“This is your captain speaking. We are just leaving Iranian airspace”. Instant removal of headscarves. That was twenty years ago flying out of Tehran.
This September it was the mandatory hijab worn, I imagine, pushed back, perhaps with a suggestion of defiance, that led to the arrest and murder of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran at the hands of the Gasht-e-Ershad, the ‘morality police’, custodians of Islamic women’s dress code.
Mahsa Amini lived in Kurdistan Province in the North West of Iran and was visiting her brother in the capital. According to those detained with her, she was beaten in the police van and lapsed into coma. Her death triggered national demonstrations that still continue.
There have been major, but intermittent, demonstrations against Iran’s theocratic regime since the disputed Presidential election of 2009 brought almost two millions onto the streets. Each outbreak violently suppressed. But the embers of former protest were still hot this September. Mahsa Amini’s death was enough to breathe life into them. The blaze has been unexpectedly uncontrollable.
Street protests both in Mahsa Amini’s home town in Kurdistan and in Tehran spread rapidly to provincial towns, gaining in numbers. A rolling youth rebellion at first led by women and girls, students and school children, picked up support across age-groups including university teachers and professionals - reminiscent in some ways of the Soweto 1976 youth uprising. Strikes in many sectors, including oil, followed. As Jonathan Friedland wrote in a passionate article in The Guardian (26 November) it wasn’t just about mandatory wearing of the hijab – anymore than Soweto 1976 was just about compulsory Afrikaans in schools - it was about liberty.
The Iranian regime, led by the 83-year old Ayatollah Khamenei, supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), taken by surprise responded brutally. There was nothing unusual about State violence but this outbreak of protest didn’t peter out and displayed new features. Rebellion in Kurdistan had secessionist potential. Throughout the Middle East the Kurds – a population of some 35 million - have been denied national sovereignty, a state of their own. Iranian Kurds are no exception.
The revolt’s feminist dimension wrong-footed the regime. They had expected to suppress protests as easily as they had the 2017 and 2019 demonstrations in working class areas against the rising cost of living and unemployment - created at least in part by Western economic sanctions. Instead the protests took on a counter-cultural life of their own. Women, Life, Freedom banners became a permanent challenge on the streets. Hijabs were burnt, a news broadcast was hacked with attacks on Khamenei appearing, young girls pelted a Ministry of Education official with water bottles and chased him out of their school, women blocked CCTV cameras with sanitary-towels – none of the security forces would want to handle them.
Iranian singer, Shevin Hajipour’s, poignant Baraye (For) has become the theme song of national protest. It is a litany of what over years the protestors feared or hoped: “for an ordinary life”, “for changing these rusted minds”, “for fear of kissing (in public)” and so on. Years ago I walked the ski-slopes north of Tehran and saw approaching hand-holding couples spring apart then laugh when they realised I was a foreigner.
More worrying for the regime should be the results of encrypted opinion polls by GAMAAN (Group for Analysing & Measuring Attitudes in Iran), a Dutch non-profit organisation following punctilious sampling methodology - funded over 70% by North American and European foundations. The old divisions, between south Tehran, working class conservative, and wealthy north Tehran’s progressives, between urban anti-regime and rural pro-regime, between pious elderly, and irreligious youth, are breaking down if the hijab is a yardstick. 74% of women polled were against the mandatory dress code but also 71% of men, with little difference in attitudes according to age, urban or rural backgrounds. 84% were in favour of the mullahs getting out of politics. The Tony Blair Institute for Gobal Change paper ‘Protests and Polling Insights From the Streets of Iran: How Removal of the Hijab Became a Symbol of Regime Change’ (22 November 2022) interprets these findings, along with a reduced level of praying five times a day, as a sign of secularisation. Less religiosity perhaps but a widespread loss of Shi’a identity? I doubt it.
