Sunday 7 June 2020

Sleeping with the Fishes

It might not be ideal weather for a swim, but neither was it ideal for a statue of Edward Colston, Tory MP, philanthropist, and dealer in slaves, to have stood in Bristol these last 125 years. And now his copper bottomed facsimile reposes on the bed of the Avon following a Sunday outing with Black Lives Matter protestors, the decades-long debate about the status of the statue is settled. The reaction, as you might expect, has been mixed and we've seen three broad responses emerge within "the discourse."

There are those who celebrated the statue's demise - the argument we'll call for the purpose of this post, the right one. Just as the American south is littered with Confederate generals, many a plinth on these islands supports a questionable encumbrance. A slaver here, a pirate there, invaders, occupiers, butchers, the whole gamut of 18th and 19th century conquistadores from Britain's imperial past. Their misdeeds bracketed and their person commemorated by likenesses of granite and cast iron, their continued and unremarked presence in officially sanctified and maintained spaces denotes a society ill at ease with what its forebears have done, and so either likes to pretend it never happened or concentrate on the two World Wars (and one world cup). Even Britain's atrocities since the war, such as Partition, the war in Malaya, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and its "police actions" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries barely register as things we should learn from, let alone atone for. Always happy to demand contrition from Germans, and affecting astonishment that Japan adopts a studied amnesia when it comes to its occupation of and crimes committed in Korea and China, the British state, its leading parties, its mass media and press, the entire establishment refuses to consider the global trail of dead as far flung as its empire once was.

The George Floyd/Black Lives Matter solidarity protests here in the UK would not have tapped a deep well of resentment and exploded if we didn't have similar problems. The British police are not as overtly violent and racist as American cops, but people of colour are likelier to be stopped, searched, roughed up, and banged up. Black people are twice as likely to die in custody than whites. This is compounded by a division of labour that is heavily racialised, with black people - women especially - disproportionately located in the lowest paid, precarious, and in these Covid times, dangerous occupations. And despite the official ideologies of anti-racism, anti-black racism in particular is not taken seriously. Under the carpet it goes, along with blood flecked sweepings of imperial history.

It's time racism in this country was treated as a social and a political problem, a structural feature of capitalist societies, albeit in our case with particularly British characteristics. The unceremonious trashing and dumping of Colston's statue might change the terms of the debate as other statues and historical legacies come under pressure. However, there are people, powerful people, who'd prefer racism to remain a moral issue for, well, very political reasons. The Home Secretary Priti Patel is one such person. As a politician from an Indian background, her overtly right wing takes on issues - like threatening the Irish Republic with food shortages, tough on refugees, egregious chumming with right wing Israeli politicians - are attempts to endear herself to the Tory grassroots, a good chunk of whom very grudgingly accept BAME MPs and ministers. Showing more concern for a rusting statue of a centuries-dead slaver ("utterly disgraceful!" she wittered on Sky News) than any victim of racism, her careerist instinct is to be seen being tough on anti-racism. This is more than her getting accepted and easing a path to future higher office, trying to make the Colston dunking a criminal matter avoids having to address the substantive issue. And for good reason: any reckoning with police racism and imperial history means lifting the lid on Tory racism. Remember, as recently as, well, December's election the Tories promised a crackdown targeting travellers. As the wheels come off the clown car and difficulties mount, an insurgent street movement targeting imperial heroes is an unnecessary distraction, and a potentially damaging one for Tories who might be drawn to the empire's defence.

There's another establishment response too, and once seen pushed by assorted Blairy types and paragons of centrist virtue. Rob Marchant Of Labour Uncut, for instance, whinges about "mob rule" and "vandalism", and mentions democracy. This is pretty much the response you can expect from Labour's front bench, if they venture into these waters at all. A wide ranging and thorough discussion of racism and imperialism doesn't suit the present leadership, because party history is up to its neck in it. We like to hear about Clem Attlee, the crusading reformer. We never hear about Clem Attlee, the overseer of Partition, father of the bomb and colonial anti-insurgency, and the man who soaked our African possessions to pay for Britain's post-war recovery. And, well, Black Lives Matter shines an unwelcome spotlight on current party practices. The racism uncovered by the leaked report, the systematic failure to take complaints seriously, the repeated targeting of black MPs by the right of the party, the factional preoccupation with only one form of racism, offering arguments about process and the proper way of doing things avoids having to reckon with what BLM and solidarity movements are saying.

Black Lives Matter has a mass following in Britain not simply because racism exists and we're sick of it, but because the establishment in its Tory and Labour guises are complicit. The Tories are happy to whip it up for electoral purposes, and Labour are much happier pandering and addressing "real concerns" than challenging racism, whether it's on the doorstep, in the press, or comes out the mouths of their right wing opponents. This time, however, something has changed. BLM and the solidarity protests will die down in due course like all movements do, but the issues raised are not going away. The days of depoliticising racism as a personal failing are done: its relationship to politics and power are clear for all to see.


Dipper said...

so ...

" the Tory grassroots, a good chunk of whom very grudgingly accept BAME MPs and ministers" this really is making stuff up to suit your agenda. Priti Patel is very popular with the Tory grassroots. Us white Tory racist Neanderthals in the white heartlands of Essex/Cambridge love our Tory MP's - Kemi Badenoch in Saffron Walden, James Cleverley in Braintree, Priti Patel in Witham.

