Scenes today from central London have sparked understandable outrage at the level of brutality, civil disorder and abuse visible during protests in central London. Elsewhere across the country, Twitter has been awash with videos of groups, some larger than others, proclaiming to be ‘defending’ statues which they perceive to be under some sort of threat.
The behaviour towards innocent bystanders, the police and journalists has been rightly condemned and should be a stark warning to anybody on the side of civil order and democracy, with the image of Nazi salutes, fascist behaviour and weapons directed towards police a stark contrast to the silent, peaceful demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement still taking place in many places across the UK and overseas.
But whilst it is easy to ridicule and stereotype the individuals behind the actions seen in Westminster today, I wonder whether these actions highlight growing evidence that the argument for democracy, decency and globalisation is being rapidly lost. The all-too-easy trope of insulting the intelligence of the individuals involved, replaces working towards any meaningful action which might help to address why a growing number of people and communities feel isolated and threatened by the change of pace in a society that has left them behind.
Whilst I am obviously not condoning or ignoring the despicable actions or abhorrent views of certain individuals, perhaps it is time to explore beyond the stereotype, to identify the common thread between individuals who are, more often than not, white, working-class, nationalistic and proud of the Union Jack. Such an image is characterised and demonised in the form of the ‘Chav’, but if we try to understand why these groups are so clearly non-diverse, I believe we can take steps towards addressing the structural root of the problem. It is too easy to mock the intelligence level or behavioural habits of an individual on Twitter, and whilst doing so might garner a round of applause, this doesn’t address the fact that these individuals are often representative of a larger community of shared thought. For every protestor, there lies a hundred festering thoughts inside people who did not come to act out a particular form of violent ‘thuggery’ today. Those of us who sit broadly on the Left, in political terms, need to take the fight off Twitter and practice more the tolerance which we preach, meaningfully finding ways in which to bridge the gap, whether this is socially or culturally, rather than playing by the same rules which proponents of the Right use to whip their followers into a frenzy. Are the roles of Nigel Farrage and Owen Jones so different when both are so adept at following, not the public’s mood, but the mood of their public; manipulating that into likes and follows, knowing ultimately that they will never have to face the consequences? What is the purpose of any Twitter click-bait activism if it isn’t to directly force or impart change? The evidence of this can be seen in the repeated failings of the Left to truly understand the wider public mood, first with Brexit and more recently with the landslide victory of Boris Johnson. We need to fight a better fight.
The working-class are systemically oppressed, ignored and dehumanised in every aspect of British society, and scenes from events such as today only serve to reinforce the stereotype of the council housed, state schooled white male as being little more than a lust-centric animal. This is not true. Of course, some people will always be looking for a fight with criminal and illegal behaviour, but my concern is with the wider community from which they arise. On a wider picture, we do not talk about class in this country. It’s a dirty word: those who are middle-class see no need to mention it, as their very class has obtained the privilege they enjoy, and those who are working-class would never self-identify as such because of the cultural and societal shame this seems to bring with it. When Tony Blair declared that, ‘we’re all middle-class now,’ he was simply giving credence to a post-Thatcherite system of class denial, where traditional working-class industries had been destabilised, sold off and replaced in popular discourse. I recently rewatched the excellent films Pride and Brassed Off, and what struck me most watching these films retrospectively, is the way in which the cultural aspects of the typical working-class lifestyle: whether it be the local colliery band or the historic sport of pigeon racing, have been completely erased from popular discourse and identity. Community has been eroded, the self is king. No other type of community has been as changed and as culturally erased than the regional working-classes. At the same time, traditional working-class industries have been replaced by a society built on middle-management and IT, whilst the traditional pastime of relaxing in the local with a pint has become less necessary as traditional gender roles have been challenged and houses have more widespread access to the basic facilities, such as central heating, which made visiting the pub more attractive than staying at home in the first place.