Similarly, it is too early to see the current revolt as comparable to the events leading up to the end of the Shah’s rule in 1979. The protesters have no leader waiting in the wings, no organisational centre. They are rallied by social media, but so are the regime’s agencies of repression, with intelligence on the protesters’ next moves provided for free by the internet. Death sentences have already been imposed on street demonstrators for alleged crimes such as ‘enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. An estimated 450 protesters have been killed on the streets - some 10% of them children- deaths in custody are unknown. The IRSC have been entering the mainly Sunni areas of Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchestan in the south-east, in vehicles with mounted machine-guns and using them.
Revolutions succeed when cracks in the political elite widen and the armed forces split. But Iran has lived with cracks in its elite for a long time. Plenty of mullahs, even in the religious heartland of Qom thought, and think, that political life is corrupting true religion. The former Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, refuted Khamenei’s claims that the hijab protests were not home-grown but engineered by Iran’s enemy the USA. Yet Khamenei has held onto to power and, in every sense, stuck to his guns.
Recently the government asked prestigious families help to calm things down. They – notably former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – preferred to keep their counsel. A split within the regime and, within the military, armed opposition to the IRSC and its Basij volunteers would probably cause a Syrian-style civil war; Khamenei pointedly warns of the consequences.
The duration of this protest movement, now often called a revolution, is itself a significant turning point. In the past fear of reprisals conquered. But women and youth are releasing the brake of fear and keeping resistance to the regime moving. They seem to be winning on the hijab, many women are ignoring the code. But as the distinguished Iran commentator, Christopher de Bellaigue, points out (‘Khamenei’s Dilemma’ New York Review of Books 24 November 2022) the present Supreme Leader Khamenei lived through the Shah’s collapse, saw the consequences of the Shah’s indecision and will not repeat his mistakes. The present President, Ebrahim Raisi, is accused of involvement in the 1988 hangings of thousands of dissidents on orders from Ayatollah Khomenei. Khamenei will double-down. There are already an estimated 14,000 imprisoned. A majority in parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for harsh punishments of protesters – this can include the death penalty already being imposed. From now on it will be live rounds and draconian sentences.
It was almost a decade after the Soweto uprising before the apartheid regime decided on compromise and another five years before they decided to negotiate. The Iranian regime is not likely to change much faster than this even if they decide change is inevitable. The nuclear deal, scuppered by Trump, is dead. Iran is hardening its position and increasing its uranium enrichment in Fordow and Netanz towards 60%. We are not looking at a regime about to crumble.
The removal of the hijab is a symbol of liberty. It will be a long time before it is a symbol of regime change.
See TheArticle 28/11/2022
All rights are equal but some rights are more equal than others. FIFA and the Qatar authorities are justly under fire for restrictions on LGBT rights and their treatment of migrant labourers. But nothing is said about the abuse of rights to religious freedom, a world-wide problem as well as one local to Qatar and other gulf states where many migrant workers, especially those in domestic service, are Christians from the Philippines.
Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights spells out what the right to religious freedom - violated around the world - means in detail. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. This means little in practice today, neither globally nor in Qatar which hosts big interfaith gatherings but where, even at Easter, Christian servants are refused time off to attend religious services.
Worldwide harassment and persecution of people because of their faith, from verbal abuse and hate speech, to arson and murder, is rising steadily. Only eight of 198 countries monitored by the Evangelical Christian organisation Open Doors get a clean bill of health. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organisation which works in over 140 countries, is currently running a ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and all faiths [my italics] with a day of special events this Wednesday in London’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. Aid to the Church in Need has also renewed focus on Nigeria, where attacks on Christian churches have risen from 18 in 2019 to 31 in 2020 and 23 in just the first six months of this year.
Religious freedom, a touchstone of human rights around the world, is not ignored in Britain but tends to be mainly a Conservative Party concern. The UK has a special envoy for Freedom of Religious Belief (FoRB), Fiona Bruce MP, an evangelical Christian. Both the Commons and Lords, the latter with 26 Church of England bishops, the Lords Spiritual, do lobby and speak out on FoRB issues. But with the exception of the Uighers and Rohingya, the cases they raise rarely are deemed newsworthy, can be complex, and seldom evoke large-scale sympathy.
