So the leader of the BNP finally made his appearance on the BBC's Question Time last night and thereby brought about television's political event of the year. He came across as what he undoubtedly is – a not very bright, sweaty, shifty, smarmy, evasive, appalling toad of a human being, full of nasty and half-witted ideas and ambitions. It was interesting the way he claimed he was now hated by the real Nazis in this country because he's now holding back from any overtly racist speeches and provocations, and now confines himself to trying to be the man who stands up for the white working classes whose welfare and wellbeing have been ignored by the 'multiculturalism' of the mainstream parties.
Gary Younge wrote a superb column in yesterday's Guardian on this issue:
When you watch the BNP on TV, just remember: Jack Straw started all this
To set New Labour against Griffin is simply putting the cause against the symptom
Three years ago this month Jack Straw argued his case for urging Muslim women who attend his MP's surgery to remove their niqab. He said that he wanted to start a debate. In this, at least, he was successful.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy said "the veil is an invitation to rape"; the Daily Mail columnist Allison Pearson said women who wear "nose bags on their faces ... have no place on British streets"; the then shadow home secretary David Davis argued that Muslims were encouraging voluntary apartheid.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/21/jack-straw-bnp-griffin-hain
And so Muslim women passed, in the public imagination, from being actually among the group most likely to be racially attacked to ostensibly being a primary cause of social strife . . .
There is little doubt that once the BNP is on Question Time, Jack Straw – or indeed anyone in the New Labour hierarchy – is in no position to take the fight to it. The same is true for most of the rest of the British political establishment that will be represented on the panel – they have either actively colluded or passively acquiesced in the political trajectory of the past decade.
But it is no accident that this happened on New Labour's watch and no small irony that Jack Straw should set himself up as Griffin's opponent.
Economically, its neoliberal policies have resulted in growing insecurity, rising unemployment, child poverty and inequality that have alienated the poor and made the middle class feel vulnerable. Politically, its lies over the war, stewardship of the expenses scandal and internal bickering have produced widespread cynicism with our political culture.
Meanwhile New Labour's race-baiting rhetoric gave the state's imprimatur to the notion that Britain's racial problems were not caused by racism but the existence of non-white, non-Christian and non-British people. This provided little material solace but plenty of vulnerable scapegoats.
Having inflated racism's political currency, New Labour vacated the electoral market so that others with a more ostentatious style might more freely spend it. Once they had made these ideas respectable it was only a matter of time before a party reached a position where it too would earn sufficient respectability to appear on prime time.
New Labour marginalised the white working class, assuming they had nowhere else to go, only to find some of them rush into the arms of the far right.
New Labour extinguished all hope of class solidarity and singularly failed to provide principled anti-racist alternatives, leaving a significant section of the white working class to seek cheap refuge in racism and xenophobia. In their identity they see not the potential for resistance against corruption and injustice, but only a grievance. They don't trust government and don't see any alternatives. The coming election simply provides the choice between two parties that share the intent to slash public spending, after the gift of billions to bankers.
Under such circumstances setting Straw – and the rest of the political class – against Griffin is simply putting the cause against the symptom without any suggestion of an antidote.
This has been New Labour's problem all along. While they have long recognised that racism is a problem, it never seemed to occur to them that anti-racism might be the solution.
The BNP's victories are a product of our politics. Its defeat, when it comes, will necessarily be a product of a change in our politics. But since New Labour's politics enabled the BNP, it is in no position to disable it. The BNP is a bottom feeder. But the system is rotting from the head down.
The most interesting contributions made to the programme last night came from the Conservative party representative, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action. How clever of Cameron to have given this post to this particular individual, who even retains a trace of a Yorkshire accent. And I mean clever in a good way.
She was the only one who seemed alert to the fact that, as Gary Younge so rightly says, the white working classes have plenty to be angry about after 12 years of New Labour. Namely, “growing insecurity, rising unemployment, child poverty and inequality that have alienated the poor and made the middle class feel vulnerable”. Add to that list inadequate, expensive, unafforable and scarce housing, too many inadequate schools that alienate and frustrate their children, a minimum wage that's not only too low but is also seen as a maximum by far too many employers, inadequate State pensions, fewer and less well funded job pension schemes, the threat of a higher retirement age, repressive trade union representation, billions blown on becoming a surveillance society, billions blown on illegal wars and support for the the Bush regime, etc, etc. All of this alongside the well-off and wealthy sections of society becoming even more wealthy as a result of this government's business-friendly and laissez-faire policies, allowing the property bubble to inflate, and so on.
So the Baroness is right – there are plenty of legitimate grievances to address in order to deal with the anger of the working classes in general, and the lower middle classes as well – not just the white sections of those who are less well-off and downright impoverished.
