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Saturday, 19th April 2014

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Veiled ambitions

The lack of real choice for voters in Britain’s political system is not completely new. The post-World War Two consensus of nationalisation and direct provision of welfare services was- a consensus. And during the Thatcher years, the media-supported breakaway of senior Labour politicians to form the Social Democratic Party ensured that the Labour Party could not be elected.

But in the old days, the trade union base and socialist constitution of the Labour Party meant at least that the major parties appeared to represent different social forces.  To ensure that the press and broadcasters would present Labour as ‘electable’, the base had to be diluted and the constitution had to be amended.  Tony Blair was the man for the job.  He was so charmed that the contradictory charges of opportunism against him – one that he had abandoned all principles, the other that he had not really abandoned his principles and was secretly planning to be implement real Labour policies once elected – seemed to cancel each other out. 

Thus was born the phenomenon now known as ‘crossdressing’ – the political transexualism in which the candidates to lead the country parade in unconventional clothes and thrill the punters with excitement or worry about what will be revealed underneath when they get down to business. Apparently, adventurous visitors to Thailand can enjoy a not dissimilar kind of uncertainty for a few Baht.  

The perils for an ingénue in this game have been highlighted during the recent political party conference season.  As Alan Cowell of the New York Times noted, new Conservative leader David Cameron is the head of:

“…an institution with a middle-class core - blue-blazered and blue-rinsed, drawn from a largely white middle-class comfort zone that aspires to low taxes and high walls of privilege. All that, they say, could make many Tories wonder about his promise of a new party built on issues like the environment, the family and social responsibility.”

Cowell made another observation which has had less direct attention in the British media:

“Some Conservative bloggers, like Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome.com, argue that Cameron's green and caring policies risk forfeiting what he calls the ‘Morrison’ voters, named for a cost-cutting supermarket chain whose blue-collar customers are most vulnerable to crime and poor public services, who resent tax increases and who feel most unsettled by low-wage immigrants.”

The ideological protection racket

Political parties and media outlets sometimes manufacture or exaggerate problems and then demand (or promise) that something must or will be done about them.  This helps build the careers of politicians and media moguls, and also legitimises the roles these people occupy as involving some kind of useful social function.  But there is no shortage of real problems which, at global and national level, capitalism causes or makes worse. 

Where such issues can be identified, not as problems of capitalism, but as problems caused by or attached to a distinct group of people, particularly people who are ‘different’, our pluralist ideological arrangements really comes into their own.  The capitalist press and capitalist politicians compete to most valiantly protect us from those who embody the symptoms of capitalism.

During the British Labour governments of the mid to late 1970s, an enormous amount of media attention was devoted to the scourge of street crime; at every opportunity the newspapers pointed out that many of the ‘muggers’ were black.  The electoral beneficiaries of this campaign were the small, openly racist National Front, and to a much greater extent, the Conservative Party. 

Even though crime rates followed unemployment to spectacular levels in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s regime, Labour in opposition could derive no electoral benefit from this; rather, the Conservatives gained as the problem became worse under their rule.  The media ensured that most people understood that crime is caused by criminals – not by social conditions; and the Conservatives were seen as being ‘tougher’ on criminals.   But then, according to the mini-biography of Tony Blair on the Downing Street website:

“After the 1992 election [won by the Conservatives] Labour's new leader, John Smith, promoted Blair to Shadow Home Secretary. It was in this post that Mr Blair made famous his pledge that Labour would be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.

“John Smith died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1994, and in the subsequent leadership contest Tony Blair won a large majority of his party's support...”

Blair, holding onto the support of those who believe that crime has wider social causes, and attracting other voters by promising to be just as tough on the actual perpetrators as the Conservatives, brilliantly outmanoeuvred the ruling party on this issue.  

All rinsed up with nowhere to go?

Since then, the absence of any significant policy differences between the Conservatives and the ruling Labour politicians has caused immense difficulties for a rapid succession of Conservative leaders, each to be sacked by their party after failing to make an impact.  Unable to distance themselves from Blair’s most unpopular action, the invasion of Iraq at the dictates of the USA, the Conservatives sought in 2004 to win back power by pitching hard to both ‘Middle England’ and the ‘Morrison voters’ by attacking Gypsies and immigrants.  High-circulation newspapers joined the fray, with the Sun infamously demanding “Stamp on the [traveller] Camps”.

But the then Conservative leader Michael Howard alienated many middle- and working class voters with the ‘nastiness’ of his rhetoric; just as importantly, Howard lost the support of  businessmen who rely on low-cost immigrant workers to make high profits. 