Take the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian. When she offered water to a Muslim co-worker it was refused; her ‘Christian hands’ rendered it haram, forbidden. She was told to convert to Islam to cleanse her impurity. An altercation ensued in which she allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet and the Qur’ān. Eventually Asia Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and spent eight years on death row before being acquitted in a High Court judgement in October 2018. Here was a named individual, a fruit-picker, a working woman with whom we could empathise. Public opinion was aroused.
According to Open Doors, of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christians suffer from some degree of harassment and persecution in 145 of the world’s 198 States, Muslims in 139, and Jews in 88. But is discrimination always based on faith alone? In India the Modi government for its own purposes is promoting Hindu-based cultural nationalism against Muslims. Are the Hazara in Afghanistan persecuted because they are not Pashtun or because they are Shi’a or both?
Particularly in Africa some ethnicities, minority and occupational groups are identified by their religious beliefs. Bloody clashes over land-use in parts of northern Nigeria between pastoralists, who are broadly-speaking Muslim, and farmers, broadly speaking Christian, are perceived as religious conflict. From one perspective these aren’t important distinctions. In all cases human rights are grievously violated. And as my old Nigerian friend Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto, once said: ‘What do you call these people? I call them criminals”.
In 1971 a Synod of the world’s Catholic bishops declared: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” A wordy way of saying that for Catholics working for justice is a religious obligation, an integral part of Christian practice and observance – so politics and religion can’t neatly be separated. In the repressive states of Southern Africa and Latin America where I worked resistance by Christians qualified them for persecution, imprisonment, torture and death. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, gunned down at the altar in 1980, made a saint of the Catholic Church, became an icon of this kind of martyrdom.
A little discussed feature of the Cold War is the way the global political and ideological division penetrated the Catholic Church itself. In Moscow I had the unnerving experience of listening to devout Catholics whose little church opposite the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters had cameras trained on the door, dismiss the late Cardinal Paolo Arns as a communist. Arns, a Cardinal committed to the poor, was a tireless campaigner against human rights violations by Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship.
From 1960-1990, in Latin America, Philippines and South Africa, opposition to military dictatorships, oligarchies and apartheid, produced martyrs killed for following the simple demands of justice. Opposition to Communist Party repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had the similar consequences. But because of the ideological barrier of the Cold War, never did these victims of tyranny engage with each other in serious dialogue. Religious Orders with members from both parts of the world experienced this same division within their own ranks. Catholic charities worked on different sides of the divide, Aid to the Church in Need in the Communist world, the Catholic Institute for International Relations in Latin America, Philippines, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. There was no coming together around the shared experience of persecution and the terrifying ordeals of those who resisted tyranny.
Today there are new violations of religious freedom. Christians pursuing environmental causes are experiencing martyrdom in Latin America. The question arises who is responsible for such persecution? The actions of the State or the inaction of the State? A former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, reared a Christian and a leading opponent of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated by his bodyguard for supporting Asia Bibi. An unholy amalgam of State and Society at work.
There is no lack of information. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom publishes a factual annual global report. The Mormons in Utah have a comprehensive archive of FoRB legal cases. In 2019 the Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro produced for the Foreign Secretary, an independent review entitled Support for the Persecuted Church. It contains a fine summary of the plight of Christians around the world and suggests what might be done about it. But nothing much changes for the better.
We in the UK have no right to be complacent. Antisemitism alongside Islamophobia remains a rallying theme of extreme Right organisations. I have listened to black Pentecostals who believed Muslims worship the devil. Ahmadis experience the disdain, and sometimes worse, of their Muslim neighbours. Anti-Catholicism bubbles up from the depths of social media. The Labour Party was investigated and castigated for its failure to deal adequately with antisemitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a question mark hangs over the level of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative Party. Muslim-Hindu tensions have surfaced in Leicester.
