It’s hard to remember a time when Britain was as deeply divided and unsettled as this. There is a fissure running through the social fabrics of this country, briefly sown together during the World Cup, but now falling apart.
The heavy outpour of populism has seen to that, both its creator, facilitator and recipient. Maybe this is how it always was and is, but right now it feels as though there is a uniquely chilling, cynical and concussively deflating energy of unbelievable hate, prejudice and toxicity permeating through the country.
Boris Johnson’s comments about the burka sparked a furious debate. Firstly, it’s different to the niqab. It’s perfectly possible, and arguably necessary, to criticise it. Those who believe in structuralism would correctly pinpoint that it wields toxic cultural powers that impose misogynistic norms upon women. But does anyone think Boris Johnson’s comments stemmed from feminist motives? To argue for a ban or mock the women wearing it as Boris did is to deride them, to turn them into tropes and punch-bags for the bigots. And that is precisely what happened in the wake of his comments as the anti-Muslim hate crime watchdog Tell Mama reported a severe spike in Islamophobic incidents which they directly linked to his comments. Boris Johnson didn’t create anti-Muslim hate crime, but he lent it credence, a feeling of legitimacy. He’s in power and his words have power. He knew that.
What’s deeply unsettling is that the timing of these comments is not coincidental. The #FreeTommy movement highlighted the connectedness of the far-right on a global scale, loosely scattered yet converging across causes. Boris Johnson has been supported by Steve Bannon. Various influential far-right groups have been supporting Tommy Robinson’s release. The man has used his time in prison to parade himself as some sort of victim rather than an aggressive bigot. All of this has whipped up a maelstrom of support and it is that in which Boris Johnson has been tapping into, knowingly. Muslim women are an easy target. Erased entirely of their voices, by both sides, they have endured the bulk of anti-Muslim abuse and assaults.
This is the case of a politician siphoning from a social climate. Brexit’s social reaction was arguably the opposite where a political event didn’t create racism but set it at a boiling rate as bigots felt they had won and were no longer the outcasts in the UK.
To which we come to the other side of racism, from a group you would least expect it from, but only if you knew very little about their politics: Jeremy Corbyn and the far-left. The last few weeks, even months, have been dominated by the storm of the anti-Semitism crisis in the party. Corbyn has failed to quell it, even so much as disinterested with doing so. His supporters have refused to accept criticisms of him, dismissing them as smears and insisting in the goodness of his character. This is essentially cult behaviour, the sort you would hear in religious stories of those who were following the prophets. They believe in utopianism and treat people as expendable cogs with the ends justifying the means, no matter the costs of the suffering, because the cause of promised utopia is deemed worth it. But Corbyn is not a prophet: he’s a mediocre politician and one who has facilitated the outbreak of deep-rooted anti-Semitism in the left to break out in the party.
Whether it’s his regular sharing of platforms with anti-Semites, whether it’s his dismissive attitude towards Jewish critics like Margaret Hodge and Jonathan Freedland; whether it’s the mural, the Facebook groups, the wreath, Marc Wadsworth, Chris Williamson, Peter Willsman, there is a long list of enabling racism that keeps piling up. His most ardent supporters, like Owen Jones, promise an all-out unrelenting war on anti-Semitism and yet spend most of their time trying to excuse Corbyn and instead criticising Jews who take rightly take offence with Corbyn. Worse, with each tweet and article, Jones has lately become little more than a spin doctor for Corbyn; Alistair Campbell, but without all the likeable traits. For all their promises to tackle anti-Semitism, many within Labour are dishonestly policing the debate to treat anti-Semitism as outbursts of prejudice unconnected to Corbyn rather than an institutional rot linked to his leadership.
The point isn’t about whether Corbyn is himself an anti-Semite or about the goodness of his character. But he enables it. That isn’t the same thing as saying he created it, because he didn’t. It predated him just as racism predated Brexit. But these things often lurk on the fringes and need some sort of power to facilitate their shift into the centre, where it feels powerful, dominant and as the accepted mainstream. That is what has happened Labour where many members feel emboldened to share racist views because they feel their leader either supports or sympathises with them. Labour is now their platform. Likewise, bigots feel empowered to abuse minorities because Brexit was fought over immigration and stoked white nationalism around the rhetoric of taking back control. What makes all of this galling is these same people who deny anti-Semitism point to Islamophobia within the Tory party. They are right, but their dishonesty cannot be more obvious in using the experiences of one group to downplay another’s. Conversely, those who downplay Islamophobia but point to anti-Semitism are equally bad.
There will come a point when sanity takes over and social democracy fights back. It has to. Those with a belief in social justice and tolerance need to rediscover their red line and ask whether it’s worth having a socialism that was forged from the acceptance of racism towards a historically persecuted group. As someone who felt catharsis in leaving Labour, I would argue that it’s time to accept Corbyn needs to move on.
We have now reached a moment where both main parties in Britain are suffering from institutional racism. Neither are worthy of leading this country.