Behind the Conservatives’ losing strategy, the campaign manager for the ‘nasty’ Michael Howard in 2004, was… David Cameron. 

Can Cameron’s new strategy, to reposition his party around “issues like the environment, the family and social responsibility” succeed?

Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, the high-intellectual magazine of the Conservative right, suggested that Cameron may not be risking too much by appealing to voters who want Britain to be a nicer place in a nicer world:

“When David Cameron is accused of alienating traditional Conservative voters with his tree-planting, hoodie-hugging and Israel-bashing, he has an easy riposte. Where are all these frustrated souls going to go? Defect to the high-taxing Liberal Democrats? Sign up to Gordon Brown's progressive consensus? Mr Cameron can reach out to the left as much as he likes if he has his party membership cornered.”

In Nelson’s article, published prior to the 2006 Labour and Conservative conferences, he also expresses optimism that minor right-wing parties such as the UK independence Party (UKIP) will not bleed too many “frustrated souls” from the Conservative Party.

The new nastiness

But Nelson may have underestimated the ruthless ambition, potential for nastiness and tactical awareness of other leading figures in Britain’s major party of right, left and centre – Labour.  If so, he was in very good company.  In the August 29th editorial of this magazine (21st Century Socialism), analysing the negative effects of the ‘tough talking’ on immigration by the Labour government’s interior ministry chief (Home Secretary) John Reid, we commented:

“Tony Blair also… has declared that he wants us to be talking about immigration, together with terrorism and ‘community cohesion’.  Mr Blair will not be facing the next general election as leader of his party, and it may not worry him too much if the political fall-out from this prioritisation and combination of themes helps the Conservative Party and other openly right-wing forces and damages the Labour Party.”

Perhaps we – along with the Political Editor of the Spectator – missed important factors in our analysis. 

For one thing, there is a relatively new discourse which promotes a hostility to ethnic outsiders, raises a platform on which to appear as tough as anyone likes, and furthermore mobilises social liberals and people from the secular ‘left’ behind the country’s strong, uncompromising leadership: the need to confront Islamic terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic failure to integrate… the need, in fact, to bravely combat everything Islamic that one can find fault with. 

Leading the manoeuvre to outflank Cameron, and pre-empting his Labour leadership rivals, John Reid sternly instructed parents of the Moslem faith on their duty to watch their children for early “tell tale signs” of radicalism.  While the Conservatives were phasing out their strident symbol of the blue flaming torch and replacing it with a fuzzily-drawn green tree, Reid issued a stirring call to arms:

“Victory in this ideological battle - this battle of values - is the only victory that will secure true peace.”

This was followed by what the Sun described as a “power-packed speech” by John Reid at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, in which he repeated his intention to toughen-up Britain’s immigration controls, and accused the Conservatives of going soft on crime and terrorism.

In his final address to the Labour Conference, (much of which, according to the Daily Telegraph, was actually written by himself), the dear departing leader Tony Blair also derided David Cameron from the right, claiming that he was pandering to anti-Americanism, was vague on immigration policy and was too sympathetic to young criminals. Crushingly, he said of Cameron:

“…his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug.”

At the Conservative Conference which followed, Cameron steadfastly refused to be pinned down to a commitment to reduce taxes.  And hardly had the fading blue of confused conference Conservatism been rinsed from our screens, than we were rudely woken to the dangers posed to our country’s modern, tolerant, diverse identity by the faceless women of the horizontally slitted veil. 

Hoods and veils

Apparently, some Moslem women in Northern England had visited their local MP’s surgery while wearing the niqab, and this made their (male) parliamentarian feel uncomfortable because he could not see their facial expressions.  Instead of merely  asking these constituents face-to-face (so to speak) – to convey the request that they produce their faces for his inspection, the local MP decided to announce his concerns in the national media. 

The Honourable Jack Straw, the Blackburn MP who roused us to confront this grave threat to human communication, was the British Foreign Minister who took us to war with (secular) Iraq, plunging the country into an ethno-religious sectarian bloodbath.  Straw is said to be a supporter of Gordon Brown in the fight to be Britain’s next prime minister.

Straw’s remarks happened to coincide with a burst of news stories targeting Moslems, including a London taxi driver who allegedly refused to allow a blind woman’s guide dog into his vehicle and a police officer who was allowed by his superiors to undertake alternative duties instead of guarding the Israeli Embassy.

A naive observer might have concluded that there is an establishment conspiracy to isolate and lay virtual siege to the Moslem community, thinly disguised as a series of attempts to encourage it to leave its ghetto and nestle in the welcoming bosom of mainstream society.

