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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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A glossary of football’s most hackneyed phrases – and what they mean

This is the time of the season when we all get tired. Time to break out the cliches.

This is the time of the season when we all get tired. The players, poor petals, are exhausted. The refs have had enough of being shouted at. The hot-dog sellers are running out of hot dogs. And the TV commentators, bless ’em, are running out of clichés. So, between now and the end, look out for the following tired old phrases, well-worn adjectives and hackneyed descriptions, and do feel sorry for them. They know not what they are doing.

It will go right to the wire. In the case of the Prem, this isn’t even true. Leicester are as good as there. It is only true of the Championship, where three teams – Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton – are on 87 points each, with the fourth team miles away. Now that will go to the wire. The phrase comes from those pre-war reporters in the US who telegraphed their copy. When it didn’t get through, or they’d never filed it, being too lazy or too drunk, they would blame the technology and say, “It’s down to the wire.”

Dead men walking. This is when the pundits decide to hold a seance in the studio, taking advantage of Alan Shearer having sent us all to sleep. It also refers to Pellegrini of Man City and Hiddink of Chelsea. They have known for ages they’re dead parrots, not long for this life, with their successors lined up even while their bodies are still warm. I think a moment of silence is called for. “Dead men walking” refers only to football. Must not be used in connection with other activities, such as media. When someone is sacked on a newspaper, they immediately get sent home on gardening leave, just in case they manage to introduce a spot of subversion into the classified ads, such as: “Five underpants carefully kept; make up; red dungarees; offers considered, Kent.” (The first letters of each word give it away, tee hee.)

World class. The number-one phrase when they can’t think of any other synonyms for what was quite good. As well as goals, you now hear of world-class throw-ins, world-class goal kicks, world-class haircuts
and world-class pies in the press room at half-time, yum yum.

He’s got a hell of a left peg. That’s because he borrowed it from his mam when she was hanging out the washing.

He’s got it in his locker. The fool. Why did he leave his left peg there? No wonder he keeps falling over.

And the sub is stripped off, ready to come on. So it’s naked football now, is it?

Old-fashioned defending. There’s a whole lexicon to describe brutal tackles in which the defender kicks someone up in the air, straight to A&E.

Doing the dirty work/putting himself about/an agricultural tackle/left his calling card. Alternative clichés that every commentator has in his locker for when yet another world-class, manic, nasty, desperate physical assault is committed by a player at Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich, currently scared shitless about going down and losing their three Bentleys.

Opened up his body. This is when an operation takes place on the field, such as open-heart surgery, to work out whether any Aston Villa player has got one. OK – it is, in fact, one of the weary commentator’s nicer compliments. He can’t actually describe what the striker did, as it was so quick, so clever, and he totally missed it, but he must have done something with his body, surely. Which isn’t even correct, either. You shoot with your feet.

Very much so. This is a period phrase, as popularised by Sir Alf Ramsey. He got it into his head he must talk proper, sound solemn, or at least like a trade union leader of the times, so instead of saying “yes” he would say “very much so”. It’s having a comeback. Listen to Glen Hoddle – I guarantee that between now and the end of the season he’ll say it ten times, whenever someone has interrupted and he wants to get back to the aperçu he was about to share with us.

Most unpredictable Premier season ever. Or so Sky is telling us, on the hour, meaning “since last season”, which was the most unpredictable one since, er, the season before that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism