RECESSIONS destroy ideologies as fast as they destroy jobs. Until six months ago, sensible men and women could suppose that Scotland might prosper as an independent country, that Labour’s light-touch regulation of the City benefited the whole nation and that Gordon Brown had abolished the business cycle. All busted flushes now, as worthless as Bradford & Bingley’s shares.
At the Cheltenham Literature Festival the Times organised debates on ‘political correctness’. The respectable, liberal-minded audience was determined to see that once fashionable idea dumped into the dustbin of history as well.
As I listened to their denunciations, I tried to understand what they meant by ‘political correctness’. It has been so tarnished by overuse that the phrase long ago lost any value, and it would be better to drop it. I could see that the financial collapse had not turned them into bigots. They did not want to chain women to the kitchen sink, impose colour bars or recriminalise homosexuality. On the contrary, they were strongly against sexism, racism and homophobia. Rather, they were objecting to the government’s Balkanisation of Britain; the constant harping on colour and creed by the public sector and large parts of the voluntary sector whose bureaucrats seem determined to separate the British by race and religion and treat them as if they were alien species.
There is little liberal about the identity politics which follows. Indeed, many of the unelected community leaders the bureaucracy and charities pander to are sexist, racist and homophobic – and, on occasion, unashamed clerical fascists. The protesting audience would have been more accurate if it had condemned the ‘communalism’ of the state, which fosters division, and the ‘reactionary chic’ of the wider intelligentsia which allows insipid academics and broadcasters to bring vicarious thrills to their lives by indulging the violence of religious fanatics.
In the bubble years, the folly of cultural relativism was clear to all those who were not blinded by its dogmas. Liberal values could not flourish in a society in which Labour ministers found it acceptable for a young Sikh woman to have her play forced off stage because it offended old Sikh men, or newspapers argued that it was reasonable for mass murderers to bomb the London tube because they disagreed with Tony Blair’s foreign policy. Even before the slump, electors were abandoning old loyalties and voting on communalist lines. Hardly anyone noticed, but in the London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone won the support of all the ethnic minorities except, for obvious reasons, the Jews. He still lost, because white working-class voters came out against a Labour candidate who seemed to have no interest in their lives.
Now the recession is on us, communalist politics could turn far nastier. Britain ought to be able to offer common compassion to the swelling ranks of the unemployed and struggling households. To use old-fashioned language, they will need a class-based politics which regards the relief of poverty and enforced idleness as national priorities.
But the bureaucracy barely talks about class, while the Labour government cannot see what is wrong with Harriet Harman’s euphemistic plan to ‘positively discriminate’ against white men. We have bureaucrats who fund support groups for the black unemployed or Hindu unemployed but never for all the unemployed. We have a government which thinks it progressive to tell employers that they can favour the privately educated daughter of an Indian steel tycoon over the state-educated son of a council estate single mother.
As the hard times start to bite, the obsession with identity politics will certainly lead to communal groups competing for scarce resources and shouting ‘racist’ every time a grant application is rejected. Jon Cruddas, the left-wing Labour MP, is already fighting the white backlash in his Dagenham constituency. He told me he despaired of an officialdom that unthinkingly played the BNP’s game by seeing ‘everything through the prism of race’. Did it really not guess that working-class voters would reclassify themselves as ‘whites’ and join the identity game?
Alert ministers are aware of the danger. Phil Woolas understands that mass immigration and recessions are a poisonous combination. Meanwhile the Home Office accepts that the scramble for money by interest groups emphasising racial and religious grievance may be the least of our troubles. Its civil servants called in workers from Searchlight, the anti-fascist magazine, and told them the recession would bring a rise in racial violence with it. So confident is Whitehall of its grim prediction that it has already asked police forces to assign more officers to hate crime cases.
Nick Lowles of Searchlight told me he expected a resurgence of extremism as the white far right and Islamist far right fed off each other. I paid attention because I know him to be a careful man, who always used to shy away from apocalyptic predictions. He’s changed his mind because, like Cruddas, he sees malign factors converging. Rising unemployment, fights for public money and the white working class’s feeling that the rest of the country either ignores them or hates them. ‘The appeal of the BNP is far beyond simple racism,’ he said. ‘The key word which comes out in all the surveys is “fairness”. Large sections of the white working class do not believe they are being treated justly.’ The multicultural state’s emphasis on what divides people rather than what unites them is making the task of changing their minds near impossible.
Lowles has been studying the history of anti-fascism and thinks we are in a far worse position than in the Thirties or Seventies, when the left last battled the far right. Without wishing to romanticise the past, you can at least give the old left credit for having an ideology that encouraged immigrants and natives to see themselves as fellow members of the working class or – when feeling particularly high-minded – ‘the brotherhood of man’.
Naive they may have been, but how much more naive was it to ‘celebrate diversity’ and then be surprised when ethnic tensions rose? Like Scottish nationalism and laissez-faire regulation, the identity politics of the bubble economy is another luxury we’re going to have to manage without.