within Parliament and beyond. People across Britain are clear that the government must end these efforts to prevent refugees arriving here, and this is not who we as a society are.

Labour simply cannot accept the government’s decision, which seems to breach the spirit of the law passed with cross-party support. I have challenged Home Secretary Amber Rudd on the issue. 

The government's actions have also been criticised by Yvette Cooper, who heads Labour’s refugee task force and the Home Affairs select committee, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who called it “a clear dereliction of the UK’s moral and global duty”. 

Then at the recent Bafta awards, a number of those in attendance including the actor Viggo Mortensen, also wore lapel badges reading “Dubs now”.

And we have seen more than 200 high-profile public figures including Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightley, Sir Mark Rylance, Gary Lineker, Michael Morpurgo and the band Coldplay write to Theresa May calling on her government not to close the scheme, decrying the decision as “truly shameful” and adding that “the country we know and love is better than this". 

As the letter states, it is embarrassing, that this government cannot match even Winton’s total. As his own daughter put it in her letter to the Prime Minister, “I know we can’t take in every unaccompanied child in Europe, but I suppose there was a sense when the government accepted the Dubs Amendment that they would make a bigger contribution than they have.”

We need to be clear that where safe and legal routes are blocked for these children, they are left with a terrible choice between train tracks on the one hand, and people traffickers on the other. These children have been identified as the most vulnerable in the world, including girls without parents, who are susceptible to sex traffickers.

The government’s decision is particularly disappointing in that we know that many local authorities across Britain, which assume responsibility for the children once they are admitted to the country, are willing to accept more refugees.

Yet the public outcry shows we can still force a change.

Interestingly, former Conservative minister Nicky Morgan has argued that: “Britain has always been a global, outward-facing country as well as being compassionate to those who need our help most. The Conservative party now needs to demonstrate that combination in our approach to issues such as the Dubs children.”

Let’s keep the pressure up on this vital issue. The internationally agreed principles and the Dubs Amendment were never conceived as a “one-off” - they should continue to commit to meeting their international treaty obligations and our own laws.

And on our part, Labour commits to meeting the obligations of the Dubs Amendment. We will restore the scheme and accept some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.