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"Divide and rule"? Diane Abbott was right, says Laurie Penny

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

Racism, as the British National Party and its neo-fascist street imitators have been arguing for years, cuts both ways. On 4 January, a black British woman MP hammered out a comment on Twitter which could, taken entirely out of context, be interpreted as a a generalisation about white people. Diane Abbott MP is now Britain's best-known racist -- in a week when the nation's top story has been the prosecution of the murder of a black teenager by a gang of white youths and the subsequent "institutional racism" that was unearthed in the handling of the case by the Metropolitan police.

But hang on, what was it that Abbott actually said? Let's have a little look at the generalisation over which the Hackney MP got a public dressing-down from her own party. Abbott said that "white people" like to play the game of "divide and rule". That's rude, isn't it? Clearly she thinks that ordinary white people like me spend the waking hours between tooth-brushing and the office dividing and ruling. It couldn't possibly be a comment on the structural imposition of power along lines of race and class, particularly not from a veteran anti-racist campaigner, and especially not in a week where institutional racism is in the news. That would just be silly.

Dorian Lynskey's comments on the matter are worth quoting at length. He points out that Abbott, who has a track record of saying the right thing in just the wrong way -- "she should have said 'white people in power' or 'certain white people'" -- was essentially on the money.

[Abbott] clarified that she was referring to 19th century colonialism when, to take just one example, the Belgians colonising modern-day Rwanda strategically favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus and sowed the seeds of attempted genocide a century later. But you don't need to go back that far. The US government's efforts to disrupt the civil rights and Black Power movements are a textbook example of divide-and-rule. It is what dominant powers do. To read her tweet as an indictment of every single white person in the world requires either paranoia or malice. Most of all it means denying that power matters.

The British right has always been allergic to any structural understanding of racial politics, and all week, the commentariat has been coming out in hives. A day before Abbottgate, a Telegraph leader wrung its hands over the profound impact of the Lawrence trial on racial awareness in British public life, complaining that "people" have "found themselves denounced for harmless, if inappropriate, remarks". Elsewhere, former Prospect editor David Goodhart wrote that:

If the Stephen Lawrence case may help to diminish a black grievance culture, it is likely to increase a white working class one . . . this is part of a broader story of how parts of white working class London, especially in the east and the south, felt that they had to accommodate the changes required by post-war immigration...and then had to endure lectures about racism from middle class liberals whose lives had not been changed at all.

The argument that the "white working class" has had anti-racist politics forced on it by "middle class liberals" is an insult to those white working-class people who have spent years, sometimes lifetimes, fighting racism in their communities. In Barking and Dagenham in 2010, thousands of the borough's residents mobilised to stop the British National Party gaining a foothold in Westminster. Goodhart's lazy generalisations play right into the language of the modern far-right: that anti-racism is itself racist, and that any gains for black people must produce equal and opposite losses for white people, in a world in which privilege and prejudice can never be fought, only redistributed.

There's a term for that tactic. The term is "divide and rule".

It's a tactic, as Abbott herself put it, "as old as colonialism" - and it's also a tactic as modern as Twitter. When those with an ideological or personal stake in defending the interests of privilege feel themselves under threat, their first line of defence is often to persuade the underprivileged that it is they who are under attack.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney defend tax-breaks for the super-rich by telling blue-collar Americans that Democrats and union workers want to cut their paycheques: divide and rule. David Cameron denounces industrial action by encouraging low-paid private sector workers to complain that the pensions public sector workers are striking to protect are higher than theirs: divide and rule. David Willetts tells unemployed men that it's all these selfish women in the workplace who have taken their jobs: divide and rule. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne, not to mention Ian Duncan Smith, defend the dismantling of the welfare state by persuading the working class that those in receipt of housing benefit are scroungers scamming the system. Divide, dismiss -- and rule.

Everywhere, the right fights public awareness of structural injustice by re-phrasing it as a personal attack by one vulnerable demographic on another. Structural injustice itself cannot be wedged into the story of neoliberalism, which reduces everything to a cloying moral syrup of personal responsibility lectures -- except where the banking sector is involved, of course.

What's missing from the story -- what's always missing -- is power. Defenders of privilege and hierarchy will do anything at all to distract attention from power, and to re-phrase attacks on power as attacks on the powerless. The chorus of faux-outrage over Abbott's tweet isn't just cynical; in a week when structural racism is in the news, it's a classic game of divide and rule.

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

CREDIT: PETER DAZELEY/PHOTOGRAPHER’S CHOICE
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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge