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23 November 2018

Not all those pushing back against identity politics are white and male

Anti-racism can itself exclude and condescend to those it aims to help.

By John Lloyd

The politics of identity, which can segue into the politics of victimhood, has now established itself strongly on the left and among liberals of all stripes. A recent book, The Tribe (2018), by Ben Cobley, argues that “a discrete strain of politics… assign(s) favour to one group (including women and non-white-skinned people) and disfavour to another (notably the white-skinned and male)”. A spectrum running from far left to liberal conservatism, it has developed “shared assumptions, shared language and a shared value system”. 

Wars over these attitudes mainly take place among members of the political and cultural establishments, who are themselves generally white. As such, the side which opposes this “discrete strain of politics” may be dismissed as reactionary conservatives, the supporters as those burdened with liberal guilt weaponised into projects for radical social change. It is, however, more difficult to so characterise these views when they are made by members of minority groups – in this case, immigrants of colour or their descendants.

Tariq Modood, professor of sociology at Bristol University, a British Pakistani and one with both academic and state honours, believes the left’s obeisance to an unreflective anti-racism is “confused”. In a talk he gave to a workshop on “Labour and England” in September, he said that “the self-effacement of being British among the centre-left made it difficult for people like me to say I was British and was proud to be British, that we were British together…ethnic minorities are now more affirming of a British identity than the white English”. 

In an interview, he goes further, saying that minorities should “look to British imperial history – and find there proof of your Britishness. We were British subjects – and this resonates with quite a lot with people”. In this, Modood agrees with and draws on the observations of Sunder Katwala, son of Indian immigrants who moved to Doncaster and worked for the NHS, who has created in the British Future institute a centre to pursue the integration of minorities and an “inclusive citizenship”. On a panel earlier this year he has argued that “we need to put right what’s gone wrong in immigration: people have lost trust in the system…People don’t blame the immigrants – they blame the politicians. I think we should change the system of free movement.”

The shame which leftists and liberals often express – the writer Paul Mason wrote in 2015 that “I do not want to be English” – and the left-liberal contempt for what they claim is a continued attachment to imperial glory by whites, are themes picked up and developed by Iranian born Ali Ansari, now head of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University. In an essay named These Islands published by the pro-Union group of the same name, Ansari writes that “all the constituent ‘nations’ of the Union – including after 1801 the Irish…participat(ed) in empire as a quintessentially Enlightenment project – a civilising project, if you will, one that sought to bring the benefits of good governance and the power enabled by knowledge.”

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Neither he nor any other of this loose group (who in some cases do not know of each other’s work) deny the Empire’s brutalities: but they are impatient with white guilt. Deprecating British self deprecation, Ansari told me that “the empire is accused of being a racist project – in fact, imperialists who knew and worked in the empire were often very inclusive – cosmopolitanism came to be part of imperialism… Someone said – the ‘trouble with the British is that not only were they the greatest imperialists, but they are also the greatest anti-imperialists’.”

Ansari and Modood are scholars, Katwala a journalist turned think tank leader. Munira Mirza was born to working-class Pakistani immigrants in Oldham: a former researcher for the Centre-right Policy Exchange institute, she later worked as London Mayor Boris Johnson’s advisor on culture. She has also been part of a group which formed the blog, All in Britain – criticising what the writers see as leftist anti-racist dogma which refuses to accept an improving culture of racial integration – and a critique of liberal excess in defence of those allegedly victimised. A blog by Udham Singh (a nom de plume) in March blasted the Teen Vogue columnist Emily Lindin, who had “recently tweeted: ‘if some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay’. Note the claim to victimhood here – absurdly, she thinks she is the one paying the price.”

Mirza sees as damaging those initiatives, like “decolonising the curriculum” – which are now pushed by academics at Cambridge and other universities, dropping some white writers in favour of those from the former colonies. She has an acute ear for class as well as ethnic differences: an edgy debate in January between her and the author and journalist Afua Hirsch, from a mixed-race, upper middle class background, with a private school and Oxford education, saw Mirza sharply noting that the complaints of racism in Hirsch’s book – “Brit(ish)” (2018) – were not accompanied by adequate recognition of her privileged place, and success, in British society.

The elder statesman of this group is Trevor Phillips, from an immigrant Guyanese family, a former TV journalist who was head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission between 2003 and 2012. Both there and elsewhere, he was an early critic of multiculturalism, describing it as “sleepwalking” towards “segregation”, arguing that a core of Britishness must be part of immigrant culture. Though facing strorms of criticism, he has remained an unrepentant critic. 

These are disparate voices: their common element is a belief that a strong strain of thought now works against integration, to fragment and potentially prompt hostility among the different ethnicities of British society. Though appealing to what has been a mainstream British sense of open debate, liberality and aversion to racism, they now believe that this is declining and that anti-racism can itself exclude, and be condescending. They accept as real and understandable the tensions and fears of British whites – no longer that blithely confident majority, but often worried by the future, regretful of the past.

John Lloyd is a Financial Times contributing editor and former editor of the New Statesman. His latest book, on journalism in the world, is “The Power and the Story” (Atlantic).