David Starkey has emerged from his bunker to write a piece for the Telegraph. One of the defences put up by his supporters in the wake of the Newsnight discussion was that he had been unable to fully develop his argument, as he had been interrupted and heckled by both Emily Maitlis and his fellow panellists. Leaving aside that Starkey’s own televisual manners can be less than refined on occasion, I think this actually was in any case unfair-Starkey has proved himself well able to engage in robust debate and gave as good as he got. However, I was glad to see he had written a follow-up as it would provide an opportunity to see if the panel format, together with a relatively brief slot had masked a subtler argument. Having read the Telegraph piece it appears not.
Starkey opens by criticising Ed Miliband, saying that for Ed Miliband to condemn Starkey’s words as racist and call for them ‘disgusting and outrageous’ is a betrayal of the values of freedom of expression and thought . Ed Miliband accepted that David Starkey’s words were racist, and having accepted that, said that racist opinions had no place in 21st century society. Ed Miliband has a right to his opinion, just as Starkey does-but for Starkey to conflate censure with totalitarian censorship (as he arguably does by his reference to Ralph Miliband’s flight from Nazi Germany), is rather disingenuous. It’s a high-flown variation on the ‘political correctness gone mad’ line, often used to attack critics of prejudice.
David Starkey then offers decontextualized quotes from his Newsnight appearance and says that if people believe that his comments were ‘disgusting and outrageous’ then they must be convinced that ‘gang culture is personally wholesome and socially beneficial’. Nice try, David, but just because someone rejects the conclusions you draw, doesn’t mean that they necessarily reject every element of your argument: I would have thought an academic would be capable of greater subtlety than that.
Starkey then enlists ‘the black educationalists’ Tony Sewell and Katharine Birbalsingh as defenders of the substance of his comments on ‘gangsta culture’. This is a….brave move given that Katharine Birbalsingh’s first blog after the riots was entitled ‘David Starkey is wrong, plain and simple’. Katharine Birbalsingh does, indeed, condemn ‘gangsta culture’ and its effects on black kids’ education and aspiration. But what she doesn’t do is conflate ‘black culture’ with ‘gangsta culture’ as Starkey does. In fact, Katharine Birbalsingh explicitly rejects that conflation and also rejects the premise that there is such a thing as a homogenous black culture . So for David Starkey to co-opt her is to further underline his own error or prejudice.
Similarly Tony Sewell, whilst more sympathetic to Starkey’s belief that there is a homogenous black culture, and the pernicious effects of that culture on our wider society, also presents a far more nuanced critique of Starkey’s views than Starkey would have us believe. He points out that what Enoch Powell foresaw were race riots, and the recent riots were not inter-racial, thereby completely undermining Starkey’s logic for invoking the ‘Rivers of Blood’: for Starkey the riots were caused by ‘black culture’ penetrating the ‘whites’ with its materialistic and violent values. But Enoch Powell foresaw inter-group conflict, not looting.
Having recruited to his defence two (or three counting Tony Parsons) people who don’t actually agree with him as much as he seems to think, Starkey then engages in a traditional rural pastime much loved by beleaguered current affairs panellists: the erection of Ye Olde Straw Man.
‘Even stranger is Miliband’s apparent notion that far from militating against educational achievement as I suggested, ‘the culture of black London’ must therefore be a seedbed for scholarship and sound learning.’ ‘…apparent notion’ In other words, Miliband didn’t actually say that, but Starkey is inferring (wishing?) that he did from his criticism of Starkey. Again, David Starkey is working from the premise that other people (must) share his view that black culture is a. homogenous and b. identical to gangsta culture. It simply isn’t the case.
Let’s leave Starkey’s piece for a moment, (I’ll pick it up again later, at a point which will hopefully explain the need for the digression): if Starkey was so wrong on this, who should Newsnight have had on in his place? Peter Ackroyd, that’s who:
Peter Ackroyd, like Starkey, is a historian, but a historian who is fascinated by London and its history. He wrote, in 2000, ‘London: the Biography’, a loving and detailed examination of London as an entity, a phenomenon, a character. In it he establishes the fact that in London what may seem novel, is in fact old-we’ve been here before.
There are two chapters ’Mobocracy’ and ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ which really deserve to be read in light of recent events: they concern, firstly the evolution and behaviour of the London crowd, and the effects of immigration on both successive generations of immigrants, and the city itself.
The proximate cause of the recent disturbances were the shooting of Mark Duggan, and the beating of a 16 year old girl at the protest/ vigil which followed the police’s mishandling of the family’s concerns. Sadly neither of these events were unprecedented-but neither was the supposedly unpredictable reaction of the crowd:
‘One of the characteristics of the London mob was its irritability and sudden changes of mood, so that when a spark was struck in its depths it flared up very quickly…..the restraints imposed by a mercantile culture, ruinous in effects upon many who comprised the crowd, encouraged rapid volatility and exhilaration.’
Ackroyd could have been describing last week. In fact, in this passage he was describing crowd behaviour in the 18th century.
