The words above are those of well known historian David Starkey who, in an appearance on Newsnight, made the claim that white ‘chavs’ had become ‘black’, stating ‘a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic culture has become the fashion’ and suggesting this cultural ‘blackening up’ was a contributing factor for the past week’s riots.
An obvious response to this would be, what does it mean to become black? Starkey outlines a highly selective, dangerously stereotypical, wholly negative and deeply offensive depiction of Black Britons and ‘black culture’ in a wider sense. In the process, choosing to overlook the heterogeneous nature of black communities within Britain and also displaying an ignorance of truly mammoth proportions.
In simplistically labelling ‘white culture’ as good and ‘black culture’ as bad, Starkey goes some way to deepen this conception of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which has for far too long polluted the British political mindset. In fact, perhaps this notion has never entirely disappeared from British politics, burrowing under the surface with these sentiments of dissociation rearing their ugly head whenever an event is deemed ‘unBritish’.
Worryingly, for a man of supposed great intelligence, a complete derision of not only an entire culture, but language too (Starkey referred to Jamaican patois as a wholly false language) has highlighted a move into irrational territory in the aftermath of the riots. Such ideas, coming from a man of seemingly respectable standing, are only likely to fuel tension between communities at a time when this country should be looking forward together, united and in hope of averting similar incidences in the future.
While, for many of us Starkey’s comments do not warrant further debate, perhaps the left should face up to the fact that we have not done nearly enough to encourage British society as a whole to stop these archaic classifications of identity and this unfortunate propensity for placing an alienating dissociation between the ‘positive us’ and ‘negative them’.
In my opinion, the problem with the left is that we too often scoff at any opinion we deem unenlightened or ignorant, and while in our minds this may be the case, the left has proven unable to convince the general public, the right and perhaps even itself, of the merits of a truly multicultural society. In frequently displaying this high and mighty tendency, those on the left arguably rub people up the wrong way and in the process make the left synonymous with aloofness and self righteousness.
For this reason, the left has to do better. There is a very real duty to ensure that the debate in the aftermath of these riots does not descend into mindless nationalism and cultural isolationism from those who feel Britain has been ‘taken’ from them. To do this, the left needs an articulate and coherent message, to truly state and believe the benefits of a multicultural and multinational society and to highlight the fact that race/nationality has no place in this debate. If the left fails in this task, views like Starkey’s may continue to crop up across the political mainstream and unjustly steal the focus from addressing the deep social problems within Britain.
The full clip of David Starkey’s Newsnight comments –