On 7th June it will be one year since Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters dumped the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol Harbour. Around 50 Brexiteering Tory MPs styling themselves the Common Sense Group has published Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age, outlining their response.
Upon first reading it I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh at its monstrous hypocrisy or cry at the very scary prospect of its “post-liberal” agenda being realised. I do know what I feel, however, about this group of hyper-nationalists’ attacks on history and BLM.
These MPs are trying to persuade a notoriously impressionable Prime Minister that Conservatives must engage in an all-out culture war. They claim that this war was started under Tony Blair’s premiership, when leftists encroached on conservative cultural assumptions. There is plenty of evidence here, though, that it is actually they who are the aggressors.
“The Battle for Britain has begun”, writes the group’s chair, Sir John Hayes, and “it must be won by those who, inspired by the people’s will, stand for the common good in the national interest.” Winning this war is the Common Sense group’s immediate objective, but there is a longer term aim behind it. This is where foreboding displaces ridicule.
These MPs want to discard Britain’s uncodified liberal constitution. “Leaving the EU”, Hayes warns, “is just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end of this process. What is required is nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of the relationship between the individual, society, the economy and the state.” Winning the culture war “is vital to such a national rebirth” (a phrase often used by twentieth century Fascists).
All the traditional concerns of Conservatives are here – immigration, family integrity, the Royal Family, crime and policing – but more sinister stuff is threaded throughout. Alexander Stafford insists that their agenda “will require both Government action and courage”, most immediately: to undermine the 2010 Equality Act, repeal hate speech laws, and break up the BBC. They want to “end the need for impartiality” in news reporting. We’ll then have the enticing prospect of exclusively right wing news channels like GB News, playing the role of Trump’s favourite Fox News, here in the UK.
The Red Wall
The MPs behind this book are riding high on the divisions that brought them to power in the post-Brexit election. Ten of them were elected for the first time in 2019 and three won traditionally non-Conservative seats. The Express, one of whose writers contributes, says “The book aims at providing a blueprint to help keep the former red wall seats”.
The contributors understand their success in these constituencies as being the result of two promises. The first was “levelling up”, flowing from a tsunami of government investment in the neglected infrastructure and industries of northern England. The second was to align with constituents against perceived threats from “metropolitan elites”, including the immigration they allowed from the EU.
In the light of the post-Covid deficit, levelling up now seems much less likely. Now that Brexit is “done” it too looks increasingly unlikely to deliver promised material rewards. Without being able to deliver economically, a culture war becomes not merely a defence of values that these MPs cherish; it is also all that’s left of a strategy to retain these seats.
All the contributors to Common Sense are intent on perpetuating the divisions that saw them into power. Continued momentum depends upon the creation of a new enemy – a spectre as contemptible as that of the EU conjured up before the 2016 EU referendum. “Once the Brexit transition period is over”, writes Stafford, the Conservative Party will be at a crossroads. We must double down on the social conservatism that voters in our constituencies expect of us. We must avoid losing our way”.
The new spectre is the “woke”. Tory hyper-nationalists made a start in sketching it out in the immediate aftermath of the BLM protests last summer, opening two main fronts: against the practice and teaching of history and BLM.
The Attack on History
Common Sense assaults history in all its guises: academic research on the past, heritage preservation and interpretation, and teaching in schools and universities. All publicly funded practitioners, its authors believe, “should be required to promote British values, traditions and history”. But only of a certain kind. No free speech here.
“Britain is under attack”, writes Gareth Bacon. “Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense. Our heritage is under a direct assault – the very sense of what it is to be British has been called into question, institutions have been undermined, the reputation of key figures in our country’s history have been traduced”. Bacon’s visceral sense of endangerment reminds us that this culture war is not solely about appealing to the perceived socially conservative views of red wall voters.
The Common Sense group’s engagement with history reveals deep emotion and genuine perplexity. Like the statues I wrote about in my last blog, these are petrified white men. The story of Britishness that defined their sense of national belonging is the same as that which shaped me growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I understand it. It is one of exploration, discovery, conquest, colonisation and rule over people of colour. It is also one of civilising, Christianising and freeing those less privileged than “us”.
