Ke­nan Ma­lik

Once, di­vi­sions were more clearly em­bed­ded in pol­i­tics. Now they can ap­pear ar­bi­trary

The Observer - - News -  @ke­nan­ma­lik Ke­nan Ma­lik

on our po­larised po­lit­i­cal dis­course

Afew years ago, we stayed in a cot­tage in the York­shire Dales. One night, we went for a drink in the lo­cal. It was plas­tered in­side and out with union jacks. The mo­ment I saw the flags, the hairs on my neck stood up. Any­one black or Asian who had grown up in 70s and 80s Bri­tain would prob­a­bly have felt the same. The union jack in those days was a sign, mean­ing: “Be­ware, fas­cists around”.

Lit­ton­dale in the 2010s is a very dif­fer­ent place from east Lon­don in the 1980s and the mean­ing of the union jack very dif­fer­ent too. The pub was wel­com­ing and friendly and we re­turned there more than once. And yet I know that the next time I see a pub plas­tered with union jacks, the hairs of my neck once more will stand up.

Signs and sym­bols are es­sen­tial to our lives, help­ing us nav­i­gate the so­cial world and al­low­ing us to link out­ward ap­pear­ance to some in­ner essence or truth. They pro­vide a means of sig­nalling who we are and what we stand for. It’s why we wear badges and rib­bons, why many Jewish men wear the kippa and some Mus­lim women the hi­jab.

The way we read signs, and the mean­ings we at­tribute to them, is not nec­es­sar­ily ra­tio­nal, as my re­sponse to the union jacks ex­pressed. Per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence has em­bed­ded in me a re­flex­ive re­sponse to a par­tic­u­lar sign.

The dis­tor­tion in the way peo­ple in­ter­pret so­cial signs can be pro­foundly dam­ag­ing. Racism at­tributes to sur­face mark­ers a per­ni­cious deeper mean­ing. To a racist, a black skin can be a sign of threat or of in­fe­ri­or­ity, an im­mi­grant, a sig­nal of so­cial degra­da­tion.

In a re­cent es­say, the Con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist Graeme Archer suggested that we live to­day in an “age of semi­otics” in which signs have be­come both all-im­por­tant and pe­cu­liarly dis­torted. Signs have be­come “trib­alised” and “the de­con­struc­tion of signs… has be­come our chief po­lit­i­cal di­ag­nos­tic”. There is truth to this. Con­sider the Brexit de­bate. The hos­til­ity and ha­rass­ment faced by the Tory Re­mainer Anna Soubry dom­i­nated much dis­cus­sion over the past week. “This is what has hap­pened to our coun­try,” Soubry ob­served in the in­fa­mous in­ter­view on Lon­don’s Col­lege Green drowned out by chants of “Soubry is a Nazi”. She was right, though per­haps not quite in the way she meant.

It’s not, as Soubry seemed to sug­gest, that the Brexit de­bate has cre­ated a trib­alised Bri­tain in which peo­ple with whom you dis­agree be­come fair game to be ha­rassed and de­nounced as Nazis. Rather, it is that a more trib­alised Bri­tain has meant that the Brexit de­bate is in­evitably now seen in tribal terms.

Abu­sive views of op­po­nents were stitched into the Brexit de­bate long be­fore far-right id­iots in yel­low jack­ets hi­jacked Col­lege Green. Al­most from the be­gin­ning, Re­main­ers dis­missed Brex­iters as ig­no­rant and racist. Brex­iters de­nounced Re­main­ers as traitors and en­e­mies of the peo­ple. No doubt, on read­ing this, both sides will in­sist: “Yes, but we’re right and they’re wrong.”

One way in which peo­ple try to make sense of this is in the ob­ser­va­tion that we are liv­ing in a more po­larised so­ci­ety. A di­vided Bri­tain is not, how­ever, any­thing new. The min­ers’ strike of 1984-85 cre­ated far greater so­cial in­sta­bil­ity than any­thing we are wit­ness­ing to­day. In 1926, the Gen­eral Strike led the prime min­is­ter, Stan­ley Bald­win, to claim that union lead­ers were “threat­en­ing the ba­sis of or­dered gov­ern­ment, and go­ing nearer to pro­claim­ing civil war than we have been for cen­turies past”.

What is pe­cu­liar to­day is not po­lar­i­sa­tion it­self, but the man­ner of divi­sion. In the past, the distinc­tion be­tween left and right gave peo­ple a means of mak­ing sense of so­cial di­vi­sions. That distinc­tion no longer pro­vides a use­ful com­pass for to­day’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape. In the past, move­ments for so­cial change helped shape peo­ples’ ideals and gave mean­ing to na­tional fault lines. To­day’s po­lar­i­sa­tion is dis­con­nected from any such move­ments, mak­ing di­vi­sions ap­pear more ar­bi­trary and more in­tractable.

To­day, Bri­tish pol­i­tics seems si­mul­ta­ne­ously to be chaotic and im­mov­able. The Brexit process has ex­posed a frag­mented po­lit­i­cal class, seem­ingly un­able to gov­ern the na­tion. Yet pub­lic at­ti­tudes have barely changed to­wards Brexit. And, for all the dis­as­ters faced by the Tory party, Labour has been un­able to take ad­van­tage. Bri­tain is so­cially po­larised, yet po­lit­i­cally paral­ysed. As a re­sult, pol­i­tics skates largely on the sur­face. It is this degra­da­tion of pol­i­tics that has made signs al­limpor­tant. They are what’s left and what we po­larise around.

Pho­to­graph by Don McPhee for the Ob­server

Di­vided times: po­lice and min­ers clash in the ‘bat­tle of Or­g­reave’, June 1984.

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