Meanwhile, as the Daily Telegraph reported on 6th October, an actual siege was taking place in the home town of our Queen:

“A fourth night of clashes sparked by a minor altercation outside a Muslim-owned dairy in Windsor was averted last night by police.

“Three police riot vans swooped on a 40-strong mob of hooded youths who had gathered outside the Medina dairy…

“The dairy is used for prayers and its owners are backing plans for an Islamic teaching centre in the Berkshire town. A gang of up to 50 local youths have gathered in the Dedworth area of the town since the beginning of the week, hurling stones and abuse at dairy staff. They have also damaged property. On Wednesday night a home-made petrol bomb was thrown from a passing motorbike.

“Another two petrol bombs, iron bars and knives were found in a search of the area.”

A reason to be cheerful?

In one of the more informative media interventions which followed, BBC Radio 4 carried on 12th October a half-hour documentary which lived up to the channel’s slogan ‘intelligent speech’.  The programme, entitled ‘Unveiled’, included a brief interview with a niqab-wearing citizen of Mr Straw’s Blackburn constituency, an articulate young woman who, although she is a lecturer to A-level students on psychology and religious studies courses, spoke with typical Northern England bluntness.  She made the remark that Jack Straw’s comment was unhelpful because:

“…people who don’t have an opinion will form one and no doubt it will be a biased opinion.”

At first this remark sounded slightly shocking.  Our Western democracy prides itself on everyone’s right to have opinions – given that, it seemed almost an affront to suggest that there are issues on which many people don’t have an opinion and perhaps it would be better if it were to stay that way.

But let us look closer. There are many matters on which most people have either no opinion, or very hazy, unstable opinions – because they don’t have the information or framework of analysis on which to form a judgement, or because the issue does not appear to be relevant or important to them; one could even argue that there is little point in having opinions on matters over which one has no influence or responsibility.

In other circumstances, the case of Aisha Azmi, a veil-wearing teaching assistant who was suspended from her post at Headfield Church of England Primary School in Yorkshire, might well come into that category.  There may be information on crucial matters - concerning educational theory, the way the school is organised, how many male teachers there are in the school, whether arrangements other than removal of Ms Azmi from her job could produce a satisfactory outcome - to which few people have access and even fewer have given thoughtful consideration; employment tribunals often spend several days listening to and weighing up such detailed information. 

For politicians and media controllers in the capitalist market of ideas, forming and changing ones own opinions and those of others is far more than just a matter of information, analysis and principle; it is a key part of how to raise your profile and improve your prospects and/or those of your political faction or news factory. 

Ms Azmi’s suspension became public knowledge on 13th October. The very next day, Phil Woolas, the Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion, was able despite his busy schedule to form the opinion that Ms Azmi should be sacked, and furthermore, to ensure through the media that we all know about it.

No doubt worried about being left behind by the bandwagon, the Conservatives joined the fray; the Daily Telegraph on 15th October announced, under the headline: “Tories accuse Muslims of ‘creating apartheid by shutting themselves off’”:

“David Davis, the [Conservative] shadow home secretary, says that Britain risks social and religious divisions so profound that society's very foundations, such as the freedom of speech, will become ‘corroded’ and that the perfect conditions for home-grown terrorism will be created.

“His stark intervention, in an article for The Sunday Telegraph, represents a toughening of the Tory stance on the dangers of Islamic radicalism and follows calls from some leading ministers for Muslim women to remove their veils. It is also a departure from the ‘caring Conservatism’ message laid out by David Cameron…

“Mr Davis won support from David Blunkett, Labour's former home secretary, who said: ‘We should not go out of our way to avoid saying things that we want to say because we might actually cause a rumpus.’”

But the Telegraph article also told us the following:

“An ICM poll this weekend showed 57 per cent of voters want Muslims to do more to fit in and 53 per cent agree with Mr Straw that the full veil creates a barrier between Muslim women and other people.”

Only 57%?  Only 53%?  Those figures suggest that had the media been saturating us with positive rather than negative news stories about Moslems, only a minority would have expressed agreement with these views.

The 53% support for the proposition that “the full veil creates a barrier between Muslim women and other people” is particularly interesting.  The statement is almost a tautology: the full veil is, by definition, at the very least a visual barrier.  Yet barely more than half of the respondents were willing to agree with the proposition.  This suggests that a lot of people have an idea what Mr Straw is up to and do not like it.

Unreported in the Telegraph was the fact that among the 18 to 24 year olds who were surveyed by ICM in the opinion poll, only 31% were prepared to agree with Jack Straw that “the full veil creates a barrier.”  Perhaps there are grounds for optimism for ‘community cohesion’, despite the best efforts of the manufacturers and traders in our political marketplace.