Do not expect such symptoms of hostility and prejudice to improve as poverty and social dislocation, the recruiting sergeants for intolerance and discrimination, increase in Britain, and in the rest of the world.
See TheArticle 22/11/2022
“Complete and utter rubbish” (Tony Blair). “A barrel-load of malicious nonsense”(John Major). These are comments from political heavyweights on the fifth series of The Crown, now in the news. Netflix must be laughing all the way to the bank. But I don’t think we should laugh. What is called “fictional dramatisation” is feeding a culture of misinformation. Truth is becoming the collateral damage of the communications revolution and the quest for power and profit.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Kellyane Conway, campaign manager and adviser to President Trump, speaking two days after his inauguration in January 2017. Trump had been claiming that more people turned out in Washington DC to celebrate his victory than they did for President Obama’s. Photographs of the two events left no doubt that this was nonsense — in fact, a straightforward lie. Conway explained in a NBC Meet the Press interview that the President was simply providing “alternative facts”.
We all jeered. But she was alerting everyone that the USA was now tuning in to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the sinister perversion of language he dubbed “Newspeak”. Believing that Trump was cheated out of the last presidential election is an example of today’s “Goodthink”. Nothing to laugh at.
The worrying thing is that the cultural elite who laughed at Kellyanne Conway have now embraced her “alternative facts” under its newly assumed guise of “re-imagining”. In The Crown, for instance, Prince Charles sounds out John Major after an opinion poll has shown that the British public favour abdication. Following Tony Blair’s election in May 1997 Prince Charles meets the new Prime Minister, hoping to find a way to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, then his “secret companion”, now his wife and Queen Consort. Neither of these meetings happened.
It is fine within drama documentaries to imagine conversations between real people, provided these conversations convey a truth. The late Queen loved horses, so imagined conversations with her trainer can convey a truth. When drama-documentaries imagine such private conversations, or present the results of hard-won investigative journalism, rather than audience-thrilling inventions, they stand up to scrutiny.
The Crown, though, deliberately mixes and blurs fact and fiction, using archive footage to reinforce its story-lines. Such “re-imagining” joins the tidal wave of misinformation that characterises our postmodern era. In this post-truth world, disclaimers are overlooked and cultural leaders seem to be parting company with facts in search of ratings.
Another king has recently come into focus: Richard III in Steve Coogan’s The Lost King. The film, released in the UK this October, follows a pattern to which audiences are accustomed and which they enjoy, the story of the amateur who gets it right. In The Dig (2021) a self-taught archaeologist played by Ralph Fiennes finds the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship, resists discouragement and shares in the triumph. In real life he was marginalised by the professionals. The Lost King has a similar story – an amateur finds the body of a king, rather than a boat. The screenplay shoehorns the story into the same template, with truth the first casualty.
Sally Hawkins plays the amateur historian Philippa Langley, who gets it right about Richard III’s burial place despite the University of Leicester’s and its Archeological Services’ attempt to sideline her. Richard Taylor, the University’s deputy-registrar, describes his portrayal in the film as derisive, obstructive, manipulative, amused at the king’s disability, and even rather sexist, bordering on defamation. He has no redress. This raises the question: does misrepresenting a character only matter if he or she is alive to suffer the consequences?
How about two centuries ago? Frances O’Connor’s newly-released biopic Emily raises a further problem. The Reverend Patrick Brontë’s evangelical curate, William Weightman, appears as the film’s guilt-stricken, hypocritical sex interest. Emily and Weightman have a passionate affair with sex scenes in the hay. But the lives of the Brontës are exceptionally well-documented and researched; there is no historical evidence that Emily Brontë had an affair with anyone.
The Rev. William Weightman was in reality a pious evangelical who died in 1842 from cholera, which he probably caught while visiting the sick in Haworth parish. Much loved by his parishioners, he is honoured in Haworth church by a plaque that describes him as a man of “orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning and affability”.