These working class people are hardly likely to turn to the Conservatives, or even the Lib Dems to address their problems and express their anger. So who do they turn to?
Deborah Orr also had an excellent piece in the Guardian [G2] yesterday:
Diversity and equality are not the same thing
Racism, homophobia and sexism are on the wane, but Britain is more unequal than ever
The progressive agenda may have faltered in many respects over recent decades. But in challenging the evils of racism, homophobia and sexism, fantastic success has been achieved. Mainstream British attitudes, in the last 30 years, have been transformed. David Cameron, consummate public relations man that he is, recognises that a Conservative party that seems too male, too white, too straight, has an image problem.
Except that diehard critics of the Conservatives – people who would never vote for them – tend to dislike Cameron's party because it is seen as representing the interests of the privileged, whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation may be. Identity politics may have set out to promote equality. But the Conservative leadership has embraced not equality, but diversity.
This is social progress, of course. But it is not the progress that the left once envisaged. On the contrary, in the same time as the argument for diversity has made such strides, the increased equality that was assumed to be part of its goal, has not materialised at all. Instead, inequality in Britain is now much greater than it was prior to the success of its various "equality" campaigns.
Increased inequality is rightly understood as a consequence of the enthusiastic adoption of neoliberal economic policies, by both of the governments of the mainstream parties. But less honestly acknowledged is the fact that diversity is entirely compatible with neoliberalism. The growth stimulated by the promotion of skilled female employment, the economic advantages of immigration, the consuming power of the "pink pound" – these are the aspects of "liberation" that have been most amorously embraced by the political mainstream, in part because they chime so fortuitously with neoliberal economic goals.
Does this matter? Is it important to understand that diversity and equality are different things, and that they are sometimes even at odds with each other? After all, the rooting out of discrimination achieves social justice, whether in the name of diversity or equality.
It matters very much indeed, because the strange fruit of the confusion can be seen on Question Time tonight, personified by the leader of the British National party, Nick Griffin, who deliberately utilises the general increase in inequality to advance his anti-diversity, racist agenda. And even the very people who abhor his crude and frightening racism most find it hard to rebut his central thesis – that the white working class in Britain has had a raw deal over the last 30 years.
Rebuttal indeed is pointless. The important thing to remember is that the black working class, the female working class, the gay working class, the disabled working class and the elderly working class, have had a similarly difficult time, under Labour and under the Conservatives. Certainly all of those other groups have been lavished with attention under Labour in the form of legislation that protects their minority rights in the name of diversity, in a way that the white working class has not. But the real reason why the BNP is able to make capital out of racist assertions is because immigrants are the only group that has been overtly utilised as a tool to promote economic inequality. That's the link.
Since the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 – the year Griffin promotes as the point when Britain's prelapsarian idyll ended – immigrant labour has been deliberately used to keep unskilled wages low. While the promotion of diversity has successfully staved off some of the most socially catastrophic consequences of such a divisive economic strategy, it has also ushered in a wrong-headed belief that immigrants are the actual cause of inequality, rather than merely part of the means of creating that highly competitive, fear-of-failure motivated, neoliberal economy that is such a splendid motor of empty "growth".
Many commentators have pointed out that under the strictures of "political correctness" the only group that can any longer be unabashedly despised is the white working class. A number of well-meaning critics suggested that with the character Vicky Pollard, the creators of Little Britain were doing just that. Some surprise was expressed when rightwinger Ferdinand Mount took up this general thesis, in his book Mind The Gap: Class In Britain Now.
But there is nothing in this to be surprised about. The application of the mores of identity politics cannot help the white working class. Even if the idea that the white working class is a special-interest cultural group that needs to be "respected" were successfully promulgated, this would advance only "diversity", and legitimise extreme economic inequality as an inescapable fact of life such as skin-colour, gender or sexual orientation.
This is exactly why the Daily Telegraph, before Karen Matthews was exposed as the kidnapper of her daughter Shannon, was at pains t to portray Dewsbury as a vibrant community chock-full of Blitz-spirited decency, rather than an economically abandoned hellhole teeming with poverty-induced depression, mental illness, substance abuse, ignorance and desperation. It's just a sophisticated and identity-politics-informed reworking of that old saw: "The poor will always be with us."
Sure, some people will always be less rich than others. But less of a gulf between rich and poor should be a social goal because it makes us all happier, as a plethora of statistics have been marshalled to illustrate in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's important new book, The Spirit Level.
Yet who in the political mainstream is advancing this argument? Even Barack Obama, the world's most potent embodiment of the advance of diversity, has trouble setting out, let alone winning, the equality argument..