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Leader: The rise of pluto-populism

The forces that propelled Mr Trump to the Republican nomination – belligerence, vacuous promise-making, xenophobia, racism – are all too present in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

The spectacle of the odious Donald Trump and his family addressing the Republican National Convention this week reinforced the calamity that has befallen American politics. That the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower should have as its presidential nominee this bully, braggart and racist is a national embarrassment for the United States, far worse even than it is for the British to have Boris Johnson as our most senior diplomat.

The forces that propelled Mr Trump to the Republican nomination – belligerence, vacuous promise-making, xenophobia, racism – are all too present in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. They have contributed to the rise of the populist, anti-immigrant right in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries. In Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer lost by only 31,000 votes in the presidential election in May; there will now be a rerun in October, because some votes were improperly counted. In the UK, the allure of populism resulted in a vote for Brexit on 23 June from which we are still reeling.

From Mr Trump to Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, populists, of both the left and the right, are adept at exploiting the anger and disenchantment of electorates. Much of the voters’ frustration is understandable. In the UK, for instance, the median income for those aged 31 to 59 is no greater than in 2007, and those aged 22 to 30 are 7 per cent worse off. Inequality has reached pernicious levels. Too many communities have been neglected since de-industrialisation and far too ­little attention has been paid to reskilling workers for the age of globalisation and open labour markets. Many voters feel that they and their children have been left behind. Less than 10 per cent of white males eligible for free school meals go to university at the age of 18.

Many of those who voted for Brexit regard the EU as part of the problem. For them, as Robert Tombs writes on page 22, it is “an unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing” organisation.

In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the Harvard-­based political philosopher Michael Sandel said that mainstream political parties had failed “to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives”. He spoke of a “broader disquiet with democracy” and suggested that politics for the most part fails to “address the big questions that matter most and that citizens care about”.

It is true that too many voters believe that, in terms of their personnel, even if not their policies, the mainstream parties have come to resemble one another, leaving voters feeling unrepresented and thus open to populist alternatives. Nearly four million people voted for the UK Independence Party in the 2015 general election.

However, by almost every measure, and despite many ­difficulties, life in the UK is significantly better for most of us than it was a generation ago. Since 1973, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the European Union, per capita GDP has grown by 103 per cent. Life expectancy has continued to rise every year. Absolute poverty in Britain has never been lower.

Huge strides have been made in curbing discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. According to the Office for National Statistics, crime has halved since 1995; there are record numbers of young people going to university; teenage pregnancy is at the lowest level since records began. These are significant achievements.

Progress has come not in spite of the “experts” and technocrats decried by Michael Gove but largely because of them. As Ian Leslie writes on page 16, “I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.”

Easy populism endangers the liberal advances that have helped the UK – and, indeed, much of the world – become more tolerant, safer and richer. The populists need to be taken on and their structures dismantled, otherwise the rise of the repulsive Mr Trump will herald a new politics – “pluto-populism” – and mark the return of a style of politician who draws his authority from the television reality show, social media and immense personal wealth. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist