Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
In 2011, our last year in the East End, anti-gay stickers began to appear: on lamp-posts, on pedestrian crossings, on bus-stop shelters. “Fear Allah,” they declared. Henceforth, the area between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel was to be a “Gay-free zone.”
Had you asked me to guess my response before I put my hand out that cold April morning to press the button on the pedestrian crossing, before I took in the specific nature of this anti-gay gobbet of hatred, I would have (remembered how we dealt with Section 28 and) predicted that I would have laughed at it, albeit with anger, with contempt.
But I didn’t laugh, and I didn’t feel angry. I felt sick. It took hard work not to analyse the meaning of these messages with regard to the place I called “home”.
In the Daily Telegraph at the time I wrote:
“I’ll tell you what I never want to hear again. I never want to listen to a politician, living somewhere far, far removed from Bethnal Green, uttering a sentence like: “On the one hand, the Islamic extremists… On the other, the equally offensive English Defence League…”, as though the two have independent but morally equivalent aetiologies. I don’t expect philosophical grandeur from any government. But I do expect its representatives to understand the difference between cause and effect.”
Now that Keith and I are “far, far removed from Bethnal Green”, has either phenomenon – Islamist extremism, or the pusillanimous but what about this other awful thing? response from “authority” – abated? Five years of Conservative-led government have passed, after all.
Some chance! This week the Sunday Times reported that men involved with the Trojan Horse plot (to impose Islamism on state-funded, non-selective schools) had wriggled free from their teaching bans (which are in any case under appeal), and were “educating” more English school-children in various “community” centres. You will be astonished to learn that one of them was recently elected secretary of his local Labour Party.
But perhaps my obsession with an extreme ideology whose adherents regularly call for my extermination misses the point. Perhaps I’m being selfish.
“The Prevent strategy is seeing a growth in far-right referrals,” said Ben Wallace, the Security Minister, to the Commons recently. “In some areas of the country, these Prevent referrals outnumber those about the other parts [my emphasis] we are worried about.”
Don’t you love “the other parts”? Perhaps if we don’t name it, it won’t hurt us. You’ll have noticed the new narrative, that post-Brexit vast swathes of the UK have been revealed to be snarling pits of Nazi-sympathisers, ready to murder anyone who “looks a bit funny.”
That there really are disgusting Nazi sympathisers in the UK isn’t the point, nor that the government and security service monitor them, nor that wicked acts against individual Britons, posited on their religion, should be a focus of the criminal justice system. We all support that. But the narrative of “On the one hand … on the other… “ downgrades the principle threat to the good society. It is also elides any expression of concern about extreme Islamism with a slippery slope which terminates in the dreaded “Islamophobia.”
A Blairite writer in the Times is worried about Marine Le Pen, for example. He had noted, in a way that suggested a mystery, that the Front National was “courting the gay vote and even attracted 13 per cent of Jewish voters in the 2012 presidential race.”
Don’t, whatever you do, ask why populists are becoming more attractive to segments of the electorate which the Left traditionally assumes are its own. There must be a lot of fascist gay and Jewish French voters, is the implied post-Brexit inference.
I’ve no idea how I’d vote were I French. But I can just about imagine – have been able to do so, ever since my fingers paused on that Bethnal Green pedestrian crossing button, and my eyes read what my brain feared to acknowledge – why a gay Parisian, even as he understands the FN economic policy to be ludicrous, might just decide to send an unequivocal message to the Left at the next election: “Your support for open-door immigration, and your never-implemented witterings about integration, have left me frightened in my home.”
Perhaps his Jewish neighbour would continue: “It is no longer tenable for the Left to suggest that most anti-semitism in France originates from the le Pens, whether the shitty old père or the gay-vote-courting fille.”
Thus theoretical gay and Jewish Parisians, with respect to the Front National; so, too, actual northern Labour voters, with respect to UKIP?
The message of the Left – that there really isn’t a problem with extremist Islam in the UK, and in so far as we’ll admit there is a problem, it is counter-balanced by far-Right Islamophobia which just randomly springs into being – isn’t only wrong. Nor is it “merely” fuelling the rise of the populists.
It is also killing liberalism, and not just the identity-obsessed client-group-focused new-Left “progressive” pseudo-liberalism, which is dying, thankfully, in front of our eyes.
The muscular liberalism of our youth is withering also, the one that (for example) left my generation able to, yes, gasp in horror at Section 28, but never for a moment worry that the Government was seriously out to get us. We understood the liberal society’s rules: you can organise against, build majorities against, ultimately repeal legislation of which you disapprove, and in parallel nudge attitudes from where they are now to where a good society would have them be.
We used muscular liberalism to defeat an enemy even more wicked than Section 28. Our ideology – the good society is a free one – took on communism, which (younger readers) was an ideology that wasn’t always an inevitable busted flush. It had strong and active adherents across the British Left, from the dribbling Fabian Webbs, who just loved what Stalin did with farming, to their fellow travellers lamenting the iniquities of capitalism in university faculties the length of the land.
We didn’t fight communism for a laugh – nor to make some sort of “dividing line” with which to win elections – but because communist thought leads to totalitarian practice and as such is entirely inimical to the good life.
Nor did we worry that robust expression of liberal antipathy towards communism would make some of its adherents feel “victimised”. Governments didn’t waste millions constructing strategies to fight “Communophobia”, but understood that sometimes nice people have to be told that the things they believe in are wrong, that they contradict the rules we have evolved about how to live with one another.
We need to rediscover that muscular self-belief in a liberalism that, among many other things, justifies the right of every gay Briton to cross Bethnal Green Road in peace, of every Jewish Briton to enter the kosher supermarket without fear, of every women to dress as she pleases, of every child to learn about Darwin, of every soldier to implicitly feel our shared pride in his uniform, of every priest to offer the sacrament without nervously glancing at the church door, of every hedonist to dance all night in any club they damn well choose … all without worrying that they are “offending” someone as they do so.
Use that liberal muscle – like any muscle, use it or lose it. Lose it, and populism will thrive; only, by that time, I suspect populism would be the least of our worries. Certainly of mine; I’m one of the people, after all, that the good society’s enemies always deal with first.