Weightman did indeed, as in the movie, send each of the Brontë sisters a Valentine and there is some evidence that there were warmer feelings between him and Emily’s younger sister Anne, but he was clearly no clerical sexual predator or hypocrite. Does traducing the long-dead Emily Brontë and Weightman matter? Is Frances O’Connor entitled to “re-imagine” the truth about them for our entertainment?
"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” as Winston Smith obediently says in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Stalin allegedly once said: “It’s difficult to predict the past” — though Putin’s Russia is doing its best. Newspeak has clamped down on the people of China. The Democrats are in an electoral struggle to keep crazy conspiracy theories at bay in the USA. Here in the UK we should not be complacent: a high percentage of Tory Party membership is more than relaxed about a man accused of being an inveterate, compulsive liar holding the highest office of State. There is real danger that fictional dramatisation is the soft power of the contemporary beast devouring the concept of truth.
When the difference between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred, when we can’t distinguish between the two, or can’t be bothered to, we end up accustomed to and reconciled to “re-imagining”, to “alternative facts”, and to falsehoods. Drama-docs, biopics and fictional dramatisations certainly provide one of the three Reithian principles for the BBC: they entertain. But we should not forget the other two: it is worth being vigilant to ensure that these art forms also inform and educate, rather than contribute to a culture of misinformation.
See TheArticle 15/11/2022
It looks as if Britain has two Chancellors of the Exchequer at work. Three if you count the unhidden hand of the financial markets. But have we got a Prime Minister focussed on his job? Rishi Sunak’s initial excuse for not attending the Climate Change COP27 conference was that he was too busy - with what everyone assumed to be the difficulty he has with ‘balancing the books’. If dealing with the economy, whatever its difficulties, is going to get Sunak’s undivided attention, you might even feel a bit sorry for Jeremy Hunt, whose job it is to be Chancellor. And you might wonder if Sunak grasps the breadth and depth of prime ministerial responsibilities.
Next the Prime Minister lets it be known that, if he’s got time, he might go to COP27. Then he announces he really is going. Bravo. The ability to U-turn, preferably avoiding ridicule, has become a qualification for high office. To be charitable, Sunak reversing his decision does imply willingness to listen, to heed good advice, to respond to criticism and parliamentary shaming. But the frequency of U-turns is a sign of instincts out of tune with the world beyond money-making and neo-liberal ideology.
Rishi Sunak’s has at least fifteen years’ experience in financial services, in hedge fund management and venture capital companies, starting with an investment bank, Goldman Sachs, and ending as director of his immensely rich father-in-law’s Catamaran Ventures. He knows what successful small and big companies look like and how to make money out of his own and other people’s money. His winning the leadership of the Conservative Party on the second attempt should come as some relief to the City of London. But it is little preparation for the complex, interlocked problems of the 2020s when the interests of international capital must come second if not third when responding to extreme weather events, movements of population, mass starvation, globalised epidemics and war.
Even when the Prime Minister seems to be lifting his head from the books of ‘UK plc’, his vision is narrow. He sees renewable energy sources as a requirement of ‘energy security’. He presents dealing with the huge global issue of climate change as essential to achieving the ‘long-term prosperity’ of which he talks, and which he finally gave as his explanation for going to Sharm-el-Sheikh. And it is a good reason. But there is so much more needs saying and doing. Achieving ‘long term prosperity’ does not necessarily commit Sunak to anything in particular, for example, the pledge of a $100 billion per year support to developing nations made at COP 26 in Glasgow chaired by Alok Sharma then a Cabinet Minister (a pledge first made 13 years ago at COP 15 in Copenhagen but never honoured), or halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation, while delivering sustainable development. Sharma is clearly dedicated to making international progress on drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions so appealed to Sunak to drop plans for opening a coking coal mine in West Cumbria. Sunak dropped him from the Cabinet.
