In his response to George Galloway’s recent article, “Scotland, Farage and Me”, Dan Paris writes that “It is an imaginative mind that sees a peaceful, diverse, and inclusive movement for independence and concludes that the endpoint is ethnic nationalism. It is the same mind that sees a rowdy student protest directed at an eccentric politician and proclaims the end of democracy creeping round the corner.”
It seems this sort of “imagination” is grimly flourishing at the moment, particularly in more privileged, right-wing circles, straddling the myriad issues of racism, feminism, equal marriage and Scottish independence.
For example, according to a 2011 Harvard study, white Americans now believe that they suffer more discrimination than black people, interpreting the civil rights gains made by minorities as an attack on the rights of the white majority. This is despite the fact that the wealth gap between white and non-white Americans is massive. (Conversely, black Americans thought that while they suffered less discrimination than in the past, the white community didn’t suffer any more.)
A similar trend has been identified in the perceptions of Conservative voters in the UK. A 2011 YouGov poll asked people which groups they thought were discriminated against. Staggeringly, 41% of Conservative voters thought that white people suffered discrimination, while fewer thought that Asian and black people suffered discrimination (only 36% and 32% respectively).
It wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that these figures do not represent an actual increase in racial discrimination against white people but are instead an example of the powerful in society interpreting increased equality for the less powerful as an attack on them. They are turning the tables and accusing minority groups of becoming the oppressors, claiming that it is in fact now privileged groups who are suffering discrimination, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It seems like a bold claim to say the least, but, depressingly, this sort of rhetoric is commonly used by those in positions of relative power, both consciously and unconsciously, in an attempt to discredit the claims and efforts of those who would like a fairer share of that power. Once again this week, the gay community is being re-imagined as an oppressive force rather than an oppressed minority, as the anti-equal marriage brigade, from the Tories to the church, work themselves into a lather. Feminists will also be all too familiar with this sort of thing; the movement is labelled, with dull regularity, as “anti-men” rather than pro-equality.
Indeed, only last week, men’s activist Glen Poole got on the defensive in the Guardian, responding to a preview of Diane Abbott’s speech on austerity, consumerism and “hypermasculinity”. The speech was intended to highlight levels of violence, homophobia and pornography use, but also the challenges facing men in the current economic climate.
While Poole’s article made some good points about how any “crisis of masculinity” should be discussed, he also took the time to describe feminism as “a barrier to helping men and boys”, and claimed that the under-investment in services for male victims of sexual abuse was due to greedy women’s services taking all the money. The overriding message of feminism, he claims, is that “women have problems, and men are problems.” He’s wrong on both counts; patriarchy is the problem, and it’s everyone’s problem. But what he’s doing here is turning the tables to imply that feminism is the problem, and not the patriarchy it fights against.
From white Americans, to Tories, to people who seek to discredit feminism, those trying to cling to their privileged positions are re-imagining the debate and casting themselves as the oppressed, rather than the women, gay people or ethnic minorities who enjoy only a fraction of their wealth, power or privilege. An attack on the status quo perceived as an attack on them.
In Scotland, we see this in the independence debate, where efforts to gain full political representation for those living in Scotland are decried as an attack on the English. It reduces yet another valid, nuanced debate to a crude binary: if you’re pro-Scottish independence, you’re anti-English. In recent days, the Farage furore has illustrated this perfectly.
On Thursday, the UKIP leader came to Edinburgh to launch a charm offensive on Scotland, hoping to repeat his party’s success in England. A group of anti-UKIP protestors mobbed him, and two Edinburgh taxi drivers refused to pick him up. Police were forced to first lock him in a pub, and then to escort him from the scene, much to the delight of those in all parts of the UK who have been dismayed at UKIP’s recent surge in popularity and media coverage. (The incident has since been immortalised in a Scots lament by a man who runs a folk night at the pub in question.)
The Edinburgh protestors, some of whom were English, have explained online and on television through a Radical Independence spokesperson (also English), that their beef with Farage was in fact UKIP’s anti-immigration and anti-equal marriage policies, and not his nationality. Yet Farage’s claims of anti-Englishness as a key motivator for the Edinburgh protest, and for the independence movement in general, have been duly supported by the Tories, Labour and George Galloway. Soon after, the Sunday Times ran an article on the incident, branding the anti-UKIP protest, rather than the surge of support for UKIP, “a further blow to tolerance”. Isn’t it ironic.
The protestors championing the rights of immigrants, gay people and those who want Scottish self-determination have been rebranded as the oppressors, attacking poor old Nigel and his fellow countryfolk. Interestingly, they’re also being accused of hindering free speech by causing Farage to abort his Scottish mission, conveniently ignoring the fact that he’s been plastered all over the press for weeks. Farage himself has claimed to be outraged that the protestors had taken a stand without first listening to his arguments, perhaps under some quaint illusion that we don’t get much coverage of English politics up here.
Laughably, Farage and co. are painting themselves as taboo-breakers, stating that everyone knows the independence movement is at its core anti-English, but that nobody is brave enough to say so. If only that were the case. Unfortunately, this has long been a stick with which to beat the SNP, and it is now being deployed on other sections of the independence movement, notably the explicitly internationalist Radical Independence Conference.
But just how far are the Unionist politicians and media prepared to go for a pop at “the nationalists”? They’ve had the brass neck to back up Farage’s false narrative, but whose side would they take in a face off between the RIC and the SDL, for example? It might interest them to know that RIC protestors were out again on Saturday taking on the far-right group, in the rain, in Dumfries. Is anyone so keen to criticise the independence movement that they will defend the Defence League? Will they attempt the ultimate in table-turning, and decry the RIC anti-fascist protestors as the real villains of the piece, as they did in Edinburgh, just to further their political agenda?
Hopefully, that would be a bridge too far for even the most rabid opponent of independence. But as white people begin to reinterpret the racial struggle in their favour, and other underprivileged minorities are cast as oppressors, the extent to which Farage and other politicians, supported by sections of the media, are willing to peddle this role-reversing rhetoric should unnerve us all.