Donald Trump

I’m not sure I want THIS country back…

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In seems appropriate to be writing about racism and xenophobia this winter, appropriate but quite disturbing. I was prompted to write this blog post by one of my third year History students who had read my book London’s Shadows over the summer in preparation for his studies.

In Chapter three I look at the mixed communities of the East End of London in the 1880s, and at the tensions arising from the considerable influx of poorer immigrants from the Russian Empire. Those migrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews fleeing from persecution and seeking a better life in the West. It is very easy to draw comparisons between their plight and those of modern migrants who risk their lives to cross continents by road, rail and sea.

I may have been prompted by my student’s comments but today I feel this has been reinforced by current events. As Parliament continues to debate the Prime Minister’s forlorn attempts to secure a Brexit deal that does not plunge the country into yet more chaos and uncertainty, the newspapers this morning were full of the coverage of the racist abuse suffered by one of our leading international footballers.

In the 1880s there was a rise in anti-Semitism and anti Alien feelings, much of it stirred up by right wing agitators like Arnold White. White twisted facts and misled parliament in his attempts to blame the Jews for the problems of a British society facing its worst economic period in a generation. Unemployment (a new term in 1888) affected thousands of people and since immigrants were seemingly prepared to work for less pay it was an easy accusation to level at them that were taking English jobs.

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White and his ilk cried out that England was being swamped by foreigners who ‘were working the English right out’. It is the same rhetoric we have been hearing from Nigel Farage for years now, and the same rhetoric that impelled very many otherwise decent people to vote Leave in the 2016 Referendum. Many people will tell you that immigration was not at the heart of Brexit vote but it was at the heart of the campaign and UKIP never missed an opportunity to mention it.

When times are hard communities close ranks and ‘look after their own’ and, collectively, that is what some chose to do in 2016. Shutting the door to immigrants seemed to some to be the solution to completion for jobs and falling pay. To others of course – the likes of Farage and Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (better know as Tommy Robinson – because it sounds more working class and British) – xenophobia was justification enough. The extreme right wishes to end all immigration and, if possible, deport large numbers of those that have already settled here.

In 1888 the Whitechapel murders and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’ fueled xenophobia on the streets and led to Jewish men (and other ‘furriners’) being chased through the courts and alleys by lynch mobs. The short-term suspect John Piser (the man the papers called ‘Leather Apron’) was arrested by Sergeant Thicke, as much for his own protection as because the police thought he had anything to do with the killings.

Racism runs through our society and is rarely very far from the surface. Brexit, the rise of UKIP, Donald Trump, and the legitimacy afforded to extreme right wing voices (like Robinson and Arron Banks) by mainstream media has undoubtedly emboldened some nasty elements in British society.

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Just over a week ago a banana skin was tossed at the feet of the Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was born in France to Gabonsese parents. Football has taken big strides to kick out racism but this incident was followed by clear racial verbal abuse directed at England and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling on Saturday at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC.

Sterling made an important statement about the role of the press in fueling racism and he was supported by many voices including the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) who accused the papers of contributing to the rise in racism on the terraces.

What my study of the immigrant communities in Whitechapel in the 1880s showed me was that the city where I was born has a very long history of integrating new arrivals. That we as a country have benefitted from immigration is a verifiable fact and yet we still have fight against the bigoted views of people like Arnold White who would tell us otherwise. It is easy to hate, easy to find fault, easy to view foreigners as ‘different’, ‘strange’ and ‘threatening’.

It is tempting also to believe that when times are hard and uncertain (as they are today) that the answer is an easy one: kick out those that don’t belong here. But the real answer lies in addressing the fundamental inequality that blights our society. Austerity impacts the poorest and those without the chances to change their lives, it leaves virtually untouched the wealthy and powerful. This was true in the 1880s as well, the homeless sheltering in Trafalgar Square were the victims of a capitalist class that exploited them not their working-class brothers and sisters who fled the Tsar’s pogroms.

If you imagine for one moment that Brexit will benefit the poor communities that largely voted for it then I respectfully suggest you are at best naive, if not deluded. The men that will profit from Britain leaving the EU will be the speculators (like Farage and his City chums), the populist politicians  (like Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg), and the bankers and very rich who are protected by their huge reserves of wealth. Immigration always was and still remains the political tool of the far right. Less extreme politicians on the right are also culpable in using immigration for populist political purposes when they could and should be dialing down the rhetoric of difference.

We saw this in the late 1800s, in the 1930s and it is again a dominant theme today. I was shocked when I attended a football match at Elland Road, Leeds in 1980 or 81.  I went with my dad as we were staying with friends. We normally went to see Arsenal but thought we’d take in a local match. The abuse of a black footballer, with monkey chants and showers of bananas, was disgusting to us both. We never saw that in London. The abuse was directed at a Leeds player and was coming from his own supporters. They simply didn’t want a black person playing for their club; such was the level of racism in South Yorkshire in the late 1970s and early 80s.

I thought we’d left all that behind but we clearly haven’t. I suspect and fear that things will have to get worse before they get better and I am not sure that leaving a progressive community of ‘foreigners’ which was established in part to prevent xenophobic wars from ever threatening the European continent again, to go it alone, is really a very wise idea.

If ‘getting our country back’ means returning to the race riots and anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1970s then I think we should all stay put and calm down.

Drew Gray, Subject lead, History

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‘Future focused’ not stuck in the past: Study History because we don’t know what’s going to happen next

As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.

I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.

He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.

I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.

Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.

None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.

The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.

The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.

The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.

However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.

Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.

I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail  tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.

Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.

There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.

So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?

That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).

So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!

                                      Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)

 

*other History departments are available.