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Owen Jones faces David Starkey on Newsnight: It was like Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the Newsnight studio last night, says Owen Jones. But I was stunned by his comments.

Where to begin with David Starkey? Having spoken to friends and seen the response on Twitter, it's clear that many were left speechless at his racially inflammatory tirade on Newsnight. I can more than empathise: it was one of those moments when what is said so extreme, it is initially difficult to compute.

Let's be clear: what David Starkey said was not just offensive, it was downright dangerous. His initial suggestion that Enoch Powell had been vindicated -- "The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent, they wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham" - would, in isolation, be outrageous enough.

Powell predicted that mass immigration would bring turmoil to Britain's streets. It was a prophecy that proved unfounded. We are far less racist a society than we were in the 1950s, when a large majority objected to interracial relationships. But Starkey knew there would be a newly receptive audience in the post-riot aftermath.

 

His championing of Powell was eclipsed by his subsequent comments. In offering an explanation for last week's violence, Starkey claimed that "the problem is that the whites have become black". His theory was that white kids had become infected by black culture, and this had led them to violence and disorder. A prominent black politician like David Lammy, on the other hand, sounded "white". For Starkey, being white meant being "respectable"; being black meant "violence".

There is strong competition for the lowest point of Starkey's rant -- but when he embarked on an impression of a "patwa" accent, I could barely believe what I was watching. It was Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge.

Some would argue that it's not worth even engaging with such apparent bigotry, but -- uncomfortable as it may make many of us -- his arguments will have resonated with many. We have to take them on.

His point that hip-hop culture transforms white kids into gangsters was an assertion grounded in prejudice, not fact (indeed, I challenged him -- as a historian -- to justify his sweeping assertions with evidence). I grew up sharing a room with a brother who was obsessed with hip-hop. I hope he doesn't mind me saying it, but he's about as far from "gangster" as it's possible to be.

Anti-social behaviour is real, and should never be dismissed by the left. It is far more common in poorer communities. When I went to Ashington -- once the biggest mining village in the world, since devastated by the closure of the pits -- I heard a number of stories about teenage anti-social behaviour.

But the point made eloquently to me by residents was that young people, who had grown up with all the frustrations and boredom of poverty, felt they had little future to look forward to. That's a reality in communities across the country - and, though no excuse, no wonder a small number respond by making other people's lives a misery.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation completed an extensive study into gangs: I doubt Starkey has read it. It found that there was a strong link between "territorial behaviour" and poorer communities. Gangs could provide some young people with fun, excitement and support they otherwise lacked. It "appeared for some to be a product of deprivation, a lack of opportunities and attractive activities, limited aspirations and an expression of identity", as well as a "coping mechanism" for those living in poverty.

It's nothing to do with ethnicity, in other words. It's to do with poverty.

As for riots -- well, Starkey has found an all-too-convenient way of blaming black people for riots that involved people from a whole range of ethnic backgrounds. Even if the looters weren't black, they had somehow "become" black.

Now, I'm intrigued that Starkey has such a unique in-depth knowledge of the cultural interests of those who took part in the violence. But let's deal with the facts that have emerged.

Of those who have appeared in court, the vast majority are men, aged under 24, and out of work. The riots took place in some of the poorest communities in Britain -- like Hackney and Tottenham. This was a tiny slither of Britain's burgeoning young, jobless poor: indeed, one in five young people are out of work. That isn't to justify their behaviour, any more than to state that a lack of affordable housing and good jobs has fuelled the rise of the BNP is to justify Nick Griffin's racist cabal. But, if a tiny proportion of those who feel they have no future to risk respond by rioting and looting, that is enough to bring chaos to Britain's streets.

Other commentators have looked to other explanations: Britain's hyper-consumerism, where our status has so much to do with what we possess; and a profound inequality in British society, not least in London where the richest 10 per cent are 273 times better off than the bottom 10 per cent.

Now that peace has returned to our communities, we have time to think through these explanations. But my fear is that -- with an understandable backlash underway -- Starkey's comments could prove to be a disastrous turning point. He has put race at the top of the agenda when millions are scared and angry. As some took to the streets in support of Enoch Powell's "river of blood", there will be whispers across the country "that Starkey has a point".

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the studio -- difficult though that was. At a time of backlash and economic insecurity, we all need to be taking these arguments on in our communities. If we fail, last week's riots could be a dark foreshadow of far worse to come.

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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