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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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My latest Brexit worry? What will happen to our footballers

My week, from why we should “keep on running” to mansplaining in the Commons.

It’s a funny old game, politics. Just when you think you’ve got your head round the myriad consequences of the Brexit vote, yet another one springs to mind. This week, I stumbled upon another sector in which Britain leads the world that will be thrown into uncertainty by Brexit: football.

The background of this moment of clarity is that I’ve been trying to rescue a youth centre in my constituency that the council can no longer afford to run. Thankfully, the brilliant New Ferry Rangers want to take it over as their clubhouse. I tell the chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, about our plans.

In doing so, I realise that the European Union’s competition rules apply to the beautiful game, just as they do to every other business sector in the UK. In practical terms, the absence of these continental rules opens up the possibility of changes to who can play, own and broadcast our wonderful yet expensive national game.

“Will Bosman still apply?” a colleague asks me with relish, referring to the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling that allows EU footballers to transfer easily from one club to another. Who knows? Who knows who knows?

 

Three lions on the shirt

The football dilemma is a microcosm of the wider immigration issue. Some imagine that by barring foreign talent from our shores, we will advantage British-born players. If fewer foreigners are allowed to play and English lads get more playing time in the Premier League, perhaps leaving the EU might result in the long-wished-for success for the England national team?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. If you don’t have the skills to play alongside the best in the world, you probably don’t have the skills to beat the best in the world. As the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga have shown, there is no incompatibility in allowing league teams to source great players from around the world and still having your home-grown stars come together to win international tournaments.

The most important intervention is to enable your people to develop the skills that they need to compete. This is as true for football as it is for everything else.

 

Hammond’s gilt trip

It’s Treasury questions in the House of Commons this week, and I want to ask about the cost of British government debt, which dwarfs even the monstrous levels of cash in modern football. It is a bitter irony that, following the global financial crisis that helped the Tories win the 2010 general election, the slow-burn economic crisis that the party has since brought about with David Cameron’s botched referendum has received scant attention. (Particularly in comparison with the Westminster lobby’s anxiety about Labour’s record on debt and the deficit.)

British debt owned by foreign investors has now breached the high-water mark of £500bn, its highest-ever level. As the value of sterling tumbles, we can only wonder what risks may lie ahead, as our creditors watch the value of these investments fall.

The Chancellor responds to me by explaining how gilts work. He doesn’t answer my question at all, however, leaving us all to wonder what horrors the Budget in March might bring. It’s a lovely reminder that I am not immune to mansplaining, even in the House of Commons, and that we call it “parliamentary questions” and not “parliamentary answers”.

It’s also a demonstration of how little economic policymaking is going on. The great nation of John Maynard Keynes, the inventor of global economic institutions that have steadied the world, is now reduced to skulking around Europe, seeking an embarrassing exit from the union that cemented his postwar peace settlement. Once, we led in Europe. Now we follow as the hard right barks its orders.

 

Trading down

Listening to Theresa May’s Brexit speech later on Tuesday, my heart sinks again. She puts paid to the idea that we might stay in the single market. Reducing immigration is her life’s work, apparently. It is a grave error and one that must be resisted. The biggest challenge to our country is not that people are prepared to come to work here and pay their taxes here. New Britons deserve our respect.

 

A sporting chance

On Wednesday, I meet the Speaker to discuss the ongoing work to build on the legacy of our friend Jo Cox.

Through these hard days, I am reminded constantly of two things. First, the words of her brilliant husband, Brendan, who said that we will fight the hate that killed her. Jo never gave up on a monumental challenge, and all our kids need us not to lose heart now. Second, that my experience of Jo was that she focused on the challenge ahead and never wallowed. She was the best of us, and I wish I were more like her.

One thing that Jo and I had in common was that we took part in the annual House of Commons tug of war. Unlike the Premier League, we women of the political world cannot boast world-beating talent in our sport. But we demonstrate the spirit of This Girl Can, Sport England’s campaign to empower women in their sporting endeavours (which returns to our screens soon).

 

Making tracks

While we wrestle in politics with the horrific events that happened last year and the risks ahead, I am trying to demonstrate the This Girl Can spirit and keep up with my physical activity. I would love to be better at football, the sport I adore, but there are not that many opportunities to play, given the parliamentary timetable. So I get up early for a jog along the Thames and tell myself that going slowly is faster than never going at all. Without a doubt, for progressives right now, “Keep on Running” is our theme tune.

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South (Labour)

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era