Author: Nick Cohen
If you want to understand the future, look at an experiment conducted at Manchester University on whether wealth should be redistributed from rich to poor. A majority thought it should and showed robust support for the proposition that money should be spent on educational opportunities for working-class children.
This is real politics, is it not? Tax and spend and redistribution powered the debates of the 20th century. The culture wars that fill the airwaves today seem an ephemeral American import in comparison. America was the aberration of 20th-century western politics. Unlike European societies, it never found the social solidarity to develop a mass social democratic party. As a nation of immigrants, poisoned by the original sin of slavery, the US was concerned with race politics, while we were concerned with class.
On this reading, our leftwing inquisitors who squint through mean, little eyes as they hunt for the tiniest traces of heresy, or conservatives who scream they are on the side of “the people” as they stuff their rich sponsors’ pockets with tax cuts, are US-inspired tricksters who divert their credulous followers from what matters.
Brexit is such an affront because it is a battle in a culture war as surely and pointlessly as Trump’s wall. It solves none of our old problems, just adds new ones. On its own terms of regaining control of our borders it has failed. Migration from the EU has fallen but migration from the rest of the world is at its highest since 2004. Given that the Brexit campaign specifically appealed to public fears of Islamist terrorism and Syrians, Iraqis and Turks pouring into Britain, it strikes me that Leave voters’ prime concern was not the arrival of French accountants and Spanish nurses. Brexit’s proponents don’t care about their failures. They insist that Brexit must grind on and grind us down because any suffering is better than admitting that the “liberal elite” was right.
And yet amid the trolling and the screaming comes irrefutable academic evidence showing the old concerns still matter the most.
But mark the sequel. After asking whether working-class children should receive a leg-up, the researchers rephrased the question. Should black and Muslim citizens, who are overwhelmingly working class, be the beneficiaries of affirmative action? Support for assistance targeted at the working class remained high – 70-80%. However, support for identical policies targeted at black Britons ranged from 17-29%, while support for assistance targeted at Muslims ranged from 7-14%.
America is no longer an aberration. America is our future. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, 60% of the English population was white and had left school without A-levels. When Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, that proportion had fallen to 40%. Over the same period, the share of the English population who were university graduates, members of an ethnic minority group or both went from 17 to 40%. In Britain, as in the US, progressive politics will be drawn to appeal to minorities and the educated, while rightwing politics will be drawn to appealing to “the whites”.
Research published last month by Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford showed British and US attitudes were converging and white identity politics was growing. A significant minority displayed the classic signs of racial resentment: the belief that ethnic minorities would get on if only they upped their game and tried harder; the conviction that racial discrimination does not exist, and was just an excuse peddled by interest groups looking for favours.
As European countries become immigrant nations, identity politics is inevitable. Who am I to say that it is less real than the old politics? If you are a woman confronted with a justice system that fails to prosecute rapists, or a black or Asian businessman who wants to vote Conservative but can’t because the party cannot acknowledge the racism you have experienced, or a Jew staring at the leader of the Labour party as he endorses “art” straight out of Nazi iconography and says you don’t understand “English irony”, or a white, working-class boy who listens to the demands to promote women and minorities and wonders what modern Britain offers you, your concerns aren’t frivolous.
Before surrendering to the new order, however, notice how it encourages race-baiting careerists. Labour’s promotion of antisemitism, the oldest hatred of all, looks electorally insane: it fractures the progressive coalition that might take it to power. From the point of view of Chris Williamson, though, “trolling the Jews”, as the Jewish Chronicle neatly put it, could help him if he runs for Labour leader. With both main parties taking away from MPs the power to elect their leaders and giving it to activists in US-style primaries, inflaming the prejudices of hardcore party members rather than appealing to the wider electorate is the opportunist’s way ahead.
Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the street, last week saw the first instance to my knowledge of a senior Tory making a direct appeal to white identity politics. Nick Timothy’s advice to Theresa May to call an election and impose crippling red lines on our negotiations with the EU makes him one of the most disastrous figures in the history of the Tory party. But he can smell out the prejudices of the right like a tomcat smelling out sex. He told Telegraph readers that when the (black) MP David Lammy attacked May as “suburban”, it was a racist “dog whistle” to rally the left against the millions of suburban whites who support her. “Because what does he mean by ‘suburban’ if not white people?”
Lammy meant nothing of the sort. But notice how easily now the hucksters from right and left palm the race card from the bottom of the deck and resolve, that if you want to live in a halfway tolerable country, our first duty is to stop them.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
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