The rumbling anti-immigration rhetoric of the last ten years tapped into this fear with incredible results. Easy to make immigrants and people of colour (both real and those imagined swarms created in the headlines of the tabloid press) scapegoats for a wider societal issue which seeks to displace the working-class and reinforce the injustice which keeps the powerful in power. Feeding a narrative that jobs are disappearing, not because of the repeated actions of successive Conservative governments, but because other people are ‘stealing’ those same jobs, completely rewrites history and reality and taps into the uncertainties of the working-classes to powerful effect by making the inexplicable, simple.
My parents’ generation and their folks have lived through a time where every single certainty in their life has been challenged and removed. The basic human need for a sense of identity and community, formerly satisfied with the ‘lads’ in the mine or at the pub, has now taken on a more specific form of British identity, where questioning the moral legacy of Churchill is seen as an attack on a shared history and identity, which stands up to little historic scrutiny. Hence the threat and need to cling on to cultural capital, whether that be the narrative of WW2 or Basil Faulty not wanting to talk about it, because the anger doesn’t arise from the issue, but from the cheerleaders who repeatedly tell us: you should be angry about this.
We all seek and create heroes and villains, and for working-class communities who have been duped by administrations on both sides, it is easier, simpler and more actionable, to identify villains within ones own understanding, than to form a view which identifies the real culprits as being systems far outside the control or influence of most of us. The tabloid press have made a business model out of distilling complex arguments into simple headlines, a dangerous effect we see now repeated in our politicians, who deliberately and knowingly boil huge ambitiously nuanced arguments into catchy slogans: take back control! £350m a week! Get Brexit done! By filtering an argument through a simple to understand, ‘take back control’ rhetoric, it is an easy step towards making it a perceived absolute that some control must have been lost for us to need to reclaim it.
Thus the rush to London today was about finding an opportunity to return to a communal sense of belonging, where it is easier to sing Rule Britannia and ‘protect’ the statue of Winston Churchill, than to acknowledge that the Black Lives Matter movement is not a threat to you, your job or your cultural identity. The engagement in violence and illegal activity becomes an opportunity to be noticed for people whom society has made invisible. Thus the appeal of Johnson as ‘man of the people’ who speaks to the same nationalistic identity that one identifies within, is easier and simpler to accept, than to realise, recognise and form a view on the fact that he is the figurehead of a system whose sole purpose is to keep you down and to keep him up. Johnson and Cummings know this, as did Thatcher before them.
We have seen a lot of abuse being hurled in the past week, whether to the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests or the JK Rowling debate, demanding that people, ‘educate themselves’ to resist becoming the problem. This argument, which is sound in principle, drips with classism: how can one educate oneself if one lacks the knowledge of where to start? The comprehensive system in this country educates working-class youth to a simplistic, narrow world point, which seeks to ensure children leave school not challenging the systems around them, let alone encouraging them to understand them. It is little surprise to me that the angry response to ‘black lives matter’ is ‘all lives matter’ by a community who once again feel that everything has been taken away, and the few certainties they have been confident in are being challenged without providing people with the means to address them.
In teaching, we discuss the need to teach people how to learn. There’s no point trying to learn content if you don’t know how to translate that knowledge into meaningful education. We have to help communities left behind by the rest of society, for whom access to Twitter, knowledge of the documentary structure and the iPlayer archive, are a huge privilege society doesn’t acknowledge. We know we can read a well thought-out opinion piece by a respected columnist in the Guardian, not because we’re inherently more intelligent than others, but because we’ve been privy to the conversations and given access to the systems to allow us to know that not all newspapers are like the Sun, that news is manipulated and distorted by agenda, and that the Guardian broadly fits with our own Left views.
We rightly should condemn the abhorrent actions of individuals displayed in the name of democracy today. But shouting into the vacuum of Twitter to make ourselves feel morally superior is wrong. We address nothing and impact no change while we’re more bothered about surrounding ourselves with views that correspond with ours instead of rolling our sleeves up and doing the less glamorous, but much more important work of directing education and change in the real world.