The founders of the modern nation who did all these things were white, and Britain’s heritage is that of a white nation only recently inundated with people of colour. It is a version of history that denies Black people’s belonging, either in Britain itself, or in “our” national story.
Those people of colour, both threatening and pitiable, who were made British subjects by Empire whether they liked it or not, were acted upon by Britons. They were not proper Britons themselves. Their ancestral story of being colonised, enslaved and exploited was certainly not part of the story of Britain and Britishness. The hyper-nationalists’ favourite anthem, Rule Britannia, though, is premised on a lie: “Britons never … shall be slaves”. The act of enslaving African people and putting them to work on British colonial plantations rendered them British subjects. So Britons were slaves. The fact that most of us today still see the white enslavers as British and the Black enslaved as something other means that the descendants of the enslaved are still written out of “our national story”.
For these culture warriors resisting any revision of this story, Britishness is still whiteness. We need, however, to start seeing slavery as something that Britons did to other Britons if we are to move towards racial reconciliation in this country.
Gareth Bacon most sincerely wants to believe that the British Empire was “a modernising, civilising force that spread trade, wealth and the rule of law around the globe”. He is no doubt genuinely disoriented to be told that yes, it spread trade – but only that which was favourable to Britons. Free trade in British manufacturers’ and merchants’ interests was often enforced at the point of a gun. At the very same time that Manchester saw a monster anti-Corn Law demonstration to open up trade on behalf of the British poor, British steamships and marines were forcing China to accept an illegal trade in opium, grown for Britons by their Indian subjects.
And yes, the Empire spread wealth – mainly to white Britons who either stayed at home, perhaps as absentee slave owners, or East India Company shareholders, or emigrated to become settlers. Their wealth came from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the violent destruction of their societies in North America, Southern Africa and Australasia.
And yes, the Empire spread the rule of law – applied almost universally so as to maintain white supremacy, within legislative systems from which people of colour were generally excluded. The rule of law was not universal until colonised people kicked the British out of former colonies.
The Common Sense group and their allies may choose to look the other way, but as we show in Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Britain’s Empire rested by the mid-nineteenth century on three main pillars: a tropical plantation system beginning with enslaved African labour in the Caribbean and spreading to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with the use of indentured Indian workers thereafter; the extraction of rent for Company shareholders from Indians, and their coerced production of opium to smuggle into China; and a British diaspora of some twenty million over the course of the century, to create the settler colonies, later dominions.
Gareth Bacon MP fears a woke-revised, “slanted and de-contextualised” history. Omitting the most blatantly obvious characteristic of British imperial rule – its ability to put people of colour around the world to work on behalf of white Britons – is the real slanting and decontextualizing. Historians wearing nationalistic blinkers have been getting away with it for far too long.
The fact that both historians and activists have brought a sense of self and nation premised on white superiority into question, is deeply unsettling for those who have invested their identities in it. Even though they clearly do not consider themselves racist, the recovery of colonised Black British subjects’ experiences of the past is causing genuine bafflement among the Common Sense group. They obviously feel that their virtue and their value is at stake. However, they cannot bring themselves to welcome a revision of Britain’s national story so as to include Black subjects. Instead, railing against the “diminution of our country’s stature and history,” they are seeking to preserve a fundamentally racist idea of what their country is and what it should be.
What they need to appreciate is that historians like myself who work on the Empire do not “despise[e] the history and culture of the United Kingdom”. I love being British and I am not ashamed to be white British either. What I despise is a whitewashing of our history that exacerbates racial divisions and makes the United Kingdom a less pleasant place to live in.
So what, exactly, has been undermining the Common Sense group’s cherished version of national history, causing them to be so upset? Two things, I think, are primarily responsible.
The first is history itself: the process of seeking better to understand the past. Projects like the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database at UCL are the result of painstaking historical research over decades, inquiring into aspects of Britain’s past that have been obscured or buried by previous generations of historians. This particular project has brought slavery home, revealing how ordinary Britons who had never seen an enslaved person in their lives nevertheless owned and profited from these people of colour at a distance. Each of us can find out who owned enslaved people in our home towns. They include, for instance, the vicar of my local church in Uckfield, East Sussex, and the man upon whose former estate my housing estate was built.
