Friday, April 13, 2007

Blair's Britain: a drab landscape of wrecked lives and ruined illusions.

A pair of related stories caught my eye this week. One was the front cover of Metro, which announced that there was a race divide among single parents. That is, government figures say that close to "half the black children in Britain are being raised by single parents":

The biggest percentage of lone-parent households is among black ethnic groups. Forty-eight per cent of black Caribbean families have one parent, as do 36 per cent of black African households.

Single-parent families are less common among Indians (ten per cent), Bangladeshis (12 per cent), Pakistanis (13 per cent), Chinese (15 per cent) and whites (22 per cent).

Notice, first of all, this the Metro's description of "almost half the black children" only applies if one only counts black Carribean families as containing black children. Secondly, that whites are named last despite having one of the highest rates. Thirdly:

Children who grow up without their biological father are more likely to be unemployed, commit crime and leave education early, according to research by think tank Civitas.

They are also twice as likely to be homeless.

There is an insidious argument being constructed already here, but I think before we consider that, we should move on to the next story, which was announced on Evening Standard billboards as: "Blair Speaks Out on Black Crime". Sure enough, he blames a spate of recent murders on black culture. He also instructed black people to root out the evil within: "the black community - the vast majority of whom in these communities are decent, law abiding people horrified at what is happening - need to be mobilised in denunciation of this gang culture that is killing innocent young black kids". Further, he attacked the idea that there are social causes to this kind of crime: "We need to stop thinking of this as a society that has gone wrong - it has not - but of specific groups that for specific reasons have gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct towards others and need by specific measures to be brought back into the fold."

Let's go back to Civitas for a moment. This is a Thatcherite think-tank that proffers 'non-partisan' (conservative) solutions to social problems, and is actually registered as a charity. Publicising racist tirades from Anthony Brown about immigration and family values crap about single mothers and drugs (whose misuse they associate with a black taint on British culture), they nevertheless insist that neutrality is assured by the lack of an explicit party loyalty. And so, an unthinking Metro scribe can cite their 'research' as if it did in fact represent a serious intellectual enterprise. So that's the PR from the policy-boffin angle sorted. The combination of government figures, undoubtedly released with a timely eye to Blair's intervention, with the mandate of 'independent experts' generates the illusion of a technically efficient case from which only ideologues, the self-pitying community and the politically-correct liberals could demur from.

Of course, the case itself is fairly pathetic. If, as Blair so stridently (and defensively) indicates, it is not a matter of social failure, then clearly the explanation must have something to do with euphonious phrases about 'culture'. One wonders how this 'gang culture' emerges? From 'blackness' itself? From the void? Secondly, why are these rhetorical strategies never invoked to deal with white violence? Why are phrases like 'white-on-white crime' not on Evening Standard billboards? Are we not here seeing a quite conscious and deliberate effort to extend the racist discourse about Muslim alterity and its stubborn insistence on prevailing against the best efforts of a tolerant assimilationist establishment, to black people? At the same time, doesn't it also reflect a failed project, namely the Blairite one of restoring confidence in the idea of Britain? This was the 1997 Blairite theme, par excellence: a nation at ease with itself, comfortable with the flags aloft, sympathetically accomodating difference - all apparently to be achieved by a curious combination of aggressive neoliberalism, mild social democracy and a powerful vein of social authoritarianism. I recall purchasing a book of Blair's articles entitled 'Britain: A Young Country', in late 1996 (I was not a Blairite even then, but I was curious). The appeal to patriotism was not merely a charade for the Murdochite press: it consciously pressed the buttons of the sentimental liberal, with its citations of Milton and its appeal to classlessness. It preached renewal on two fronts. On the one hand, the trauma of class struggles had been superseded and a new confident Britain would see class distinctions fading into a multitude of competitive meritocratic gradations. On the other, what Paul Gilroy calls the 'bunting' of empire was being taken down with only the occasional refulgence of festivities in the Falklands and during the Gulf war, and Blair advocated a new post-empire identity with devolved local powers and a Cool Britannia nationalism in the spirit of Skinner and Baddiel's Euro '96 football theme (you may want to consider Chomsky's 'sports rap' when you come to ask why sporting events are frequently the venue of all forms of nationalism). The resounding failure of this vision can be gauged by the public verdict, which is that Britain is a more dangerous and unpleasant place to live, in which the rich are too favoured, and wars too easily embarked on. Pluralities also consider that crimmos, gays and blacks are getting it rather easy under Blair, which is certainly something to think about: the Prime Minister probably did when he considered this 'frank' intervention.

The rot started fairly early, with the repeated tough-guy attacks on asylum seekers, with Straw's soliloquies about refugees shitting on doorsteps, and with Blunkett's traditionalist agenda, itself a feeble attempt to arrest a cat that is long since out of the bag. The alacrity with which British Asians were blamed for the Bradford riots in 2001, the speed with which Asian 'culture', and their failure to speak English, was blamed, testify to a chronic disavowal at the heart of the government and, by implication, the whole British establishment. For what they oversee and perpetuate is a vicious racial hierarchy, which manifests itself on practically every axis of life: in the labour market, the prisons, healthcare, the education system and cultural production. That is on a national level: globally, the British empire has been supplanted by the American one, but British soldiers still do their bit for the international racial hierarchy. Because this is so much in evidence, and so familiar in the statistics, any government that is of a moderate or conservative persuasion is in need of strategies of evasion. This has been amplified to the nth degree during the 'war on terror', so that one finds serious attempts at offering culturalist or theological explanations for violent Islamist strategies that take no account of the experience of black and Asian Britons in the daily life of the United Kingdom, which cannot be fundamentally at fault. That its domestic treatment of non-whites and its international subordination of non-whites can make the Islamist fraternities, with their masculinist revivalism, seem appealing - that is inadmissible.

This racial hierarchy is opposed by a multiethnic hydrarchy, an Atlanticism that has nothing to do with the 'special relationship', and a globalism that has nothing to do with war or the IMF riot. For all that Labour politicians bang on about the alienation of the white working class when their racist rhetoric gives the BNP a foothold, the actually existing working class in this country is in large part a multiracial hybrid, bonded especially by cultural traditions that have emerged in periods of collective struggle. The fact that opportunistic Labour politicians consistently, if surreptitiously, allow Britishness and whiteness to be conflated, points to the continuing ways in which nationhood is bound up with 'race'. We should be doubly wary when they try to rally the troops, as it were, with their 'Proud of Britain' spiel. It is the forms of loose comity and solidarity that we have witnessed in the antiwar movement, that poses the greatest threat to New Labour - unsurprisingly the electoral challenge is concentrated where this solidarity has been most in evidence.

Aside from the collapse of Blair's vision, however inherently unpleasant it was, we have to bear witness to a certain sullenness, a certain lack of confidence in the entire notion of Britishness, or even Englishness. Generations of young people today are more likely to feel local filiations or to have radically global sympathies. This is the anti-Blair youth, the refugees from ugly housing estates, dreary suburbs, seedy nightclubs and kitschy television. They are entering the workplaces for the first time, and finding them miserable, uninspiring, manipulative affairs. They have often been through the university system together, shared the same cynicism and cult fetishes, and now watch with contempt and bemusement as an increasingly alien and rarefied political elite issues its condemnations and blank stares. They encounter the same problems, increasingly - even where qualified competently - excluded from the system, reduced to menial roles and lower incomes, perhaps with overbearing student loans to pay off should they have a modicum of success. These are the new internationalists, the Chavistas, the anti-racists and the footsoldiers of a genuine war against fascism.