After William Pitt the Younger (first term aged 24), Sunak is our youngest ever Prime Minister. His political instincts seem undeveloped. He may learn. But he has to carry the fractious Conservative Party with him whilst facing a confident Opposition and multiple, intractable problems. And he has Parliament’s European Research Group (ERGs) lying in wait. No wonder Conservative MPs are looking for their next job. Meanwhile we seem no longer to wish to provide some kind of leadership in the world’s slow march towards reduction in carbon emissions. The ‘windfall tax’ on oil companies is linked to 90% tax relief on investments in exploration for more oil and gas. To date we have heard nothing from this government about how to achieve carbon emissions targets by mid-century. Youthful stamina and all the personal wealth in the world will not solve such problems.
Sunak has not been to see King Charles to tell him to ignore previous advice not to attend COP27, nor told him that Britain is proud of his decades of work building awareness of the rolling catastrophe that is global warming. Nor indicated that most of the British people would want the King to continue his work. Curbing climate change is a global imperative which he has been speaking about for many years, not a personal campaign like the one against architecture he didn’t like.
Treating the struggle to achieve a global consensus on combatting fossil fuel emissions as a contentious matter of party politics or ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even extreme libertarians must want a planet liveable enough for their descendants to be libertarian in, though some of the ERGs, the back-seat drivers of Tory policy, behave like closet climate change deniers. As the constitutional monarch of a supposedly ‘global Britain’, Charles should go beyond the limitations of traditional monarchical duties, always being the passive symbol of past glories, a figurehead, a fig-leaf hiding disunity. He has more than the right, he has the conviction to speak for the future of every man, woman and child on the planet.
Other voices have been raised. Before last year’s Glasgow COP 26, Cardinal Vincent Nichols wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the UK to ‘lead in championing green energy solutions’, ‘support poorer and vulnerable communities’, and lead in creating international partnerships to the same end. A revised edition of ‘The Call of Creation’, written by the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops, now twenty years old, was issued calling for a ‘profound internal conversion’. Bishop John Arnold, the lead Catholic bishop on the environment, followed up the publication in a podcast this October saying: “Pakistan – 33 million people directly affected by climate change. We’ve got Japan with Typhoon Nanmadol – three million people evacuated; the Puerto Rico typhoon; Alaskan storms; the west states of the United States with their wildfires; Kentucky with its ongoing flood damage. Really, it’s an appalling state of affairs. When are we going to make it urgent to be effective in our response?”
“The COP 26 summit must not be allowed to fail through governments’ refusal to take decisive action because they think public opinion is against them”, ‘The Call of Creation’ warned last year. The government must know that the same warning should be heeded this year but with even greater urgency. It would be an instructive read for Rishi Sunak on his forthcoming flight to Egypt. Before appearing at COP27 he might also find time for the 2009 Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
See TheArticle 05/11/22
At PMQs last Wednesday Member of Parliament after Member of Parliament stood up to commend the appointment of the first person of South Asian heritage as our Prime Minister. Conservative MPs rejoiced in Rishi Sunak as a proof of the country’s and the Tory Party’s commitment to diversity. Meanwhile, they have been reciting a litany of further abstract nouns: continuity, unity, delivery, stability, and even integrity, accountability and legitimacy. These await proof that they are more than just words as well as evidence of Tory compassion and belief in social justice.
Sunak’s appointment is symbolically important and in some ways a good sign. But why was the strikingly multi-racial membership of the Tory front bench not equally matched on the Labour side. Was the taunt true? ‘Labour talks a lot about diversity but the Conservatives act’.
Compared to the Labour Party, the Conservative Party has been ahead in appointing women as well as minorities to Shadow and Government high office. And they are proud of it. And it is a question for the Labour Party - though Keir Starmer now has a convincingly diverse front bench as far as women are concerned. But if you take a closer look at the current senior Cabinet Ministers from ethnic minorities they share - with the exception of Sajid Javid, a former Chancellor and Health Secretary - a privileged background. Kwasi Kwarteng is the son of wealthy parents and educated at Eton. Nadeem Zahawi’s grandfather was a government minister in Iraq, his father a businessman, director of Balshore Investments. Rishi Sunak was educated at Winchester College and is now the wealthiest Prime Minister in modern times. They join a resurgent Jeremy Hunt who was the richest man in Theresa May’s cabinet. The language of class seems to have disappeared from politics though the reality is alive and well in the UK. Identity politics have distracted us from divisions based on class and wealth.
