Friday, 17 June 2016

It's not for the left to decide what is freedom

Freedom... we're talking bout your freedom
Freedom to choose what you do with your body
Freedom to believe what you like
Freedom for brothers to love one another
Freedom for black and white
Freedom from harassment, intimidation
Freedom for the mother and wife
Freedom from Big Brother's interrogation
Freedom to live your own life...

A chunk of lyrics from Tom Robinson's 'Power in the Darkness', a song that became a sort of anthem for Rock Against Racism and the birth - or was it a rebirth - for Britain's cultural left. And, you know, I can't disagree with a word in that mantra, that statement of freedoms. As a child of '70s South London the events and culture of Rock Against Racism couldn't be avoided - at school badges sprouted, the radio echoed to a different set of musical sounds, there was a strut about Brixton, West Norwood and Crystal Palace that hadn't been there before.

Yesterday I went to the opening at Bradford's Impressions Gallery of an exhibition of Syd Shelton's photographs of the Rock Against Racism days along with my friend and former colleague, Huw Jones, who sort of famously features in the exhibition as (in his words) the 'token white' in the world's only Asian punk band - Alien Kulture. Now bear in mind that I'm a Tory, indeed I joined the Conservative Party as a teenager in 1976 almost in the teeth of this anti-establishment rock and roll sentiment. Even now, in an audience of now older Rock Against Racism aficionados I'm pretty much an exception. So Sid Shelton can - albeit a little hesitantly - include the Conservative Party in the parade of today's wrongness and racism.

All of which takes me to those lyrics and why they matter to me. Too often we forget that freedom - free speech and free choice - is central to our idea of civilisation. Indeed we trap ourselves in mealy-mouthed justifications of restrictions of speech or choice, always for good reasons never simply to oppress. It's not just concepts like 'hate speech', safe spaces or no platform but also the idea of preventing imports, the demonising of free enterprise and the banning of others' pleasures because we deem them unpleasant, unhealthy or unsightly.

Speech is central to this and we live in a society where the desire to prevent other voices is at risk of being institutionalised. Just as back in the 1970s the voices of black and Asian minorities weren't heard (and still fight for space), today there's a voicelessness about what some call the 'traditional working class'. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of racism out there (and that 'traditional working class' is no averse to a bit of it) but there's also a sense of a new excluded group - that 'traditional working class'.

In its slightly clunky sociologist way, The Guardian has spotted this problem. Here's Lisa McKenzie (whose from the same Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire mining communities where my grandfather started life) talking about the issues:

Over the past 30 years there has been a sustained attack on working-class people, their identities, their work and their culture by Westminster politics and the media bubble around it. Consequently they have stopped listening to politicians and to Westminster and they are doing what every politician fears: they are using their own experiences in judging what is working for and against them.

In the last few weeks of the campaign the rhetoric has ramped up and the blame game started. If we leave the EU it will be the fault of the “stupid”, “ignorant”, and “racist” working class. Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime.

This analysis - reflecting the patronising, dismissive, even uncomfortable response of us middle-class professionals (regardless of our politics) to that traditional working class - cuts close to the bone of the issue. We don't talk about why boys from a white working class background do worst at school and are least likely to go to university, we don't look at how angry many of these pretty ordinary Britons feel left behind and we don't ask the impact of ignoring their culture in favour of a mish-mash of the elite's Britishness with assorted imported cultures. The idea of Englishness is seen as a problem - we are perhaps the only place where many observers see flying the national flag as an act of racist provocation or, in some ways worse, being ignorant and common.

As many readers will know, I have pretty liberal views on immigration but even I can see why many ordinary people are agitated by it. Yes some of the ways in which it's discussed can sound racist but get underneath that and you'll find a real set of concerns that have little to do with a fear of foreigners - frets about homes and schools, worries over jobs, the loss of community facilities like the pub and the post office, isolation, bad policing and a sort of feeling that lots is being done for some other people and nothing for you and yours.

Although Rock Against Racism started with the thoughts of mostly white middle class musicians, anger at the racism of the music establishment, it opened the door to a bunch of working class performers and, in the Ska revival, the first black-white musical fusion (as opposed to appropriation) since the height of the jazz era. It's right that we recall what happened back then but we also need to heed the words from Power in the Darkness and raise the banners of freedom again. Not just in the continuing opposition to racism but in liberating ordinary people from the oppression of the modern state with its nannying, its obsession with supposed anti-social behaviour, its demonising of pleasure and its desire to police your speech, your movement and your choices.

What I object to in all this is that Tom Robinson's presentation of freedom deliberately excludes the right in politics. Millions of ordinary people who will all put their marker down as supporters of freedom and choice are told by the left that their idea of freedom has no place because that freedom includes expropriation of assets, the belittling of wealth and success, and the sustaining of the state as an agent of oppression through advocating punitive taxation.

I'll stand side-by-side with anyone opposing racism, supporting gay rights or making the case for free speech. But when people want to deny the freedom to succeed, to limit the availability of pleasure and to attack the choice that's central to our consumer society then I'll be on the other side of the barricade defending liberty from attack. And when - as we see from the middle-class left time and again - you're dismissive, rude or condemning of the words some ordinary Briton expresses, when you seek to close down what they say because it offends you, then you have become the enemy of freedom. An enemy of the ideals Tom Robinson set out in those lyrics I quoted.


No comments: