What the Diane Abbott metastorm was really about

Let's call this what it is. It's pretending.

It's not easy being white. Apart from the power, control, jobs and everything, it's a pretty tough life. Every now and then, people make sweeping generalisations about us, as white people, and we're going to have to pretend to be offended, even though we've never really suffered the wrong end of prejudice in our lives.

With the best will in the world, if you're not white, you don't know just how hard that is to fake.

People have told me there was a Twitterstorm about yesterday's comments from Diane Abbott MP. I didn't see such a thing unfolding before me, but then that might be because I don't follow people on Twitter who make a career out of pretending to be upset by things that haven't actually upset them.

I saw a storm about a storm -- a metastorm, maybe. What I have found is a few of the same old faces saying that this was racism, because they decided it was, and ooh wouldn't the lefties have been having kittens if it was the other way around?

Let's call this what it is. It's pretending. It's not genuinely being offended. It's artifice, completely made up in order to get a bit of publicity for people's vexatiously contrarian columns and to get their godawful faces on television.

If you're genuinely wounded by Diane Abbott's comments, I pity you. You're beyond saving. It's a wonder we white people manage to stay in control of everything in the world ever if we're so bloody sensitive -- we should be sitting in a cupboard crying all day about what the nasty lady said about us.

But it's not genuine hurt; it's the sensing of a mistake by a political rival, and the careful depiction of a representation of what these woeful human beings think being offended actually is, in order to capitalise on that.

Those of us on the left who enjoy the physically challenging combination of handwringing and self-flagellation might speculate that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Abbott's tweet, one simply shouldn't generalise about race, or anything like that. Well, as a general rule, that is probably the case. It wasn't the brightest thing for an elected official to say.

However, as far as the miserable, inane, dumbed-down wreck of a political discussion that was the Abbott saga this week, it just goes to show how we still can't be grown-up when talking about issues such as race and racism. A single tweet from an MP, and kaboom -- it's enough to get the same old faces whooping and hollering the same old garbage, the same old lies.

"If it had been the other way around," is the general thrust of these arguments. Well if it had been the other way around, it would have been the other way around. If it had been the other way around, everything would have had to have been the other way around. We would have to be living in a country where black people dominated and white people didn't; where black people had all the jobs but spectacularly untalented black columnists would be writing about how unfair it was, somehow.

As well as all that, you have to suspect that if it had been the other way around, the same faces so outraged and appalled by Abbott's comments would be finding ways to justify what had been said, to claim that it wasn't really all bad.

All this comes in a week when we've been seeing the horribly real consequences of actual racism, with two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence having been brought to justice. This pointless charade about Abbott would be a tacky sideshow at the best of times; in the context of seeing what real racism does, it's even more pathetic.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear