No, Farage, the protesters weren't anti-English, they were anti-UKIP

It's right-wing bigotry that the protesters are "virulently opposed" to, not "the English".

If Nigel Farage is to be believed, the protesters who forced him to abandon his planned press conference at a pub in Edinburgh yesterday, were Scottish nationalists "virulently opposed to the English". In an interview on the Today programme this morning, he challenged Alex Salmond to "come out and condemn this sort of behaviour", declaring that "they were all campaigners for independence, they were all people who vote SNP. They were all united by a hatred of the English, the union jack and everything the UK represents."

But while it's politically convenient for Farage to dismiss the protesters as nationalist bigots, you will search in vain for any evidence to support his claim. Those who disrupted the press conference shouted "racist", "scum" and "homophobe", words which suggest that the protest had more to do with UKIP's opposition to gay marriage and its anti-immigration policies than it did with Farage's nationality. For one thing, if SNP supporters are motivated by anti-Englishness, why aren't Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians mobbed whenever they set foot in Scotland? 

Rather than naïvely accepting Farage's characterisation of the protesters, (as some anti-independence Labourites have done), it seems reasonable to let them speak for themselves. 

John Martin, the president of the Edinburgh College Students' Association, said: "We organised yesterday's protest against Farage out of a belief that UKIP's policies are fundamentally rotten. Their headline five-year immigration freeze is not only completely disconnected from reality, but is a policy that neither the people of Scotland nor the rest of the United Kingdom would stomach. His regressive and repugnant ideology is not far removed from that of the BNP - just dressed in a better-fitting suit."

A spokesman for the Radical Independence Campaign said: "This was about challenging someone whose party has been spouting racist, sexist and homophobic bile and gone unchallenged for months. Everyone who opposes the politics of fear and division should unite against UKIP - whether you live in Scotland or England."

Farage's insistence, against all evidence to the contrary, that the protesters were united by a hatred of the English (a significant number were English) is amusingly at odds with the line adopted by his own party's spokesman yesterday: "Was it anti-English? I doubt it." 

In another interview, on Good Morning Scotland, Farage insisted: "The anger, the hatred, the shouting, the snarling, the swearing was all linked in to a desire for the Union Jack to be burnt." Note the peculiar phrasing: a "desire" for the Union Jack to be burnt. If the protesters loathe the English as much as Farage suggests what was stopping them setting light to the flag there and then?

One protester did invite the UKIP leader to "shove your union jack up your arse", but this stray quip hardly summed up the spirit of the demonstration (nor was it obviously anti-English). 

The protesters may have been foolish to greet Farage as they did (yesterday's events were a political gift to UKIP), but anti-English they were not. 

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage addresses the media in central London on May 3, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Reuters
Show Hide image

Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder