There are times when saying ‘you couldn’t make it up’ is an understatement. Just two months after the Equality and Human Rights Commission gave the Labour a clean bill of health after the Party’s efforts to deal with antisemitism, a month after Jeremy Corbyn was banned from standing as a Labour parliamentary candidate because of his insistence that antisemitism in the Party had been “dramatically overstated’, Labour’s first black female MP and doughty campaigner against racism, Diane Abbott, found herself accused of antisemitism. No wonder Sir Keir Starmer was furious.
This embarrassment for Labour and bonus for the Tories came about from a letter to the Observer from Ms Abbott responding to an article on racism. Deborah Ross, film critic and columnist, said she was ‘baffled’ by Abbott’s remarks. She was not alone.
At first sight, the article by New Statesman writer Tomiwa Owolade, triggering the letter, did not contain much one might expect a fellow left winger to take exception to.
Owolade pointed out that other groups, such as Jews, Travellers and the Irish, suffered racism as well as people who are black, and cited research showing Jewish people are among those most likely to say they have experienced racist abuse.
The problem for many on the left, like Ms Abbott, is that this challenges a narrative which argues black people suffered far more – and still suffer more – than any other group from racism. The toxic legacy of colonialism and slavery, it’s claimed, has resulted in those with white skins continuing to oppress those with skins of a darker colour, and justifies actions and ambitions that range from pulling down statues, defunding the police, decolonising institutions, smashing capitalism and reparations paid to Caribbean nations.
If other groups suffer comparable racism, including those who are mainly white, then the narrative of the uniqueness of racism suffered by black people and their oppression by white people becomes difficult to defend. But the MP was up for the challenge.
Rather than directly engage with uncomfortable facts in Tomiwa Owolade’s article, Ms Abbott defended what her critics correctly described as a ‘hierarchy of racism’. Given the appalling racial abuse she has suffered and the history of black immigrants in Britain, together with a legacy of colonialism that considered black Africans savages, it’s not surprising this politician should believe her community suffers more than other UK minority groups from racism. More surprising, though, is the sophistry with which she made her case.
She argued that racism affecting groups other than black people could more correctly be described as ‘prejudice’. This was ‘similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable’.
Similar but not the same. And in case readers might see this as nothing more than a cynical rebranding exercise to replace the word racism with one that sounds a lot better, she helpfully tries to define the boundary where prejudice replaces racism.
‘It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice’.
To argue that racism affecting Jews is akin to the prejudice against redheads is both absurd and offensive. The MP’s rapid apology conceded that ‘Racism takes many forms and it is completely undeniable that Jewish people have suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others’. Women who like to colour their hair red will be relieved that Ms Abbott no longer included them in her racism hierarchy.
It is noticeable, however, that even in her apology, Ms Abbott did not resile from her belief that black people suffer from racism more than other groups. It would have meant, of course, effectively admitting that the case she had made, set out in some detail, was completely wrong. A case that, switching to a global perspective, included carefully selected observations from history.
White people, she wrote, ‘are not all their lives subject to racism. In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus.
‘In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote. And at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships.’
One bemused critic asked if Diane Abbott had never heard of Auschwitz.
Inevitably, in this war dividing the left, Tomiwa Owolade responded to Abbott’s response to his article. He questioned her claim that racism only applies to people who lack social, economic and political power and asked: ‘How do Traveller communities have any sort of power when they have the worst educational outcomes of all ethnic minority groups in the country? And doesn’t the power and privilege framework risk playing into one of the key tropes of antisemitism: that Jews have too much power?’
A deadly blow. Owolade knows that Diane Abbott’s reason for confining the word racism to those who lack social, economic and political power, was to exclude those pesky people, the Jews. Any league table of points scored for racial suffering, distasteful though it is, must put the Jews at the top.
This is not the first time someone has fallen into this swamp. In his hugely perceptive book Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel describes antisemitism as something seen as ‘a second-class racism’. The exclusion of Jews from the first class carriage was due to ‘a long history of capitalism being represented as Jewish power’. Jews were demonised as money grabbers who had risen on the backs of the workers.
