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  1. Comment
11 March 2024

Sectarianism has returned to England

The country's silent majority is being outflanked by religious and political extremists.

By Jonathan Rutherford

In his Downing Street speech earlier this month Rishi Sunak accused ideological Islamists and activists on both the left and right of hating this country, loathing pluralism and undermining democracy. He was attacked from the left for a shameless and dangerous speech, and for reinforcing  assimilationist tendencies. The right accused him of being too weak. But his comments reflect the view of the moderate majority of British citizens whatever their race or religion. 

The death and rape threats to MPs, the murder of two MPs by an Islamist and a fascist, the staking out of politicians’ homes and families, the hounding them on the streets, the pious, bourgeois anti-semitism of likening Jews to the Nazis, the anti-Zionist coalition that includes conspiracy theories and Hitlerite hatred of Jews, repel the majority of people in this country. And while the threat to Jews is prosecuted and amplified by this leftist coalition, right-wing reaction targets Muslims.

Sunak follows David Cameron in his promise to tackle political Islamism, an anti-democratic, anti-semitic ideology rooted in the Islamic Brotherhood. Sunak’s answer is to broaden the government’s definition of extremism to include “vocal or active opposition” to “fundamental British values”. But who is an extremist and who decides and what are these values? The government has a working definition of anti-Semitism but none for anti-Muslim hatred. Miriam Cates in her own party, rightly rejects Sunak’s plan as being on a slippery slope to the abolition of our fundamental English liberties.

Like his predecessor, Sunak’s intervention will come to nothing. His grasping at judicial repression only confirms his lack of political authority. Far from boosting his political position he merely highlights the broader failure of his government to tackle the country’s multiple crises. 

Voters are watching this spectacle of fear and impotence. Brexit ruptured an already tenuous trust in Westminster and distrust has only grown. The byelection in Rochdale reinforces the view that neither of the two main parties can speak for a majority. Voters have become bystanders in their own democracy. They know they are disenfranchised by a higher-educated professional class who monopolise the democratic process . 

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The pro-Palestinian demonstrations have mobilised deeply felt Muslim anger and the moral outrage of the liberal middle classes who want the killing of Palestinians to stop. But the anti-Zionist left do not lead a popular democratic struggle. The demonstrations, with their targeting of Jewish symbols and associated institutions, the belligerent claiming of public space, and the intimidating sometimes violent language and slogans that go unchallenged, have become the latest manifestation of our own domestic culture wars.

This class cultural conflict extends into the institutional state apparatuses, into corporate life, into the universities and national cultural bodies and into the world of NGOs. It is an intra-elite struggle for power and control of institutions. The majority are excluded by its distinctive language and speech codes. Concepts such as white supremacy, white privilege, structural racism, and a host of genders to replace the binary of biological sex, imported from the US, are a privileged language exclusive to the professional class.

Part of the ruling class but subordinate to the economic elite, its power lies in its control of communication, language and valuable cultures. Its administrative method of change circumvents democracy through its control of NGOs, and institutions of learning and culture. While it attacks the inequalities of the old bourgeois society it advances its own inegalitarian class privilege as judge and regulator of the normative structures of society. Higher-educated, liberal, and majoritively white it allies with the interests of oppressed groups in order to sustain its own status and power. 

The Labour Party is now spoken of as the government in waiting. Voters want security and stability and the party promises both. However it is in the same predicament as the Democrats. During the progressive era of globalisation and Third Way social and economic liberalism, the expanding professional class aligned itself with the centre left. Both the Democrats under Bill Clinton and Labour under Tony Blair orientated their politics, language and priorities around this new cognitive class of the knowledge economy. The working class had nowhere else to go and would take care of itself. As Musa al-Gharbi writes in Compact, it has proven a disastrous miscalculation.

Across Western democracies the centre left has lost working class support and is now reliant on its metropolitan professional base. As al-Gharbi writes, ‘The core problem … in trying to build a political coalition around knowledge-economy professionals is that, compared to most other voters they – we – are really strange.”  In the suburbs and outside the big cities lower middle and working class voters are revolting against economic policies that are impoverishing them and a bourgeois cultural politics that has humiliated them and dismissed their way of life as obsolete. 

For the first time since the English Civil War, home grown politico-religious sectarianism with its threat of violence has returned to England. This time it is a mix of left puritanism and Islamist fundamentalism. White liberals adopt a faux tolerance, the left deny it exists, a governing class vacillates, the door is open to the growth of right wing reaction.

Jews recalling their long history of persecution and confronting the hostility of anti-semitic Muslims and leftists will reassess their future in this country. Muslims, facing random attacks and abuse, will fear persecution from the wider population. A Labour government, unable to boost growth across the whole country, without an organised working class to contain the fickle politics of a professional class and its culture wars, will no longer look like a force of security and stability. It will survive one term. Is this our foreseeable future?

[See also: The Tories have become the Conspiracy Party]

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