The East India Company at Home project has shown how Britons were rapacious in the eastern half of their empire too, with Company shareholders “earning” dividends by charging Indians rent for the privilege of living on their own land and profiting from opium trading, and then using the proceeds to build country estates. Much of this new historical work, revising what we thought we knew of our imperial past, is now being popularised due to the work of British TV’s first major Black historian, David Olusoga
It tends to be more recent research of two women in particular that especially incenses the Common Sense group and their supporters. The Daily Mail was obliged to pay £25,000 to the author of Insurgent Empire, Priyamvada Gopal, after falsely accusing her of inciting a race war in in article based on tweets mocked up by right wing trolls. Corinne Fowler’s work with the National Trust is referred to in the manifesto as the epitome of hated historical revisionism. Professor Fowler, who has also been subject to Daily Mail rants, worked with the National Trust and primary school children on a project revealing how many of our stately homes were built upon the proceeds of slavery, opium -trading and other forms of colonial exploitation. As the blurb on the back of her book, Green Unpleasant Land notes, “The heatedness of the recent media response … shows just what is at stake: a selective vision of nation that underplays the impact of four colonial centuries, or a version that embraces, as Paul Gilroy expresses it, a post-imperial ‘convivial culture’”.
These academics have been exposed to precisely what Bacon alleges the “woke” are doing: “an explicit campaign of aggressive bullying, intimidation and censorship.”
Fowler’s work with the National Trust has been criticised by a group of members aligned with the Common Sense group, with The Telegraph insinuating (falsely according to the National Trust itself) that its chairman had been obliged to resign because of its “woke” agenda. The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has insisted on the replacement of a trustee of the National Maritime Museum because he is too “woke” for the government’s liking. When Fowler responded to a question about how she felt about the attacks on her, one of the authors, Lord Peter Lilley declared “If she cannot take criticism she should not be in the university, let alone lecturing the nation. Arguably, it is she who has insulted her country by her book whose very title — Green Unpleasant Land — tells us what she thinks of her fellow citizens.” And yet, in just one example of their monstrous hypocrisy, the Common Sense group complain that they are being deprived of “the right and the ability to challenge those on the left”; that “any attempt to do so is viciously put down – disagreement is not now tolerated and any perceived deviation from the narrow ‘true path’ is ruthlessly crushed” through “’noplatforming’ and the rise of the ‘cancel culture’”.
The Attack on Black Lives Matter
Since 7th June last year, diligent historical enquiry has been joined by something that the Common Sense group find even more unsettling: the assertiveness of Black Britons and the support that they have received from white allies. This really put the frighteners on hyper-nationalists who invest their identities in a white Britain.
When protestors ditched Colston’s statue in the harbour, they made it clear that they would not rest until white Britons addressed the racism and violence of Empire and its legacies. Britain must revise its national story to include Black people.
To the horror of the Common Sense bunch, before we know it, we might even have a National Curriculum recognising that a four hundred year-long project pursuing a white supremacist Empire and ending only in my parents’ lifetime has shaped modern Britain more than, say, a single century of Tudor rule over four hundred years ago. In a Radio 4 Moral Maze debate (although “debate” would suggest a more even sided encounter) that I took part in last summer, a panel almost exclusively comprised of imperial apologists (with the exception of the brilliant Nesrine Malik) concluded meekly that yes, we should all learn more about the Empire. But I do not think they realised how uncomfortable this “learning” will be.
The problem for those who prefer comforting narratives is that all the positive things one could say about the British Empire have already been cherry picked for public consumption over the last hundred years. All that’s left to teach is the buried and disavowed parts – the racism and the violence. We’ll have to teach it nonetheless, though, if we’re to include Black Britons’ heritage in our national history.
