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Why do white working class people turn to the far right?

Hsiao-Hung Pai's Angry White People asks what draws people to organisations such as the English Defence League - and finds a long-felt disaffection.

In an attempt to identify the roots of the sympathies in the UK for the far-right movement, Hsiao-Hung Pai has gone out and spoken to many “angry white people”. She has visited some of the British towns most badly ravaged economically in recent decades, several of whose populations have changed rapidly as a result of immigration. In the course of her journey, most strikingly in Luton – where the English Defence League (EDL) was founded in 2009 – Hsiao-Hung finds not only anger among residents at their present predicament, but also resentment and fear.

This book is a timely one, coming as it does after a few months when Europe has shown itself increasingly intolerant of immigrants. People fleeing the conflict in Syria have been turned away from a cluster of Balkan countries. Meanwhile, in Germany, which has admitted over a million refugees in the past year alone, the movement known as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) continues to grow in prominence.

It is reductive to dismiss every concern about immigration as racist. Many of the worries voiced in Angry White People come from self-employed British workers who find their rates undercut by foreign professionals who can afford to charge far less for their labour. Yet it is also notable that the EDL, the main focus of Hsiao-Hung’s investigation, does have a significant racist element. And as the British National Party is in sharp decline, with only a few hundred members left, the emergence of the EDL is of particular interest.

Tommy Robinson (born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) left the EDL in 2013, citing his disappointment that the group he had founded was falling prey to far-right extremism. Given his previous pronouncements, however, this was as disingenuous as setting fire to one’s own curtains and then complaining that the lounge is burning. Robinson tells Hsiao-Hung that the grooming of children for sexual abuse is “specifically Muslim . . . It is a Muslim problem,” glossing over child abuse in the Catholic Church. It is Robinson’s selectiveness that makes his prejudice so dangerous. It is entirely legitimate to be concerned about the violence wreaked by religious supremacists such as those who murdered the British soldier Lee Rigby in a London street. The problem comes when this murderous ideology is ascribed to a whole group of people.

Robinson has more recently joined forces with PEGIDA, a movement with a far larger platform than the EDL. It seems that Robinson, rather than retracting his earlier positions, was merely seeking a bigger stage to promote them.

Hsiao-Hung skilfully draws out the sense of abandonment by mainstream politicians that has led some people to support the EDL and others to favour the UK Independence Party. Although Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, has often made pronouncements that can reasonably be construed as discriminatory, his party still won almost four million votes in the 2015 general election. One reason for this is expressed by Martin, a forklift driver who, since being laid off by Ford in August 2013, has barely been able to find work. “I’ve always been Labour, I’m a working-class man,” he tells Hsiao-Hung.

“But since Tony Blair’s New Labour, I became fed up with them . . . It’s not a working-class party any more. The Tories are for the rich, and the Liberals would sleep with anyone, we’ve got no one. Ukip’s offering a solution at the moment. I’m not saying they could run the country. But they’re saying what needs to be said.”

Hsiao-Hung’s work could form a useful basis for policy formation. A big issue is the lack of a satisfactory minimum wage in the UK, which allows unscrupulous employers to exploit cheap labour. (Farage, incidentally, has been opposed to this practice.) The author also highlights the scant investment in facilities for young people. On a visit to Luton, she notes that “the lack of venues for social education is the one thing that every parent seems to talk about here”.

Some might argue that these observations are not particularly new, and that it is this long-felt disaffection with the political elite that is building much of the momentum behind candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States. Yet the facts are no less powerful for being restated, and Hsiao-Hung does that very well here. If the book has any shortcomings, it is in paying insufficient attention to the role of Anjem Choudary, so often Robinson’s sparring partner in the media. Hsiao-Hung interviews Choudary, whose work with the Islamist group al-Muhajiroun has been described by the anti-racist Hope Not Hate as “a gateway to terrorism”. It would have been helpful if she had taken him more firmly to task on this score, but she seems largely to accept his line that his efforts exist solely in response to the ills of British foreign policy. Choudary’s trial on charges of promoting Islamic State suggests that there is far more to his views than that.

The most crucial perspective in the book is arguably that of Darren, who was key to the formation of the EDL but was then horrified to be called a racist when he protested with the league in Birmingham. Darren, who marched against the National Front several years ago, has latterly become far more critical of EDL activities. (Although the league has seemingly been marginalised since Tommy Robinson’s departure, its underlying philosophy remains prominent; one of the men whom Hsiao-Hung interviews – a Ukip voter – observes: “Ukip’s just EDL with briefcases.”) If the advance of the far right is to be reversed, it is Darren’s viewpoint, by turns downcast and optimistic, that must be considered most carefully by politicians, journalists and society at large. “They [white, working-class people] are not overnight racists . . . They’re good, hard-working people,” Darren says. “These splinter groups are capitalising on the one in ten. Working-class communities got it really hard, you know. Most people are still trying to hold on to what is right.”

Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face With the British Far Right by Hsiao-Hung Pai is published by Zed Books (384pp, £12.99)

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.