Monday, 2 June 2008

The intolerant left: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown goes bonkers

Like all liberals, I think of myself as being on the progressive side of British politics - but you've got to choose your allies carefully. Every once in a while, an article comes along that reminds me that the "progressive" left can be every bit as dangerous as the "conservative" right. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has an article in the Independent which strikes me as one of the most ill-judged bits of commentary I've ever read - from someone who's allegedly on the same side as I am when it comes to civil liberties, foreign policy and social justice.

Her basic thesis is that the right is on the rise, the left is in freefall, and it'll take another generation for progressive politics to come back. Not only does she manage to completely misread the significance of the Tories' recent successes, but along the way, she comes up with some arguments which border on the offensive:

"The sun now rises on the right and those of us on the other side are left despondent as we anticipate a prolonged winter of discontent. We, who believe in fairness, equality, human rights and universal justice, are of no consequence."

This sort of attitude really does hack me off. Nobody of a conservative bent remotely cares about fairness, equality, human rights and universal justice, do they? I may not agree with people on the centre-right on much, but to say that right-wingers hate human rights and justice is ignorant and simplistic. We don't live in a cartoon world of goodies and baddies. Do my Conservative friends really get up in the morning thinking "Haha, how shall I undermine social justice today?"

From experience, most people who get involved in politics, whatever their political persuasion, do so because they genuinely want to work for the common good. We may disagree about how to create a better Britain - or even what a better Britain would look like - but that's the whole reason for having a political debate in the first place! This sort of attitude, branding one's opponents as haters of fairness and justice, does nothing but promote cynicism towards the political process as a whole.

In Yasmin's world, like in any good cartoon, the normal rules of logic don't apply:

"Local election results show the country lurching right, in some parts even embracing the BNP. Instead of condemning the scum, Britons are instructed to 'understand' why these voters are 'driven' to vote for neo-Nazis. We are simultaneously warned to show no such understanding of young Muslims who are seduced by hate-filled Imams. White resentment of 'foreigners' is no more respectable than Muslim hatred of Westerners. Yet in our unequal world it is."

Please, please, tell me how we're ever supposed to beat the racism of the BNP unless we engage with the people who vote for them? How can we possibly win people back to the political mainstream if we refuse to understand what's made them drift away in the first place? It's bonkers. We help the BNP immensely by the hysterical way we react to them: condemning as "racist" anyone who tries to debate against them; accusing politicians of "pandering to racism" when they try and understand what motivates people to vote BNP. How else, pray, are we supposed to campaign against them?

The biggest problem with this argument, though, is that both halves of it are mutually exclusive. Either you can say that BNP voters and radicalised terrorist sympathisers are both "scum" to be hated and ignored, or you can say they're normal people with legitimate concerns who are exploited by extremists. But you can't have a paragraph that simultaneously condemns attempts to engage with the one group, yet calls for greater understanding of the other!

"The coup was complete when Boris took over our London ..."

Again, it's this breathtaking cynicism towards the whole democratic process! Look, I may not like it any more than you do, Yasmin, but Boris was elected legitimately by the people of London. He didn't march into City Hall with guns and tanks; he won the popular vote. What's the point of having a democratic system in the first place, if you're going to cry foul play the second it produces a result you don't approve of?

I think this is how most dictatorships start out, you know. An initially well-intentioned belief that the people sometimes make the wrong choice, and that they need to be controlled for their own good.

But then Yasmin moves on from cynicism to something far, far worse:

"Almost more depressing is the sight of black and Asian Britons following the wind blowing the Tories to victory. Boris has recruited Afro Caribbean 'leaders' who believe in physical chastisement and smart young Asians who deny the existence of racism and want an end to political correctness. The more old-fashioned Uncle Toms and their female equivalents are now expediently making themselves known to the Tories and right-wing think tanks."

Yasmin is effectively saying "If you come from an ethnic minority, you should vote for a left-of-centre party". I think this borders on outright racism, and it's equally insulting to both ethnic minorities and to white people. Why should your ethnicity have any bearing on how you vote? I'd like to live in the sort of tolerant and neutral Britain where people's ethnicity isn't an issue. The sort of Britain where we make up our mind on how to vote by reading the parties' manifestos and making our minds up, rather than on the basis of our skin colour.