Another big problem for the Common Sense culture warriors is that, despite all the ground work laid by attacks on historians and heritage bodies, they still have more work to do if voters are going to blame the “woke” for their ills. A poll shows that most people in the UK still do not know what “woke” means, and “a majority have hardly heard of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘identity politics’. In fact there is “limited awareness of the culture war debate generally”. This is where BLM comes into play.
Given that the authors admit that “there is no official ‘woke’ political party and the left-wing parties espousing elements of the ‘woke’” are diverse, their invention needs a focal point. Climate change activists, also targeted here as “woke”, don’t quite fit the bill, perhaps because even the “extremists” of Extinction Rebellion tend to be too white and their cause now too mainstream. BLM is a much better material out of which to sculpt “the woke”.
The language surrounding the protests of last year is revealing. Tensions around race were not the result of pre-existing racism, according to Common Sense. No, they “came to fore during the summer of 2020, particularly after the death of George Floyd … who died following his arrest.” I think we all know now how he died, but according to this group of MPs, racial grievances are a matter of history, not of today.
They admit that “claims of perceived injustice stem, somewhere down the line, from real injustice. Slavery was, and is, inhumane, as were the Jim Crow laws and segregation”. However, “the ensuing Civil Rights movement was a tremendous achievement in righting those wrongs … once those very real laws were abolished, there was left a vacuum which needed to be filled with more things to fix. As a result, although racism certainly does still exist, the real racism expanded to encompass perceived racism too”.
This, of course, is exactly the narrative supplied for the government by the Commissioners on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the Sewell Report. Widely discredited, including by those it cites, this report has not gone away. Quietly, the government is continuing to make policy based on its denial of enduring structural racism.
This despite the following facts, taken from the ONS website: Black households are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to have a weekly income of less than £400; people in White British households are consistently the least likely to live in low income households; across the NHS workforce in 2018, Black men were paid 84p for every £1 received by White men, and Black women 93p; when comparing staff in similar roles, White staff had higher average pay than those in all other ethnic groups; among juveniles sentenced in 2017, the Black ethnic group had the highest percentage of offenders sent to a young offenders institution. In every year during the same period, White offenders were given the shortest custodial sentences on average, and Asian or Black offenders were given the longest; in every socio-economic group and age group, White British households were more likely to own their own homes than all ethnic minority households combined.
Despite supposed red wall grievances, in every region in England and in Scotland, unemployment rates are lower for White people than for all other ethnic groups combined, with the biggest differences in West Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. And provisional analysis for the period 2 March to 15 May 2020 shows that the mortality rate for deaths involving COVID-19 was highest among males of Black ethnic background at 255.7 deaths per 100,000 population and lowest among males of White ethnic background at 87.0 deaths per 100,000. For females, the pattern was similar with the highest rates among those of Black ethnic background (119.8) and lowest among those of White ethnic background (52.0).
Despite these quite legitimate grievances, the Common Sense group decries “the intolerant woke dogma of Black Lives Matter”, labeling it an “extreme cultural and political group … fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future”. Rather than seeking to address injustice it is “motivated by darker emotions: hatred, jealously, malice, insecurity”. Behind the “universally accepted idea that racism is wrong”, BLM activists apparently “hide other more controversial ideas such the desirability of the destruction of the conventional family unit, smashing capitalism, defunding the police and an unpleasant strain of anti-Semitism.”
These MPs seem to have a particular fondness for images of cities ablaze. James Sunderland and David Maddox say that “we only have to look at the corporate sponsors of Black Lives Matter who poured in millions of US dollars even as America’s cities burned”, while the BBC apparently “describe[d] the BLM riots as ‘mostly peaceful’ and ignore[d] cities and businesses being torched”. But the thing is, they were largely peaceful. I don’t remember the skies above Britain glowing red as BLM protestors filled the streets of many of our towns and cities last year.
The reality of what BLM is, how it came about and what it seeks to achieve does not matter though. What matters is that white voters can be persuaded that “the ‘woke’ warriors of BLM, advocates of ‘decolonisation’ and ‘white privilege” are “destroying the fabric of British society”. The hypocrisy is stunning. The same contributor goes on to note that “A country divided into rigid identity groups which refuse to accept the validity of differing points of view would soon become ungovernable”.