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It’s a riotMichael Ignatieff
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‘Civil Disturbances’: Hansard, Vol. 8, Nos 143-144, 16 July 1981 – 17 July 1981 
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The morning after Toxteth and Moss Side, the Daily Express front page asked its readers ‘HOW MUCH MORE MUST WE TAKE?’ This ‘we’ lends itself to easy caricature. It is ‘Outraged, Tunbridge Wells’ writ large, an army of indignant blue rinse. It is the passive ‘we’ of embattled parents, distributing blame to the ungrateful children with the aggrieved cry ‘What have we done to deserve this?’

In the wake of the riots, every newspaper seems to have its ‘we’. The Daily Mail’s poster, showing that chic woman of a certain age who is ‘Edinburgh every festival, United every season and the Daily Mail every day’, leaves no doubt whose indignant script its editor aspires to write. This chic woman is not so much spoken for as laid claim to, in the hope that real women will associate with the fantasy on offer on the hoardings. She stands for the ‘we’ whom the editor assumes will not guffaw when breakfasting over his 10 July headline, ‘EXTREMISTS’ MASTER PLAN FOR CHAOS’.

The Times leader of 10 July addresses an Englishman who it believes capable of occupying every discursive position at once:

Britain is a multi-racial society with a good deal of racial hatred, yet little is done to enable people to comprehend and combat the evil of racialism. It will not be resisted by preaching integration. That is a fallacy of the Sixties. It is unrealisable, it is questionable if it is desirable and it raises more fear and animosity than it dissipates with its overtones of inter-racial sex, marriage and a coffee-coloured Britain. Tolerance does not require that every Englishman should have a black man for his neighbour or that every Asian should forget his cultural identity. Instead we must acknowledge and understand the existence of social pluralism.

It is not surprising that the Times’s Englishman turns out not to include Asians or blacks. What is curious is the belief that it can be consistent to be against racism and against having black neighbours.

Even though most of the ‘We’s’ for whom the papers presume to speak turn out, on inspection, to be some fraction or other of the white ‘talking classes’, each ‘we’ is an imperialist, asserting its claim to be taken as the universal, the consensual ‘we’. Yet each ‘we’ can only be given an identity by specifying which groups it excludes, and which registers of fear, condescension and concern it employs when speaking of ‘them’. One ‘we’ can be identified by its use of the term ‘hooligan’, another by its penchant for the euphemism ‘New Commonwealth immigrant’. Discourse which employs code-words like these cannot be described as a collective attempt to see and understand, but rather as the rhetorical display of pre-given certainties. No wonder, then, that the discourse on riot has a ritualised familiarity to it.

The riots are the sort of social occasion which sets off intense competition among politicians and journalists to commandeer consensus. There are rewards for those who succeed in defining and then speaking for the largest ‘we’. At Westminster, a scattering of rhetorical gambits at the outset of the riots has been followed by convergence, as each side fights for the right to speak in the name of the narrow centre.

At a time when British politics are more sharply polarised than they have been for a generation, the two major parties are speaking a surprisingly similar language about the riots. In the adjournment debate on ‘Civil Disturbances’, MPs as far apart as Joan Lestor and Michael Heseltine agreed that the speeches had transcended party politics. Of course there were exceptions. No Tory MP joined Stuart Holland and John Fraser in their criticism of the Police in Brixton, and no Labour MP supported Winston Churchill’s call for an end to immigration. Between these poles, however, there was agreement that the British Police should not arm themselves like the French CRS, that ‘tough talk’ about law and order would not solve the problems of the inner cities and that money thrown at the right targets would make some difference. Even Michael Heseltine did not argue that the inner cities needed less money, but rather that they needed more spent on capital-investment projects and less on public-sector wage claims.

This relative convergence of opinion may break apart again if Michael Heseltine or his busload of City gents fail to find sufficient sovereigns to spare from their pots of gold. The temporary consensus against arming the Police with water cannons, CS gas and rubber bullets may not survive another episode in Toxteth or Brixton. Yet while this curious lull in the storm of party invective holds, it is worth examining how it has become possible, even temporarily. The explanation most flattering to MPs would be that in an hour of crisis they had risen above party. It would be more true to say that debate has converged because all sides of the House, but especially the Labour side, are sharply constrained by the rules of responsible discourse. Labour spokesmen have gone as far as they dare in blaming the riots on Tory policy: to go further is to risk seeming to make political capital out of what is understood as a national tragedy. Their own record in office on inner-city problems is hardly brilliant. They also risk seeming to justify riot: but this constraint is more confining than it need be. There is no reason why criticism of a government’s failure should exonerate individuals of their criminal responsibility. Those convicted in court will pay for what they have done. To explain and to criticise is not to justify. If Mrs Thatcher can make it seem so, she will have won the battle to set the terms of public debate.

