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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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Morning after pill: It's time to say no to the "ultimate sexist surcharge"

A new campaign aims to put pressure on the government to reduce the cost of emergency contraception.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service recently launched its Just Say Non! campaign to highlight the fact that British women pay up to five times more for emergency contraception than women on the continent. The justification for the UK price of up to £30 – and the mandatory consultation with a pharmacist – is that otherwise British women might use the morning-after pill as a regular method of contraception. After all, you know what us ladies are like. Give us any form of meaningful control over our reproductive lives and before you know it we’re knocking back those emergency pills just for the nausea and irregular bleeding highs.

Since BPAS announced the campaign on Tuesday, there has been much hand-wringing over whether or not it is a good idea. The Daily Mail quotes family policy researcher Patricia Morgan, who claims that “it will just encourage casual sex and a general lack of responsibility,” while Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, which promotes what it calls "traditional values", fears that “there is a very real danger that [emergency contraception] could be misused or overused.”  

The Department of Health has indicated that it has no intention of changing current policy: “We are clear it is only for use in emergencies and we have no plans to change the system.” But why not? What is the worst that could happen? Wells argues that: “The health risks to women who use the morning-after pill repeatedly over a period of time are not known.” This may be true. But do you know what is known? The health risks to women who get pregnant. Pregnancy kills hundreds of women every single day. There are no hypotheticals here.  

The current understanding of risk in relation to contraception and abortion is distorted by a complete failure to factor in the physical, psychological and financial risk posed by pregnancy itself. It is as though choosing not to be pregnant is an act of self-indulgence, akin to refusing to do the washing up or blowing one’s first pay packet on a pair of ridiculous shoes. It’s something a woman does to “feel liberated” without truly understanding the negative consequences, hence she must be protected from herself. Casually downing pills in order to get out of something as trivial as a pregnancy? What next?

Being pregnant – gestating a new life – is not some neutral alternative to risking life and limb by taking the morning-after pill. On the contrary, while the UK maternal mortality rate of 9 per 100,000 live births is low compared to the global rate of 216, pregnant women are at increased risk of male violence and conditions such as depression, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and hyperemesis. And even if one dismisses the possible risks, one has to account for the inevitabilities. Taking a pregnancy to term will have a significant impact on a woman’s mind and body for the rest of her life. There is no way around this. Refusing to support easy access to emergency contraception because it strikes you as an imperfect solution to the problem of accidental pregnancy seems to me rather like refusing to vote for the less evil candidate in a US presidential election because you’d rather not have either of them. When it comes to relative damage, pregnancy is Donald Trump.

There is only a short window in a woman’s menstrual cycle when she is at her most fertile, hence a contraceptive failure will not always lead to a pregnancy. Knowing this, many women will feel that paying £30 to avoid something which, in all probability, is not going to happen is simply unjustifiable. I’ve bought emergency contraception while conscious that, either because I was breastfeeding or very close to my period, I’d have been highly unlikely to conceive. If that money had been earmarked to spend on the gas bill or food for my children, I might have risked an unwanted pregnancy instead. This would not have been an irrational choice, but it is one that no woman should have to make.

Because it is always women who have to make these decisions. Male bodies do not suffer the consequences of contraceptive failure, yet we are not supposed to say this is unfair. After all, human reproduction is natural and nature is meant to be objective. One group of people is at risk of unwanted pregnancy, another group isn’t. That’s life, right? Might as well argue that it is unfair for the sky to be blue and not pink. But it is not human reproduction itself that is unfair; it is our chosen response to it. Just because one class of people can perform a type of labour which another class cannot, it does not follow that the latter has no option but to exploit the former. And let’s be clear: the gatekeeping that surrounds access to abortion and emergency contraception is a form of exploitation. It removes ownership of reproductive labour from the people who perform it.

No man’s sperm is so precious and sacred that a woman should have to pay £30 to reduce the chances of it leaving her with an unwanted pregnancy. On the contrary, the male sex owes an immeasurable debt to the female sex for the fact that we continue with any pregnancies at all. I don’t expect this debt to be paid off any time soon, but cheap emergency contraception would be a start. Instead we are going backwards.

This year’s NHS report on Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in England states both that the number of emergency contraception items provided for free by SRH services has “fallen steadily over the last ten years” and that the likelihood of a woman being provided with emergency contraception “will be influenced by the availability of such services in their area of residence.” With significant cuts being made to spending on contraception and sexual health services, it is unjustifiable for the Department of Health to continue using the excuse that the morning-after pill can, theoretically, be obtained for free. One cannot simultaneously argue in favour of a pricing policy specifically aimed at being a deterrent then claim there is no real deterrent at all.

BPAS chief executive Anne Furedi is right to call the price of Levonelle “the ultimate sexist surcharge.” It not only tells women our reproductive work has no value, but it insists that we pay for the privilege of not having to perform it. It’s time we started saying no

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.