Later on Ackroyd discusses the race riot as an ‘unwelcome novelty of the latter half of the 20th century’. I don’t propose to re-visit the causes and narrative of the 1981Brixton riots, but to be brief allegations of police cover-up and brutality were followed by rioting, arson and looting.
Which is puzzling; 1981 was 30 years ago, well before the advent of the ‘gangsta culture’ at whose door Starkey (and Marcus Sewell) places the responsibility for the riots last week. Perhaps ‘gangsta culture’ is an epiphenomenon, rather than a cause?
But an epiphenomenon of what, then? Immigration? To listen to many people, mass immigration to London and the UK more generally started with ‘Windrush’-but in fact there are records of immigration in Roman times, resulting in a polyglot city speaking a ‘rough, demotic Latin’-which suggests the possibility of a Romano-British Tacitus lamenting the fact that if he closed his eyes he was no longer able to tell a Gaul from a Celt…
Immigrants have always come here, and crucially, rather than ‘infecting’ British culture, they have for the most part, assimilated. My own hometown, Colchester has an area called the ‘Dutch Quarter’ –thus named because Flemish weavers congregated there. Is it still Dutch? No, because over time, ‘they’ became ‘us’.
Which brings me to Dizzee Rascal: Starkey positions rap culture, gangsta culture, as something ‘other’, spreading into white working-class culture to deleterious effect. It’s true that both ragga music and gangsta rap are foreign in origin (Jamaica and the US, respectively), but recently British artists have adopted it, and turned it into a distinctly British sound. In fact, in his video for ‘Dirtee Disco’, Dizzy explicitly shows this process: black rap artist, complete with posse and girls in hot pants invade the local WI tea dance to much consternation: Does it end up with sub-automatic rounds being sprayed at Granny? Err no-Dizzy ends up dancing sedately with a WI member, albeit with a cheeky wink to camera….It’s recognisably black, British and rap (and very funny to boot).
This brings me back to Starkey’s Telegraph article: he discusses the way in which David Lammy and Diane Abbott have ‘merged effortlessly into a largely white elite’ whilst pursuing the idea that at the other end of the income distribution it is ‘whites’ who have merged into ‘black culture’. But it seems to me that this is to also push the idea that ‘white elite’ culture alone is truly British. And as I hope I have shown just above, it isn’t that simple.
The final paragraphs of Starkey’s piece are astounding. ‘But an English nationalism we must have’. Must we? Who gets to decide its symbols, its narrative, who and what gets to be English? I’m not a betting woman, but I’ll wager it isn’t the kids living in Tower Hamlets, however much Starkey talks inclusively about ‘whites and blacks and mixed race alike’.
‘If all the people of this country, white and black alike, are to enter fully into our national story….’ Black Britons and their contribution have been part of ‘our national story’ for centuries (ask Dr Starkey-Moors were a common sight on the streets of Tudor London), it’s the fact they’ve hitherto been relegated to the footnotes that’s the problem.
I posed the question earlier: of what are the riots an epiphenomenon-other than the gangsta culture what common identity do the white and black kids involved in the riots share? I pointed out in my previous piece for PostDesk that the vast majority of them are young, and poor.
Youth and poverty coupled with a (perceived) lack of opportunity to fulfil any aspirations make a potent cocktail. Our children are bombarded with advertisements, told their qualifications are simultaneously essential and worthless, treated as a barrier to their parents’ servicing of capitalism’s needs…..I’m not going to rehash my earlier piece for PostDesk, but I will say again: This country does not like its children very much.
Neither is it a place to be poor. This government is using more and more condemnatory language about poor people-‘feckless’, ‘wastrels’, ‘scroungers’, ‘feral’, are just some of them. Increasingly the government are seeking to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘us’ being the beneficiaries of a massive and growing disparity in income distribution, and ‘them’ being those left behind The riots were the frontline of that social fissure-the government is choosing to make an example of the rioters, rather than setting them one by acting with restraint.
One of the themes that have emerged over the last 10 days is that of the demise of ‘community’ and the danger of what David Cameron has called a ‘slow-motion moral collapse’. It is bleakly ironic that the working class culture that would not let Oswald Mosley’s mob through, is the same one that Starkey dismisses as ‘infected’ and that has been ignored by past governments and is being insulted by the current one. In its divisive social policy, its wantonly vicious language and its apparent disdain for the independence of the judiciary, his government is setting an appalling example. And as any parent will tell you, it is through examples that children learn best….
So what example is Starkey setting? He is a history don who ignores history when it suits him. He is a public figure who claims his free speech rights whilst denigrating the expression of the ‘rage against the machine’ that gangsta rap embodies. Having sought to divide ‘white culture’ from ‘black culture’ and associate the latter with violence, to characterise successful Black Britons as sounding ‘white’, and having completely ignored any of the possible structural and economic causes for the riots, David Starkey finishes on a plea that we unite, embrace a reciprocal freedom to criticise other communities and move forward together. Having invoked racial differences, unprompted, he seems to think we should now trust his opinions as a guide to our future communal happiness. David Starkey is wrong. David Starkey is a racist.