The second rule for responsible comment is that all sides of the House are required to give support to the Police. This is a rule which Labour speakers have honoured more in the breach than in the observance, but breaking it can be made to have consequences, as Michael Foot discovered when he declined to offer immediate bipartisan support for water cannons, CS gas and rubber bullets. The Prime Minister straightaway insisted that he was being less than loyal to the hard-pressed boys on ‘the front line’. Military metaphor helps in enforcing the rule.

On this issue, it seems to have been the Prime Minister, not the chief constables, who has made support for water cannons etc the discursive test of support for the Police. The constables themselves seem aware that policing the crisis will be more efficient if they remain custodians of the British police tradition. There are ironies in this tradition, not the least of which is that the Police have also made themselves the guardians of the very traditions of British liberty which were marshalled against their coming in 1829. This triumph of ideology and practice may have its costs. It’s quite possible that the French and the Americans have more to criticise in their Police, but they are also less constrained, by tradition and ideology, in making responsible criticism. Our taboos have their uses – in this case, forcing the impetuous to weigh the cost in police paranoia of injudicious wisdom after the event – but they can also inhibit full debate on what the Police themselves describe as a major breakdown in police-community relations.

Faced with this rule, Roy Hattersley has skirted the issue of policing with concerned but imprecise condemnations of bad housing, fiscal neglect and unemployment. This is an economistic language which speaks of riot as the inevitable explosion, the moment when the spark hit the tinder. Tories like Ian Lloyd enjoy demolishing this inevitabilism, citing the example of wretched but peaceable Glasgow as proof that Labour’s correlation between poverty and looting is ‘seditious sociological claptrap’. The correlation may not be claptrap, but it offers no purchase on those nuances of differential response to equivalent conditions which the Tory rhetoric of hooliganism does actually address, in insisting that it is criminal motive not conditions which triggers riot.

Historical analogy with the 18th-century food riots, examined by E.P. Thompson, suggests that explanation should look beyond conditions to the specific legitimising notion or incident which gives reason to riot. In Toxteth, for example, it was not just any arrest which started the trouble but the arrest of the son of a Jamaican car-worker, Leroy Cooper, who was already seeking civil damages against the Chief Constable of Merseyside for the alleged harassment of his other son. Such incidents do not ‘justify’ riot, but they do invite us to consider the violence which follows neither as an inevitable response to conditions, nor as the ‘mindless’ suivisme of hooliganism, but as the chosen behaviour of individuals who at least deserve to be deemed responsible for what they have done. The Tory language of hooliganism and the Labour language of conditions deny them even that.

The third rule of responsible comment in the House is to minimise the racial ‘element’ in the disturbances, by taking cold comfort in the fact that blacks and whites rioted together, and by uniting in the comforting ritual of banning Enoch Powell from the confines of respectable discourse. The banishment of Powell allowed the House the comfort of believing that ‘we are all multiracialists now.’ Yet the real divisions on race reappeared surreptitiously in linguistic usage, some MPs speaking of ‘blacks and Asians’, others of ‘immigrants’ and others of ‘New Commonwealth’. Each usage corresponds to a distinct politics of race.

These rules served to cool antagonisms, to create a useful temporary image of political statesmanship and bipartisanship in the House. At a time of real social tension, such rules have their uses in the short run, but their effect on creative thought and open debate is likely to be the same, in the long run, as the current rule of discourse, only recently breached, which forbade discussion of withdrawal in party debate on the future of Northern Ireland.