Baddiel shows how for the Marxist-leaning left, the linking of Jews with the capitalist system is closely connected to their problem with antisemitism. He refers to the notorious mural that appeared on a wall in East London depicting figures caricatured as Jews playing monopoly on the backs of the poor. Jeremy Corby’s reluctance to condemn the mural, Baddiel believes, was because he saw it first and foremost as a powerful statement about capitalism.
I would add the awkward fact that under our capitalist system many Jews have achieved social, economic and political power, in spite of racism. Small wonder they should be excluded and not count. If only they had been less successful.
If David Baddiel writes an update for a new edition of his book then the Abbott letter will surely figure in it. A more immediate outcome is that Tories have enjoyed the red-on-red spat it provoked. Though the hierarchy of racism is unlikely to feature in election manifestos, it brought antisemitism back on stage for Labour.
Yet Sir Keir too, has something to quietly celebrate. The Abbott letter will almost certainly mean a potential left wing critic and trouble-maker will not be allowed to stand for Labour in the next General Election.
The biggest bonus is for those of us who are not just bemused by Diane Abbott’s letter but by the traction gained by a narrative of racial hierarchy and white privilege and oppression. She has exposed the flimsy and absurd nature of some arguments trotted out by the prosecution.
As for the MP, her spectacular own goal has almost certainly ended her political career. The excuse that it was a first draft simply will not wash.
We write to an editor commenting on an article because it has annoyed or angered us, or because it challenges strongly held beliefs. The first draft is a must-get-this-off-my-chest exercise. You then sit down and look at it as a cold-hearted letters editor or unsympathetic reader might. Is it foolish, biased or extreme? Is this argument weak? Might this sentence be misunderstood? And so on.
If you’re writing a letter in modern Britain about racism then you should also phone a friend. Go to bed exhilarated (this will show them!) and then read it again, in the sober light of morning.
No sub-editor could rescue this letter. Any way up, it was wrong from beginning to end. Bad history from someone with a Cambridge degree in history. Sophistry rather than a compelling marshalling of facts.
The background to all this is that many on the left hold the view that the UK is a racist country. More racist, I confess, than I believed. But not nearly as racist as many on the left claim, despite the shocking revelations of what has gone on in the Metropolitan Police.
Institutional racism, that toxic, difficult to define term, cannot be deduced from our history of colonialism, empire and slavery. The legacy may remain, but the reality of living with high immigration numbers and a smorgasbord of races, nationalities, and cultures, has largely trumped myths of colonial greatness and British exceptionalism. Our country has undergone a massive transformation in my lifetime, in British society and social attitudes. Mainly for the better.
We cannot heal the wounds of the past. Birmingham University, according to Google, says that history provides ‘a sense of the past, an awareness of the development of different values, systems and societies and the inculcation of critical yet tolerant personal attitudes.’
I just about buy that. I’d add that history should not be used as a stick with which to beat people, whatever skin colour they may have inherited, living in today’s world.
Fat chance. A few days after Diane Abbott’s letter hit the media, the Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the Prime Minister to make a full apology for ‘one of the greatest crimes in history’ and commit to reparatory justice.
The PM and the Leader of the Opposition declined this invitation. I fear the MP has done little to advance a case for a ministerial post in a Labour government.
It was about the same time that former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan popped up on Channel 4 news (where else?) to tell us about her campaign for reparative justice for former colonies in the Caribbean. She’s commendably donating £100,000 to Grenada as partial reparation for the profits her family made in the 19th century from slavery.
Ms Trevelyan can do whatever she likes with her own money. I have no idea whether my descendants profited from slavery. If they did, the money has been squandered.
A large majority of our citizens will be in the same position as me. It would be a brave (to borrow Yes Minister speak) government that told its taxpayers they must pay for their ancestors’ crimes committed hundreds of years ago.
Restorative justice may turn out to be a strategic mistake and one that takes some of the steam out of the identity politics that divide us.
As always, one lives in hope.
Brian Morris is a media consultant. His mother’s family is descended from the Huguenots who fled from persecution in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. His wife is a German citizen.