April 07, 2004



I'm not sure what to make of the BBC's drama of a couple of nights back, England Expects.

In the current climate of toothless police dramas, pointless star vehicles and anodyne political correctness, I suppose the BBC could be considered brave for tackling the raw topic of racism and its relationship to politics . TV 'drama's' tendency is to reduce racial/ racist politics to a flip manicheanism, but England Expects, at least in its first hour, made an attempt to explore the complexities of the motivations of its lead character Ray Knight (well played by Stephen Mackintosh) .

In some respects, England Expects' analysis of racist psychology shared something with Potter's in Brimstone and Treacle. Speaking in The Times, writer Frank Deasy said that, 'For the people I spoke to (Deasy conducted extensive interviews with far-right activists) there’s a great deal of nostalgia for the way things used to be.' Like Potter's Bates, Knight's deepest yearning was to turn the clock back.

Twenty years ago, the issue would have been white-black. Not in England Expects. Knight's best friend at work was black, and while he would have 'preferred a few less' blacks, it was clear that his main problem was with Muslims/Asians and, less obviously but equally significantly, with Jews. Knight saw Jews as the agents of a cosmopolitan modernity, the secret rulers of the New World Order. Interestingly, Knight's racism was strongly correlated with a hostility to globalization. Both his superiors at the Canary Wharf firm at which he worked as a security guard and his neighbours at home (on the drug-riddled estate on which he lived) were representatives of the new globalized world which had stripped him of all place, all identity. (Although, in some ways, as Deasy suggested in The Times, in the white racist imaginary, Muslims feature as a counter-modern tendency: 'one of the reasons Muslim communities are coming under attack from far-right groups is an element of envy — having extended families that work, having faith that works. They have values, a cultural identity.')

England Expects also highlighted the way in which the BNP has appropriated working class grievances which would previously have been the province of socialism. If the NF of the seventies were ultimately undermined by the incorporation of their agenda into the political mainstream by the Tories, then the opposite may be happening now. Labour's capitulation to the Right agenda, its risible attempts to appear tougher than the Tories (can anyone remember that memorable Friday Night Armistice Sketch in which N. Labour were seen threatening to kill a pet cat to demonstrate their 'strength'?), its refusal to vigorously defend the benefits of immigration, has led to a creeping legitimation of the BNP's views. The BNP are also almost certainly profiting from the deproletranization of parliamentary politics. Blair's desperate pursuit of the middle ground, his courting of the likes of Potter's Bates, his purging of the Labour Party of all associations with the working class, has left white proletarian rage nowhere to go but the Far Right, so that Knight's first instinct when things were going badly in his life was to look to racial, not class, causes. It perhaps says something for my own class pathologies that I shared Knight's anger towards the smug David Watts-type trader who got the woman he was pursuing; but Knight articulated his hostility towards him, not in terms of his wealth or success, but his jewishness.

England Expects was broadcast two days after Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, called in The Times for an end to 'multi-culturalism.' Phillips' argument seemed to equate 'multiculturalism' with 'separatism', and, the juxtaposition of a headline decrying multiculturalism with an Islamist cleric burning a union jack was uh a little inflammatory, to say the least. The Times wheeled out a self-satisfied Norman Tebbit to express his pleasure that the left were finally beginning to see the light. Jeez.

So Morrissey's new single, 'Irish Blood, English Heart,' couldn't be more topical. Who is he speaking for - Knight, Bates, Tebbit, Phillips? - when he sings the following: 'I've been dreaming of a time when/ to be English is not to be baneful/ to be standing by the flag, not feeling shameful / racist or racial.' The problem is that Morrissey's very dream is itself racist, since what would such a time be if not a time when there were far fewer black or brown faces in England, when the Empire was feverishly exploiting Africa and Asia? There's something to Phillips' claim that we require an inclusive Britishness but that will have to be articulated in terms of a future cultural identity. All appeals to a lost British past can only play to the psychopathology of our Ray Knights.

Posted by mark at April 7, 2004 01:41 PM | TrackBack

Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian makes a pretty good defence of Trevor Phillips.

you are right that the govt has failed to defend immigration with sufficient vigour, end result being Migration Watch and a few tabloids are screaming louder than everyone else and basic facts are obscured.

i know a fair few centre-right types who have less than desirable views on immigration and - sometimes - even asylum who do indeed chorus empty platitudes about it being a shame they can't hoist the flag as often as they'd like due to the far-right tarnishing it by association ('look at America, they're proud of their heritage yadda yadda, we need to delink fascism and the flag blah blah like we did in Euro 2000 etc').

YAWN. as a white vaguely patriotic bloke (well for things like the BBC, even though nationalism is all an invented fiction past romantic age mythologising blah blah blah) i know i could wave the flag if i wanted and we're big enough to accomodate ensuing arguments without my language degenerating into a rote spiel of 'it's a shame the far-right have taken the flag from me, i'm a Lib Dem voter after all, i just wish there weren't so many Somalis on my streets incidentally...'


is Phillips claiming a respect for the rule of law and a plural heritage are innately British qualities? if he is, good luck to him, as that's OTM innit.

Posted by: scott at April 7, 2004 02:03 PM

hmmm weren't feeling the toynbee

Posted by: luke.. at April 8, 2004 12:08 AM

'fraffle' is copyright the estate of Luke Davis.

But, no, I agree with you Luke. I'll try and write a refutation of Toynbee tomorrow.

Posted by: mark k-punk at April 8, 2004 12:26 AM


the first four paragraphs are pretty much just establishing the facts so that's OK.

para. 5: "but the most dangerous divide now is in culture - and that means Muslim: ask the BNP" from the POV of the BNP supporter, that is agreeable in itself. so i admit you can argue about that til the cows come home.

para. 6 mebbe you think sounds a bit fogeyish but aw shucks.

para. 7: "Embrace modern British values that include laws on equality for women....No, it doesn't mean tearing off schoolgirls' headscarves"; well, this is nice, surely.

para. 8 seems fair play. you can't pick who's going to pick up and run w' you, even if you believe that what someone is saying means - inevitably - only some ppl will run w' them, and not others (in Toynbee land, this means not minding Tebbit praising him whilst Vaz stamps his feet). there's nothing too bad about this is there?

para. 9 makes me feel a bit queasy, granted. but "...the context has changed" sounds reasonable?

the last two paras. admittedly leave a lot to be desired. confusing whatever bad points she sees in certain strains of multiculturalism with the Islamofascist project per se is a bit dodgy (well, more than a bit), i guess.

final analysis though, i'm just quite grateful that Toynbee (who i don't normally feel, i admit), writes "There will be no surprise, either, if the Tories use any minor immigration scam to stir ill-founded fear of chaos on the borders, especially as May 1 EU expansion day approaches" at the end. frankly, i'm liable to let lots of really dodgy things sweep past my radar in my haste to embrace ppl that are just generally ready to shout at certain tabloids in the whole economic migrants/asylum seeker debate.

so i dunno.

Posted by: scott at April 8, 2004 02:07 AM

Toynbee is part of that school of Guardianista women that i don't quite often feel.

see also Linda Grant&c.

Posted by: scott at April 8, 2004 02:10 AM


Posted by: at April 26, 2004 02:22 PM