The most curious feature of the discourse on riot, both inside and outside the Commons, has been how people of opposite political persuasions have been able to find common ground in nostalgia for the solidarities of the old inner-city working-class community. The most grandiloquent expressions of this nostalgia have come from those identified with the Left: Jeremy Seabrook’s interpretation of looting as ‘the loss of morality in these poor, proud, stoical working communities’ (Guardian, 20 July), or Erin Pizzey’s invocation of the lost days, forty years ago, when there was family discipline in the working classes (Sunday Times, 12 July). It is not merely that these elegies sit oddly with Seabrook’s own savagely unsentimental recollections of growing up working-class in Northampton, or with Erin Pizzey’s special acquaintance with wife-battering among the working class. It is also that these Labour populists find themselves in company with Rhodes Boyson, Timothy Raison and others who read the riots as the failure of post-war society to find disciplines to replace those lost to the working class by consumerism, unionism and permissiveness. One would have expected William Whitelaw’s proposal to make parents responsible for their children’s fines to strike a chord with the shires, but not with Labour populism. In the ‘Civil Disturbances’ debate, patriarchal nostalgia knew no party. Both parties elegised the old back-to-backs, and blamed the looting on homes where children returned, in the words of one MP, ‘to find a 50p piece from mother and a message telling them to get a bag of chips’. Some Labour MPs wanted no part of this thinly-veiled rush to single out working mothers, single-parent families and fathers on overtime, but even those who would not swallow the patriarchal registers of the discourse on the decay of working-class community did share the belief that something had cut the heart out of the old popular solidarities.

If community has been destroyed (and nostalgia plays havoc with social description), Labour and Tory spokesmen seemed to agree that it was the urban-development bulldozers of the Sixties which did for it. The riots occurred in places both blighted by the collapse of industry and vandalised by the arrogant good intentions of planners, city councillors, architects and builders. Jim Lester observed that the riots in Nottingham’s Hyson Green began, not in the back-to-backs, but in a new housing complex fondly known by its inhabitants as Alcatraz.

What has sobered the debate on solutions is the realisation that when there was money to ‘throw at the problem’ it went to the wrong people for the wrong purposes. The question now is not only how to find the money to buy back a form of community thrown away by money spent in the past, but who is to spend it: the councillors and planners, the enterprise-zone entrepreneurs, or the neighbourhood leadership itself. When the debate reaches that issue, the convergence of opinion of the last few weeks is certain to disappear, and politics as usual will resume. The neighbourhoods are unlikely to be well-served if the language of solutions divides into the rhetoric of ‘enterprise zones’, on the one hand, and ‘municipal socialism’, on the other. That set of choices can only be enlarged if the leadership of the communities can find the voice to insist that they are the ones to decide where the money should go.

One wants to believe that not only the community leaders, but the real protagonists of the drama – the 16 and 17-year-olds in the billiard halls and on the street corners – will be given the right to speak for their needs. But such a torrent of respectable opinion, such a clamour of ‘we’s’, has descended upon them, that they have been talked into silence. They have been spoken for and spoken to so many times, by so many knowing voices, that when the time comes for them to speak, they may not even bother. They may choose, once again, to act. What they need to know is that they will be heard when they speak, and not only when they act.

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Letters

Vol. 3 No. 18 · 1 October 1981

SIR: Michael Ignatieff says ‘What can’t be said about riots’ (LRB, 20 August). In a free country, individuals can express other opinions, so I shall quote someone else who attempted likewise to say what cannot be said about riots. For refutation, not suppression.

In the long American and comparatively short British experience, there is available to anyone a wealth of data on what causes blacks to riot. In every part of the world where the negro is brought into close contact with white society, and where he attempts to compete with the European for jobs, in schooling and for social and career advancement, he comes off second best. Only in the very limited field of sport can he sometimes win.

History is abundant with evidence of this fact – so much so that every person holding public office should be aware of it. History does not provide one single example which contradicts it. This means very simply that when the negro is led to hold expectations of a place in white society, which he cannot possibly fulfil, because of inherent differences in aptitude between himself and the European, he becomes angry and resentful when brought face-to-face with this non-fulfilment.

There are then two consequences. 1. He is often disposed to turn to crime, justifying that to himself by the belief that society has been unfair to him. 2. He is fair game for political agitators who seek to exploit his discontent in their own particular war on society – a war in which the negro is just seen as a source of revolutionary fodder to be used quite cynically.

That is the origin of every major riot in Britain, the US, and elsewhere, in modern times where blacks have been at the centre of the rioting.

Now that is an abridgment of part of an article in the monthly magazine Spearhead, edited by John Tyndall, the present leader of the ‘New’ National Front. Yet quite frankly I believe that it gets closer to the ‘underlying causes’ than mountains of alternative waffle being scrutinised by Lord Scarman. Can what people are saying along these lines all over Britain be printed in a respected literary review or repeated on television? Does that concern Mr Ignatieff?

