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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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