Vote for Little Britain?

Simon Hooper visits Haltemprice and Howden where David Davis has forced a by-election on civil liber

It's not hard finding David Davis. There he is as I drive through Willerby, standing outside his campaign headquarters, taking advantage of a sunny break between the early morning Yorkshire showers to do his first television interview of the day.

A few minutes later, having warmly greeted the day's visiting Conservative bigwigs, former shadow cabinet colleagues George Osborne and Michael Gove, Davis can barely be restrained from his electorate any longer.

"Howden team this way!" he cries as he strides out of the door, sleeves already rolled up and displaying commendable eagerness for the frontine leafleting and door-stepping that is the main business of by-election canvassing.

This of course has been no ordinary by-election. Since Davis resigned from parliament and the Conservative front bench on 12 June to launch his one-man crusade for civil liberties, he has been both ridiculed as an eccentric political stuntman and feted as that rarest of beasts, a principled independent thinker uncowed by the Westminster spin machine.

With less than two days left of the campaign, both arguments still hold and neither the electorate here in Haltemprice and Howden nor the media seem able to make up their minds which David Davis they prefer.

In many ways, Davis has made his point already. Having attracted a broad spectrum of support from the likes of Tony Benn, Bob Geldof, Martin Bell, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Shami Chakrabarti – who have all ventured north in solidarity with his cause – Davis pretty much won the argument when Labour declined to stand a candidate against him over the issue of 42 days.

Catching up with him later in the day in Howden's picturesque market square, he concedes disappointment that Labour failed to rise to his challenge. "The Prime Minister tells us it's vital to national security and yet they won't defend it? It's pathetic and cowardly, both morally, intellectually and politically," Davis tells newstatesman.com.

But the big battle now, as Davis admits, is turnout – something which may well determine whether he returns to Westminster with his heavyweight reputation enhanced or eroded. This campaign has had the feel of an American primary with issues of national importance being discussed at a local level, something that Davis himself has encouraged. "They are being asked to speak for Britain. This is a referendum," he says.

Yet many on the street express bemusement and reluctance at their involuntary conscription as foot soldiers in the fight for civil liberties. Davis admits that some have not cared for the subtleties of the 42-day debate, equating "terrorist suspects" with "terrorists".

Some say they are more concerned by economic issues and express disapproval at the costs of an "unnecessary" by-election.

And others are just plain rude. "I don't care what he thinks or what he does," says a man in a Howden cafe. "I think he's a dickhead."

Davis' cause has not been aided either by the vapour trail of candidates running in his wake – a 25-strong list ranging from serious-minded opponents such as the Greens' Shan Oakes, the anti-rape campaigner Jill Saward and political reformers such as David Pinder of the New Party to Miss Great Britain, the Monster Raving Looney Party and the Church of the Militant Elvis Party.

Then there is David Icke, whose supporters accuse Davis of banning their candidate from public events and seem to have set out to ambush him wherever he goes. It is an event that has rendered a rich vein of British sature from Monty Python to the League of Gentlemen largely redundant, at times feeling less like a referendum for Britain than a referendum for Little Britain.

But former independent MP Martin Bell for one believes it is a process that has strengthened politics rather than trivialised it, describing the by-election as "a little festival of democracy."

"Anybody has a right, so long as they are a citizen of good standing, to stand for the House of Commons and I think it's admirable that 25 people should do so," Bell told newstatesman.com.

"I suppose what really drives me to come up here is that here is a man who puts his principles before his career and that is so unusual in politics. I accept the fact that people are probably more exercised about the price of petrol than they are about their civil liberties but civil liberties still matter. I think David will come out of this hugely strengthened as a politician."

Bell later takes the stage alongside Davis and filmmaker Chris Atkins at a well-attended village hall event in Eastrington. It is an idyllic summer's evening amid this rolling countyside with a gentle game of cricket forming an elegiac backdrop in the late evening light.

The last Englishman to fight a battle for Anglo-Saxon liberties over this terrain was King Harold, who defeated Harald Hardrada's Viking invaders not so far from here at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Every good school boy and girl knows what happened next.

But David Davis insists he is gearing up for more battles ahead. "This by-election has lasted 10 days. We will be talking about these issues in 10 years," he tells his audience. But will those constituents turn out to back his cause on Thursday?

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.