Gerald Lynn
Liverpool

Michael Ignatieff is away, and may want to comment when he returns on this letter, which invokes a right of free speech while pressing the false claim that Britain’s riots have been the work of blacks, not whites, and that this is because blacks are inferior. We print the letter because we do in fact believe in freedom of speech, though not of all speech, and because it is important to know about groups that would be happy to deny it to enemies and supposed inferiors as soon as they got the chance.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Vol. 3 No. 20 · 5 November 1981

SIR: In the LRB of 1 October, you published a letter from Mr Gerald Lynn of Liverpool, quoting and endorsing an article from the National Front journal Spearhead. The article stated that the underlying cause of urban riots in Britain and the United States is the constitutional inferiority of ‘the negro’, since this causes him to fail in a racially mixed society and this failure generates resentment and a sense of injustice. In commenting on this letter, you briefly repudiated these views, while justifying your having published it by appeal to the principle of free speech. I do not believe that there is any valid principle justifying you in printing matter of this kind, let alone obliging you to do so: I should be interested if you would formulate, rather than merely naming, the principle which you take so to justify or oblige you. I should also be interested to learn whether you would regard that principle as applying equally to a similar letter describing ‘the jew’ either as constitutionally inferior or, say, as congenitally avaricious; if so, whether you would think that there were any circumstances, say those prevailing in Germany in 1932, which would cancel that justification or obligation; and whether you would agree that somewhat comparable circumstances prevail in Britain today with respect to black people.

It is nevertheless imaginable that the publication of such a letter might do some good: namely, if those, such as Professor Eysenck and the scientific correspondent of the Times, who propagate alleged scientific ‘proof’ of the intellectual inferiority of black people would read it and manifest a decent human reaction to the uses to which their conclusions, professedly motivated by the pure love of scientific truth, are inevitably put.

Michael Dummett
New College, Oxford

I sympathise with Professor Dummett’s protest, and will do my best to answer his questions. In relation to the activities of an editor, the principle of free speech embodies the recognition of a need to print objections to the material in his paper – a recognition which will always be qualified by his estimate of whether or not the letters in question are likely to do serious harm. We did not think this was the case here. Nor do I think we are in a situation ‘somewhat comparable’ to that of Germany in 1932. I am unable to believe we are on a road which is likely to lead to the destruction of the black community. Their interests need to be defended and considered, however, no less if no more than those of the Jewish community, and, as I hope I have made clear, we do not recognise an unqualified need to print offensive or inflammatory opinions which are hostile to those expressed in the paper. My previous, necessarily brief statement implied an element of qualification, and it did not, of course, speak of any obligation to exercise tolerance in this respect. I am not entirely confident that we took the right course: it is not inconceivable that some harm might follow. But it is also conceivable that harm might be done by a principled exclusion from print of all views arising from intolerance, ill-will and sectional self-interest. I agree that the outlook is bad in Britain now, but it would have to get worse before it would be right to attempt such an exclusion.

Editor, ‘London Review’

SIR: According to Gerald Lynn, what can’t be said about the recent riots is that they are an expression of black people’s frustration at their ‘inherent inability’ to succeed according to white standards of achievement. He wishes to know whether I am ‘concerned’ that exponents of views such as his have had difficulty in securing access to television and ‘respected literary reviews’. The question at issue here is not whether such views should be allowed rights of utterance in general. They do enjoy such rights and can be published in Spearhead and other neo-Nazi publications, provided that they do not infringe the terms of the Race Relations Act. Since I support this right, the issue between us turns on whether such a right could be said to include right of access to media of national circulation and influence. Now the grounds by which opinions do gain access to our most powerful media are dubious indeed, but if we were asked what these grounds ought to be, Mr Lynn and I would likely agree that on issues of major public controversy access should be granted only to opinions sustained by argument and supported by evidence. Mr. Lynn’s opinions fail this test of principle. They are sustained entirely by rhetorical invocations to the ‘testimony of History’.

I must say it is not clear to me what form of scientific evidence could possibly create valid grounds for a legitimate public discussion of the ‘inherent inability’ of any race. As Mr Lynn must know, the question of inherent differences in aptitude among races has been a matter of serious scientific speculation for at least a century. If he wishes to know whether I would support the right to undertake such research, however uncomfortable its implications might be for the idea of natural human equality, I would say that I would. To the best of my knowledge, however, none of this research (Schockley, Jensen et al.) has provided an iota of plausibility for the contention that blacks have inherent inabilities in comparison to whites. If this is the case, what rights of utterance can be accorded to statements which continue to assert as true what research patently fails to verify? In the case of Mr Lynn’s opinions on race, we are dealing with something more than foolish persistence in error: we are dealing with a contention which, by asserting that a generic class of human beings lack the ability to realise full human potential, gives grounds for an abuse of their dignity as members of our species.