Conservatism, whether you love it or hate it, is an ideology based on economics, on a particular social model, on a particular philosophy. If a person happens to agree with that philosophy, surely they're justified in voting Conservative. Exactly the same goes for Liberal Democrat and Labour voters. There's something very distasteful about putting emotional pressure on someone to vote against their intellectual viewpoint on the basis of their skin colour.

The comment about "following the wind blowing the Tories to victory" is pretty distasteful, too. It's suggesting that people are only voting Tory because it's somehow fashionable; Yasmin can't get her head round the idea that someone might make a positive choice to vote Conservative for reasons of principle. When people vote Lib Dem or Labour, fair play to them, we respect their views; but if they vote Tory, they're apparently doing it for spurious reasons rather than from genuine political belief. That's an undemocratic attitude.

As a Lib Dem, I believe in trusting the voters - and that means respecting them even when they make the "wrong" decision. The correct response to recent Tory successes is not to insult, patronise and emotionally blackmail the voters. It's to accept the people's decision, to work hard, campaign hard, and do our best to win the national debate in the future.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be from the same end of the political spectrum as I am, but this article makes me feel every bit as far removed from the left as from the right. I may share her views on many of the key issues of the day, but when it comes to fundamental and underlying attitudes, I think she's on a totally different planet. Choose your allies carefully!

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asquith said...

I've always found Alibhai-Brown to be a repulsive person, and I'm far from alone. Her own columns make reference to her unpopularity. But she errs in thinking people dislike her for being Asian or for being anti-racist: in fact, they dislike her for the utter shite she talks.

I think she is basically trying to bait you and then call you racist if you react. Not going to work with me, obviously.

Darrell G said...

Well certainly the language is colourful and in some places over zealous but I do have to say that the Conservatives have made it consistently clear that they will work to roll back European Human Rights there is a concrete example of where they could be said to be opposed to human rights...

The Conservatives are pass masters of demonising certain sections of society (witness 'villan' bad parents, 'scruffy' teachers...for that read 'layabouts', 'degenerates') so I cant find it in my heart to be sympathetic when they are attacked in these terms. Some on the centre-right I might find i have some common ground with but the hard Tory right is a bigoted awful place and i would sooner regard these people as enemies than friends...

Anonymous said...

Don't be surprised by all this, or think that it's merely YA-B gone a bit berserk by herself.

It is the fallback position of most, and very nearly all, Labour supporters that I come across that they think of themselves as glorious radical socialists, liberating the people and spreading equality wherever they go; they also then go on to imply, much as the YA-B article does, that Tories are all fascist scum (that is the up-shot, not the actual words) who want to grind the faces of the poor.

If these people were genuine Trots and hard-left I might credit it; even respect it. But usually (Jonny, you will have seen this amongst OULC types from leafy villages and public schools) they are middle-class Blairites who are plus Thatcheriste que la reine.

In my own experience (I live in a safe Labour inner London borough) the same people who excoriate we Tories wouldn't know one of our council estates if it kicked them in the backside, and their commitment to social justice is hidden far beneath their drivel Tory-bashing. By contrast the Tories here are much more left-wing!

The sad (well, actually not so sad, it is to be expected) thing is that a large portion of the Lib Dem membership has this warped view of politics, and Toryism in particular, too. It is all horribly offensive and actually quite cutting and hurtful to someone like me on the centre-right who believes more passionately about ending poverty than any Blairite spiv; I do have the relief offered by knowing that all this "crying wolf" gets the left nowhere and assists the election of a One Nation Tory government in 2010.

