David Starkey: lost in darkest England
When David Starkey blamed ‘black culture’ for the riots in England I almost choked on a mouthful of Belfast Ale. I’ve always thought of him as a right-wing buffoon, good for a turn on Question Time or Jamie’s Dream School, but not a serious commentator. He certainly takes himself seriously enough, I just never imagined anybody else did. So I was surprised to see him included in a Newsnight debate about of some of the worst rioting seen in the England in decades.
Starkey kicked-off the debate, and set the agenda for most of it, claiming that what lay behind the riots was that whites had become black, sharing a destructive, nihilistic gangster (or gangsta) culture.
He went on to say that a Jamaican patois had ‘intruded’ in England’, leaving many of ‘us’ with a sense of literally living in a foreign country.
He was careful to insisted that the issue was not skin colour but culture, as if that somehow made his remarks alright. But the racist cat was well and truly out of the bag when he said: ‘Listen to David Lammy’, the Labour MP, ‘an archetypical, successful black man, if you turned the screen off so that you were listening to him on radio, you’d think he was white’.
So, to summarise: Blackness = bad: whiteness = good. Simples!
Fuck, where to start with all that.
I’ll give Starkey the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s an idiot. Nevertherless what he said is racist.
His are the sort of racist remarks that you hear uttered casually by people who are ignorant of racial politics; ignorant of how offensive many careless, commonly held assumptions about race are; and ignorant about the hybrid, cultural lives of many young people in urban areas. His comments are all the more shocking because they are being made by an apparently educated man and not by your doddery aul’ aunt or uncle, who you might be inclined to forgive for not quite getting the nuances of race in the 21st century.
The problem with Starkey’s thesis is he’s way out of his academic field and intellectual depth. He’d prepared for the Newsnight debate by been re-reading Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when he’d had been better sitting down with Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy.
We can make the obvious point that there were riots and looting in England centuries before the Windrush generation. We can also make the point that there have been urban gangs and and secret rural associations long before gangsta rappers appeared. We could point to the complex, cultural relationship that white youths have with ‘black culture’. Black musics and styles have long held an exotic and erotic appeal for white British youths. Ali G offers a satirised version of this but the link can be traced back to the late 1950s-early 1960s and the birth of British youth culture.
Peter Meaden, The Who’s first manager, described the Mods of the 1960s as aspiring to be ‘neat, sharp and cool, an all-white Soho Negro of the night’. Hey, maybe Starkey can fabricate some link between ‘black culture’ and the beach fights between Mods and Rockers on bank holidays in the early 60s. Although, show Quadraphenia to a black American or Caribbean audience and I doubt they’ll make any sense of the peculiarly English phenomena at that time of sea-side violence between rival youth subcultures.
In the 60s white, English public school-boys would emulate black bluesmen. In the 70s there was an alliance between punk and reggae, that laid the way for Two-Tone. The list goes on. What emerges is not white youths somehow becoming culturally ‘black’ but vibrant, cultural hybridity. That’s why Starkey is taking out of his arse when he says a Jamaican patois is intruded in England, leaving many of ‘us’ with a sense of literally living in a foreign country. Kids in London don’t talk Jamaican patois anymore than Madness play Jamaican Ska. There is something specifically English about both.
But I digress because this isn’t the point I really want to make, which is that there’s an interesting historical context within which to see Starkey’s comments about whites becoming black.
Alastair Bonnett points to how the white working class in Britain where initially marginal to the symbolic formation of whiteness. In an article for the Journal of Historical Sociology (Vol. 11 No. 3, 1998) entitled, ‘How the British Working Class Became White’, he argues that for middle and upper class Victorians, racial whiteness symbolised ‘a wide, and highly aspirational, set of social ideals; a synonym for healthy and vigorous civilisation and also, by extension, for ambitious and expansionist capitalism’. The domestic working class were almost entirely excluded from these social ideals and therefore the frame of whiteness. Instead they were seen as lacking the ambitions and virtues of their middle and upper class superiors and therefore frequently coded black.
One of the examples Bonnett sites seems particularly pertinent today, since Starkey has echoed it. In response to riots at the time, The Daily Telegraph (21st August 1866) referred to white working class rioters with as ‘negroes’.
There are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is the proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.
Bonnett makes clear that this ‘was not a case of mistaken identity, but rather a self-consciously ironic application of an increasingly influential metaphor of social difference, namely colour’.
For Bonnett the inclusion of working class people is linked to shifts in capitalism. The later formation of popularist imperialism and welfare signaled a move away from to laissez-faire towards interventionist and consensual forms of capitalism. This was encouraged in response to growing trade union membership and militancy as well the growth of consumer orientated capitalism. In this context the gap between between the classes narrowed and the marginalisation of the working class from whiteness became untenable.
We might surmise then that the retreat from welfare, the collapse of working class representation and growing inequality has once again left sections of the poor marginal to an English national imaginary that continues to privilege whiteness? The comments of David Starkey and his apologists would certainly suggest that this is the case.