The right, therefore, which Mr Lynn would wish me to defend amounts to the right to insult fellow human beings, not merely in a publication like Spearhead which can be ignored or avoided, but in those media whose reach is too pervasive and influential to escape. This is not a right which I am prepared to defend. I can see no obligation whatever, within the meaning of the right of free speech, to allow television time or national media coverage to those asserting without proof that any category of human beings is unequally endowed with human potential.

Now it so happens that both Mr Lynn and I have a quarrel with the current limits of national debate on race. His quarrel is that a multiracialist consensus, imposed by a bien-pensant élite of liberal editors, TV directors and politicians, is stifling seekers after harsh truths like himself. I see the state of public opinion rather differently. Discourse on race in Britain does not appear to me to be exactly muffled by multiracialist common sense. Certain periphrastic decencies have to be observed, of course, but the Prime Minister’s remarks about the dangers of being swamped by immigrants, Enoch Powell’s cunning public invocations of the race war to come, and the mean fine print of the new Nationality Law, hardly suggest that either discourse or policy is constrained by liberal pieties. The pervasive use in public debate of the term ‘immigrant’ to designate men and women who have worked and raised families in this country for two generations is just one of many signs that much of public opinion continues to regard the evidently multiracial character of this society as a problem to cope with rather than as a common future to be enjoyed together.

As I write, the Commission for Racial Equality has brought to light the circumstances in which management and shop-stewards at a British Leyland plant connived together to allow workers in one section to refuse to work with a qualified man they saw fit to call a coon. Doubtless it is difficult to know how extensive such practices are, and doubtless there are union members everywhere, conscious of the traditions of their movement, who are shamed and angered by the conduct of ‘brothers’ such as these. I cannot help thinking, however, that the case indicates the degree to which the multiracial consensus which Mr Lynn believes to be stifling true debate has, in fact, still to be fought for and won in every single institution in this country. Mr Lynn’s implicit self-portrait as lonely seeker for truth in a fog of liberal tolerance is ludicrously incorrect. His kind are baying the length and breadth of the country. He merits reply in these columns only because his views do not represent a lunatic fringe, but make up the dark end of a spectrum which extends to what we are often pleased to call ‘respectable’ opinion. This is why his scurrilous exploitation of hard-won rights of free speech is not merely contemptible but dangerous. Such views as his cannot be banned, but they deserve no quarter.

Michael Ignatieff
King’s College, Cambridge

SIR: You deserve to be congratulated both for printing the letter from Gerald Lynn in which he commends the National Front’s assertion that blacks are inferior, and for your terse note of dissent. It is useful to realise that apparently intelligent and literate people such as Mr Lynn actually believe the bigoted nonsense about non-whites that is circulated by extremist groups. I wonder is Mr Lynn aware that recently (30 March – 3 April) Unesco brought together in Athens 23 scientists from 17 countries to examine ‘the present state of scientific knowledge on the racial question’? The Athens group subsequently issued a notable Declaration on Racism. This begins by pointing out that genetic complexities make the concept of race, as applied to human beings, virtually meaningless. The following clauses may instruct Mr Lynn and those with similar prejudices:

6. Whatever the differences observed, biology can in no way serve as the basis for a hierarchy between individuals or population groups, since no human group possesses a consistent genetic inheritance. In any event, one is never justified in proceeding from observation of a difference to the affirmation of a superiority-inferiority relationship.

13. The complexity of the interaction between biological and cultural factors makes any attempts to establish the relative importance of innate and acquired characteristics completely meaningless.

15. The social sciences provide no support for the view that racism is a collective form of behaviour that inevitably arises when certain kinds of social relationship predominate between different ethnic groups. On the other hand, the plurality and co-existence of cultures and races that characterise many societies constitute the most felicitous form of mutual enrichment between peoples.

17. Racism is generally a tool used by certain groups to reinforce their political and economic power …

18. Racism also takes the form of denying that certain peoples have a history and of underrating their contribution to the progress of mankind.

A.M. Healy
University of Wollongong, New South Wales

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