Anyway, as I say don't be surprised. This sort of posturing was last seen in the late 70s/early 80s (albeit with some greater justification), on the part of a lot of middle-class graduates who thought they were the vanguard of the revolution. The difference being that this time the Tory Party is led by a patrician Old Etonian - who will prove a lot more conducive to working class aims than the Kesteven & Grantham Grammar alumni ever was - and that the Lib Dems are pretty much in bed with the scared Labour activists on the whole OTT pretending-to-be-comrades toff-bashing shrieking preening paranoia, rather than working against them as, say, David Owen would have done (and indeed your good self Jonny). Certainly Clegg, given Shenton's Tory-decrying speech at Crewe and his silly sppech on "insurrection", seems to be going along with that line.

This, if nothing else, signals a longer spell in Government for Cameron et al than the mere eighteen years we managed 1979-1997. And if that does happen, and a Cameron Government turns its mind to social justice far more than the complacent left has done thus far, we wet Tories will have posturing drivel-merchants like YA-B, the pretend-social democrat public school spivs like, say, James Purnell, and their willing so-called-radical stooges (soixante-retards, perhaps?) in the Lib Dems, to thank.

Meral Hussein Ece said...

Yasmin A-B, was, and maybe still is, a Liberal Democrat member. Although I agree she does use some ill judged statements,and often shoots from the hip, I have a lot of sympathy with the general thrust of her article -that the Tories have gone all out under Cameron to recruit and court ethnic minority voters,by ensuring they've selected BME PPCs, and and they are doing it for totally cynical reasons. You only have to read some of the the Tory rank and files comments on Conservative Home, to see they are not happy with these changes, but understand that if they are to win power, they have to succeed as the party that attracts people from all communities and backgrounds, and that means winning over BME voters who traditionally voted Labour.

anticant said...

If liberalism [large or small 'l'] is about anything distinctive in politics, it's surely not a habit of mind which self-righteously demonises those of different political views to one's own. Sadly, all too many of of the self-styled Left fondly imagine they possess the holy grail of revealed truth and superior virtue, and that anyone who disagrees with them is not merely stupid but wicked.

While your prudently anonymous commentator may be right in saying that most of them are not genuine Trots or hard left - if only because they haven't got enough brains to grasp the turgid dogma of Leninism - they certainly think and behave in an undemocratic way, and the come-uppance they are soon going to get from the electorate will be richly deserved.

But not, I trust, to install the Tories in office for longer than 18 years - that was far too long, and 11 years has been way too long for this ZanuLab bunch.

Whatever the LibDems' shortcomings, they are the only party which holds out serious hope of long overdue electoral reform to a voter-empowering STV system.

Tristan said...

I agree.

Believe it or not, Thatcher actually cared about the poor. Its shocking I know...
Its true some of her policies had the opposite effect, but she was no anti-poor anti-rights fanatic as many paint her.

The weird thing is, many on the 'left' call for measures which decrease justice and equality, they call for policies which actively harm the poor, some look like they're even designed to do that.

Milton Friedman argued for his measures /because/ they would help the poorest and improve quality of life for all, yet he is charged with being a 'conservative' and 'right wing' and therefore in the cartoon world of so many as being evil (just as many paint all socialists as being evil, which is clearly false, they are for the most part well intentioned).

Unfortunately many members (including senior ones) of the LibDems take this cartoon view of the world, to the detriment of liberalism.

As for charges of tokenism in selecting minority candidates etc. All parties do this. Yes, even the Liberal Democrats.

Lastly, the BNP draw much support from the old left. That is the economically 'protectionist', statist, nationalist left. (They also gain much middle-class support from the xenophobic right as well).

Jim said...

Just to defend the right here, from a couple of folks. They want the HRA rolled back because it doesn't work, and is instead used by the perportrators of events, rather than the victims, as a shield from proper convictions and is often abused in the prison system to allow them more comfortable cells.

What the Tories propose is to replace it with a bill of British Rights, probably with a clause along the lines of "If you violate this law in the pursuit of x,y,z, you're no longer protected by it" or some nonsense. It ensures the criminals are treated as criminals rather than manicured for and fed drugs and prostitutes on a regular basis when they're in the nick.

Anyway, this article made me feel sick, I try to keep an eye out for racists in the press, her and Polly seem to be the most prominent...

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