People may simply reject Rishi Sunak out of envy, but they may also admire him and those who manage to get on in the world. Talent for climbing is assumed. Once having gained political power unwritten rules apply to women and ethnic minority politicians. But near the top of the greasy pole you must sound and perform as much like any other successful middle to upper-class Tory politician as possible. Mrs. Thatcher was a master at this. Famously indifferent to women’s issues, she chose an all-male cabinet, deepened her voice, and demonstrated military prowess by ruthlessly sinking the Belgrano, yet practised traditional house-wifely virtues by cooking for her favourite colleagues. Poor Theresa May wasn’t ‘man enough’ to counter Brexiteer extremism and the Ulster DUP (Democratic Unionists). And Liz Truss was, well, Liz Truss, trying to sound tough and looking weak. But at least she sacked Suella Braverman.
When it comes to ethnic minorities in top political positions, should we be looking at the significance of class rather than race? Surely both. My own perceptions are influenced by rearing a family in both Central and West Africa and observing awareness of race and class develop in children. When there is nothing minority about being black, and you are one of the few white kids, if you want to describe somebody, skin colour doesn’t help you identify who you are talking about. Here is a conversation in Africa that really happened.
“Why are Africans all poor?” that from a very young white child.
“Simon’s not poor. He’s got a sports car” (Simon was a black Zimbabwean)
“He’s not an African.”.
It was a class analysis of sorts.
Unless they are avid readers of Marx, today most people perceive class difference as cultural difference, different ways of living, different customs and manners of speaking. Living for two years in the mid-1960s USA in a New York apartment with a Colombian family crammed into the flat one floor above was difficult. The children played indoor football. The noise rarely abated as different shifts came and went to work. Their music was not to my taste. It wasn’t easy to accept and accommodate. But being anti-immigrant when you are a recent immigrant yourself is a stretch. Absence of sympathy for immigrants when you are an immigrant yourself, or the child of immigrants, does not come naturally even with the help of misinformation from an irresponsible Press. Yet Sunak, Braverman and Patel are remarkably adept at it.
Remember 65 year-old Gillian Duffy from Rochdale during the 2010 election campaign, and the notorious Gordon Brown outburst calling her a ‘bigot’, probably contributing to him losing his majority? In an early protest against ‘political correctness’ she said: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants… all the eastern Europeans what are coming in where are they flocking from?” She was not talking about immigrants who had been to Eton and/or lived in large detached houses in leafy suburbs, or had a well-paid professional occupation. She also happened to be a Labour Party supporter. You don’t have to look much further than this interaction to see the roots of populism and BREXIT along with their contribution to our current economic distress.
In Britain when it comes to opportunity the composite term ‘ethnic minorities’ hides more than it reveals. There are significant differences in social mobility within and between the different ethnicities. Even for example between different groups of Hindu immigrants. Those who came from East Africa, and that includes Sunak’s family, being notably successful. Ironically, the most disadvantaged today, those who fare worst at school, are white working class boys. It might be said they are represented on the Labour front bench by the eloquent Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting.
The Labour Party do have some ground to make up when it comes to who is available for, and chosen for, the top jobs. Talent is already there as Sadiq Khan, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, for example - all products of a comprehensive school education - have demonstrated. But as Black Lives Matter insists – with good reason - there remain structures of discrimination and institutional racism in British society. The primary task is to remove them creating a society where opportunity is evenly spread between men and women, faiths and ethnicities, and social mobility does not mean climbing up a limited number of ladders out of poverty. A tiny number of those ladders may lead to high political office in each Party but they are no substitute for racial justice and genuine equality of opportunity.
See TheArticle 28/10/22