David Starkey, who clashed with Owen Jones on Newsnight.
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Owen Jones: After Newsnight, David Starkey tries to rewrite history

Whatever David Starkey says, his Newsnight comments that "the whites have become black" were grossly inflammatory.

I'm in two minds about returning to "Starkeygate". The Tudor historian's comments on that episode of Newsnight were, from where I was sitting, so blatantly racially inflammatory (close friends instantly recognised my genuinely stunned expression when his diatribe began) that I was astonished that anyone would even attempt to defend him. Some did - largely by minimising his racism, unlike the white supremacists who have since filled my inbox with hate-filled bile ("you're a traitor to the white race", etc, etc).

David Starkey also enjoys the attention: I was warned beforehand that he loves to provoke controversy for the sake of it (this is a man who once called Scotland "a feeble little country"). His love of publicity is clear in his first article (in the Daily Telegraph) since Dreda Say Mitchell and I were ambushed with his ignorant bigotry in a BBC studio: he clearly relishes the fact that Ed Miliband joined the chorus of disgust at what he calls his "now-infamous opinions".

But as a historian, Starkey must surely object to attempts to revise the past, and that's why his self-justification in the Telegraph piece needs a response. Starkey is outraged that Miliband slammed him for making "racist comments", and then gives a few examples of what he said - without mentioning the key offending lines. But even his selective quotes distort what he said: "This sort of black male [gang] culture militates against education." Hold on a minute - can he really get away with inserting "gang" into that sentence - a word he did not use at the time in the studio and the inclusion of which completely transforms the meaning of what was said?

Starkey may be a bigot, but he is not stupid. He must surely understand why Miliband and others accused him of racism. On Newsnight, he argued that "the whites have become black". Funnily enough, he makes no mention of this in his article. Given we were discussing why people had become rioters and looters, this was a straightforward equation of being black and violent disorder. By becoming involved in the August riots, the white participants had somehow become black.

But in any case, as a historian, Starkey is aware that white people do not need to "become black" to become gangsters - the Kray brothers remaining the country's most famous examples. As for riots, they've taken place long before they were any significant numbers of non-white faces appeared on British soil - and that includes the Tudor period that Starkey specialises in. If we're just going to talk about riots in the post-war period, Starkey is surely aware of the 1958 Notting Hill riots, when groups made up of mostly young white men attacked black residents.

He had further suggested that, were you to listen to David Lammy - "an archetypal successful black man" - "you would think he was white". Again, this led to an obvious interpretation: to sound respectable was to sound white. In his article, Starkey attempts a convoluted defence: that the likes of Lammy and Diane Abbott "have merged effortlessly into what continues to be a largely white elite" and, in doing so, had lost "much of their credibility with blacks on the streets and in the ghettos". Of course, this raises other questions as to why Starkey thinks he's any authority on the attitude of black Britons towards prominent black politicians - but the bottom line is that none of this was mentioned in the studio.

And, of course, he began by suggesting a partial vindication of Enoch Powell, a politician who had argued that mass immigration would bring violent chaos to Britain's streets (a prophecy discredited by history). Powell was "absolutely wrong" about "inter-communal" violence, Starkey conceded. But the implication was that immigration had indeed brought disorder to Britain's streets - but by the unforeseen means of black people colonising white people with their culture. It was a means of scapegoating black people for riots that had involved people of all races. Starkey's friends apparently unanimously believe quoting Powell was an error. That's an understatement: putting the "Rivers of blood" speech on the political agenda at a time when people were angry and scared in the post-riot aftermath was outright dangerous.

Starkey lays the blame on "gangsta culture" in his piece. If he had done that in the studio, he would have been wrong, but it would have been an argument at least worth debating. But he was talking about black people and black culture more broadly.

His defenders have similarly misconstrued what he said: Toby Young argued that he "wasn't talking about black culture in general", but only a "sub-culture associated with a small minority of people of African-Caribbean heritage." Again, not what he said, and even Young was forced to admit "he could have made this clearer." My one-time sparring partner James Delingpole seems to imply I helped set the whole thing up: "it was a trap", he argued. I had apparently decided to add black people to my list of oppressed groups to take "perpetual umbrage and righteous rage on behalf of". The reality was both Dreda and I were taken unawares by a bigoted outburst, and had no choice but to respond. Perhaps more bizarrely was Howard Jacobson's argument that I had taken part in a "mugging"; I was a "baby-faced assassin", apparently - not a guest subjected to a series of outrageous comments who could barely get a word in edgeways. So, I should probably clarify that I did not compel Starkey to make racist generalisations.

Perhaps the only remotely thought-provoking element of Starkey's Telegraph piece is the suggestion, with white working-class culture facing a "systematic attack over several decades", the vacuum has been filled "with the values of 'gangsta' culture". But, to Starkey, to even listen to hip hop was to be part of "gangsta culture" ("do you glorify rap?", was a Brass Eye-style question he put to me). We know that there is a link between deprivation and gangs; it is this, not owning hip-hop CDs, that drives gangsterism.

We still need a debate about what caused these riots: and about the growing numbers of young people who feel they have no future to put at risk (not least in a country where over one in five 18-24 year olds are out of work and education). But racist comments by the likes of Starkey have no role in that debate. And - let's be clear - however Starkey and his allies twist what he said, his comments were racist. So let's not let the historian rewrite history.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class"

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times