Quite why David Starkey was on the Newsnight panel in the first place remains something of a mystery. His specialism is the Tudor period, and whilst it might have been enlightening to hear him on the topic with regard to recent events, that’s not what we got. Neither is he an authority on the history of London, ‘black British history’ or anything other possible research area that springs to mind as being faintly relevant. One can only presume, sadly, that he was there for his ratings and his ability to ‘generate debate’. In that at least he turned out to be an ideal booking.
Emily Maitlis asked David Starkey for his opinion on the causes of the riots-he responded by pointing out that as a historian, in one sense he couldn’t say what had caused events, as it was too soon to say. I was actually quite taken with that response, and thought it spot on. Then the other shoe dropped:
‘The whites have become black’
This statement assumes 2 things: firstly that there are such things as ‘white’ and ‘black’ culture. Secondly, that it was the assumption of ‘black culture’ by white people that has led to the lawlessness and abandonment of fellow feeling, expressed through the riots.
I used to visit my mother in South Africa during the eighties, and lived there for several years in the nineties. I observed as a teenager & as an adult, the way in which people, sensing that flat-out racism was no longer a la mode, shall we say, would recast their views thus:
‘I’m not a racist. I’m a racialist. I don’t think people are better than each other, they’re just different. So why would someone from Khayelitsha want to live next door to me/go to my son’s school?’
I would put Starkey into this camp: A racist, but one who hides his racism under a veneer of ‘culture’. As he said ‘It’s not skin colour, it’s culture’. He then associates black culture with the rioting on the streets- ‘It certainly glorifies it’.
Later on in the panel discussion, he quoted a text message sent by a girl caught up in the riots, delivered in a faux Jamaican patois.
Young people have always had their own slang/groupspeech. Judging from my son and his friends, at the moment these consist of faux-Californian, faux-Italian (via Assassin’s Creed), text speak, faux-Essex and yes, faux-Jamaican. But to suggest that one text message sent by one teenager proves anything, is well, ridiculous.
Which brings me onto the question of technology: There has been has been much breathless commentary of the role of the Blackberry Messenger system in the riots, and in particular their spread over different districts of London. Repeat after me-technology is never a cause of events. It can enable people to act on their impulses, but can never cause them in the first place. To suggest as some have, that BBM was a contributory cause, is like saying the trains delivering troops to the Belgian front caused the First World War. After all, if technology was going to prevent crime, you’d have thought CCTV would have been of utility-and that has only enabled the police to do their job after the event.
Starkey, unprompted, brought up Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ speech. Now, that speech isn’t just a speech, any more than Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is just a speech. It’s a signifier- or, in crude terms, a dog-whistle. It says ‘I am about to talk about the impact of immigration in terms of race, even if I subsequently deny it.’ Which he duly did.
Later in the discussion, Starkey made reference to David Lammy, saying he ‘sounds white’. What does actually mean? Received pronunciation? Scouse? Brummy? Scots? To follow Starkey’s logic, you’d think he was saying that all whites sound alike, and therefore by extension, so do all blacks. If that’s not racist I don’t know what is-but I suspect that if interrogated on that point, DS would attempt to move the discussion onto ‘culture’ as per the block quote above.
But Starkey in saying this of Lammy, revealed his true game: not only to attribute much of the ills of society to the influence of ‘black’ culture on poor whites-but to simultaneously appropriate black Britons in positions of power to the white elite. Lammy is acceptable, because he is like ‘us’.
It’s at this point, that I need to answer the question: If not race, what did cause the riots?
Prima facie the criminality and wanton lack of self-restraint of individuals caused what had been a peaceful demonstration related to the shooting of Mark Duggan to mutate with frightening speed into what we saw. But how did they get to that point?
‘Shopping with violence’. It sounds like something out ‘A Clockwork Orange’-but it remains one of the most penetrating observations of what happened I have heard. For the last 30-odd years, and with increasing speed over the last 15, we as a society have been sold the idea, that we are what we possess. To be is to consume, the more publicly the better. Which would be fine (-ish), if everyone had the same access to the means of consumption. They don’t-although there have been examples of ‘respectable’ (and isn’t that a loaded term in this context?) people caught up in the riots and looting, for the most part were young. Young and poor.
Added to which is our society’s attitude to children and young people. We don’t like them. We say that they are their parents’ responsibility, whilst at the same time allowing capitalism, that provider of shiny things for all, to demand that its needs be attended to before we are allowed to meet those of our children. We allow the press to routinely slag off single mothers, and by extension their children, as the root of many social ills. But then we (or rather this government) say that to provide those parents with extra support to fulfil their social contract and their need to work, is to encourage fecklessness and family breakdown. Idealised children, missing or even dead, gazing from the front pages of the tabloids, we like very much. But actual children, especially needy, difficult, angry children we do not like at all.
Much has been written about ‘stop and search’ as it related to inter-racial tensions. But young people, arguably, are the most discriminated-against group of all. They can be moved on just for there being three of them gathered together. We have transformed childhood from a time of discovery, to a time of Gradgrindian exams, which are then denigrated as being of less and less worth. Mind you, given the surge in youth unemployment and the exploding cost of higher education, that won’t matter. Even if young people jump over the hurdles we call essential, many will fall before crossing the finishing line. And they know it.
David Starkey touched on none of this. Instead he spoke about how ‘whites are becoming black’. How a black MP ‘sounds white’. How black culture ‘glorifies’ street violence. David Starkey is wrong. David Starkey is a racist.