Re The statue, it's more nuanced than you say. Every state has a history, and a lot of that history does not look good from a distance. I would guarantee that not a single person ever walked past that statue and thought that statue has convinced me slavery is a good idea. But keeping that record around you is a reminder that values change, that what was thought reasonable 100 years ago is not thought reasonable now, and hence that what is thought reasonable now will not be thought reasonable in a hundred years time. The destruction of history is an Orwellian step, very similar to the Taliban. If you present your views as permanent, eternal, then you put yourselves in a position of power and eliminate the possibility of change. That is what the demonstration was about - the right of an unelected group to impose their political views by force and punish those who disagree. Needless to say all my social media feeds have lit up in the same way, not in your favour.

And racism ... find me anyone anywhere who thinks racism is a good thing. Everyone deplores racism. But this isn't about racism. This is about demonisation of the English working class, making Englishness an illegitimate identity, one that must be silenced and repressed. The alliance of BAME activists and lets be clear BAME racists with a privileged white establishment determined to keep the WWC down is very unpleasant.

This stuff about White priviledge, recompense etc. I'm not Black, but I am from Rochdale. One of those towns where White girls and young women got sexually assaulted and raped on an industrial scale by gangs of Pakistan muslim men whilst representatives of the establishment looked on and saw no crime being committed. Now call me naive, but my view is that the people responsible for the crimes are the people who did it and no-one else. Other Pakistani mulsims are in now way responsible. There is no shared racial guilt. Some activists in the EDL and BNP do seem to think there is collective responsibility and the muslim population should be punished, but in my view these people are racists and should be met with objection wherever they spread their poison. But their arguments do seem very similar to many BAME 'anti-racist' activists, looking to stigmatise an entire population by association. At the risk of triggering Godwin's law, we have seen demonisation of a race, the notion that people of a race are born with guilt, before. It was unpleasant then, it is unpleasant now.

Dipper said...

I've had a think about this post and my comment and have decided my response doesn't gofer enough.

The BLM focus on police brutality and racism seems to its a blindingly obvious point, which is that the majority of young black people who have been murdered in recent years have been murdered by other black people. For clarity, this is a shocking and terrible toll. Politicians have rightly got very exercised about the appalling toll. but not a single person on the BLM marches seems to have been concerned about these deaths. Deaths of young black people only seem to have relevance when they can be used to bash white people. Otherwise they are ignored.

You bang on about deaths in Kenya and elsewhere. Fair enough. But there's a massive silence about deaths here, now, of black youths who should expect to live long and fulfilled lives. Where is BLM's voice on that?

BCFG said...

It is always great to see statues come tumbling down but just in case Carty is listening I think these protests are totally reckless given we are in a global health emergency.

And I just can't help but wonder about the mentality of people like this, maybe the fact that people are literally being forced back to work they have decided to explode in rage or maybe they just don't give a shit how many vulnerable people they will kill with their reckless disregard for social distancing. If its the former I kinda understand, if its the latter its kinda ironic that people protest against the brutality of those with power while consigning the vulnerable to a death sentence. A sort of euthanasia project while sat on a high moral horse!

I looked at the stats on this and roughly just over 1000 people are killed each year in the USA by the police.

Well, should we apply Brexit Boffy logic here and say therefore what is all the fuss about, that is literally like a mild dose of the common cold? Why should we allow protesters to interrupt the smooth running of capitalist profit making over such trifling matters?

The answer of course is no we should not listen to brexit Boffy, but I think it always wise to apply sentinel/Boffy dumb fuck logic to situations like this to really emphasise what a dumb fuck he is.

Anonymous said...


The study of history doesn't require public statues in honour of (for example) Cecil Rhodes in Britain or Robert E Lee in the US any more than it requires Russia to still have cities named in honour of Stalin. Post-war Germany doesn't have monuments to the Nazis, but instead to their victims.

This isn't about erasing or hiding history. It's the exact opposite: they are drawing attention to some of the uncomfortable realities of Britain's past.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Priti is right-wing just because she's right-wing - a lot of immigrants came to the UK to better themselves, so may lend themselves to the aspirant right-wing narrative than the left-wing victim one, which strikes me as somewhat more racist, frankly.

Dipper said...

@ Anonymous

Well ... funnily enough not far from me we have the Rhodes Centre in Bishops Stortford. There is currently a petition or two to get it renamed. I'm currently getting flack for supporting the renaming. A statue is a statue, but the Rhodes Centre is a theatre/museum/events place and I don't see why we should invite people of colour or of African origin to perform in a place which is named after someone who even in his time drew considerable criticism for imperialism

But history and perceptions evolve over time. Afghanistan doesn't 'need' large monuments to Buddha, or churches,. We don't 'need' Roman remains from an empire that conquered and ruled over us. You don't have to believe the Roman Empire was a woke nirvana in order to enjoy the remains in Bath. You can even think quite a lot of what the Romans did was bad and still appreciate historical artefacts for what they are - a reminder that previous civilisations were different.

How do you draw attention to some of the 'uncomfortable realities' of Britain's past by removing all trace of them?