This weekend just past I took my 9-year-old son to a football match in England. It was a Manchester United match, but even so, it was still a recognisably English setting, I think. He is interested in food these days, and spends a lot of time in the kitchen helping prepare meals. He tells me that if he doesn’t make it as a professional footballer he will become a food critic. He was delighted to have a full English breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 in the morning. He stacked his plate with egg, bacon, sausages, black pudding, and a grilled tomato. What, he asked, is the difference was between a full English breakfast and a full Irish breakfast? I said it mostly depended on where you were sitting. At midday, we were out at Old Trafford, milling about. He wanted to get something to eat before we went into the stadium. We went to a chip shop. He ordered a chicken fillet burger, I ordered fish and chips, something I might eat once every five years. He finished the burger before I got half way through the fish. I saw him eyeing up the fish, and gave him a piece. It was a bit too greasy for my liking but he was willing to polish the whole thing off, the hungry hoor.
I told the food critic that the fried fish you get in fish and chip shops originated from Jews who made their way, from central and southern Spain, via Portugal, and on to England, after their decreed expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. He liked that: not the expulsion, but the way the fish was cooked in the same way as in his Spanish grandmother’s house, and, as he recalled with some relish, in the restaurant in Cádiz where he devoured my fried fish a couple of years back.
The match was a nil-nil draw.
On the way over to England, I wondered about the passport situation. I was travelling on an Irish passport, and he on a Spanish passport. What would it be like next time? Would the border authorities let me pass, but keep him out? Would I get arrested on child trafficking charges or something? None of these scenarios would ever come to pass, mind you, since if a stricter border regime along these lines arose, we would just not bother going.
The following day, an article by Kelvin MacKenzie was printed in the Sunday edition of The Sun. MacKenzie, for those who do not know, was responsible for printing front page lies about Liverpool supporters crushed to death -through unlawful killing– at Hillsborough. The Sun still sees fit to publish the opinions of a man who accused Liverpool fans of ‘urinating on the brave cops’. MacKenzie’s article concerned the current diplomatic controversy over Gibraltar arising from Brexit negotiations. In it, he claimed that Spain had become a wartime enemy, and that Theresa May ought to threaten, among other things, the expulsion of the ‘125,000 Spaniards…working in the UK. Say adios, Manuel.’
It’s hardly a surprise to me that pond scum like MacKenzie should come out with the likes of this. What makes it new for me, though, on a personal level, is in seeing such racism directed at my children. In this case, the object is ‘Spaniards’, but this assertion of ultimate sovereign power could just as well be directed at any grouping identified by Brexit Britain as essentially dangerous.
I have seen people on social media, responding to the piece, calling for MacKenzie to be ignored, and boycotted, and so on. Whilst I agree entirely that The Sun should be boycotted, it is an error to treat MacKenzie in isolation, as some kind of outlier. The violence of his proposals -and the suggestion that such violence is to be enjoyed, that it is only a bit of fun– is entirely in keeping with the way in which the Brexit referendum was conducted, and how debate over its implementation is taking place. According to this view of the world, there is a sovereign British ‘people’, whose will was expressed in a referendum and whose decisions are unimpeachably final. It is tacitly assumed -not only by the Tory right and its media- that this sovereignty entails a power of life and death over any grouping it proclaims as dangerous.
20 years ago, The Sun’s circulation was nearly five million. Now it’s a third of that. There is no doubting its noxious effect on public discourse in Britain, but its power and influence are nowhere near as significant these days. Today’s Gibraltar cover, and the maniacal racism of Kelvin MacKenzie’s column, are imbued with a longing to recover what it sees as the glory days when it could whoop it up for British military power as with the sinking of the Belgrano, or at least to retain the older readers who revel in the paper’s chauvinist ignorance. But if the influence of The Sun itself might have dwindled, there is a far greater array of voices, able to make themselves public, delighting in the kind of unbridled racism and militarism in which The Sun was once the market leader.
Former Tory leader and Home Secretary Michael Howard’s intervention on Gibraltar -summoning the spirit of Margaret Thatcher and highlighting the remarkable ‘coincidence’ regarding Spanish-speaking countries- was calculated to rouse a bout of jingoist chest-beating from The Sun and the rest as a means of distracting from the threadbare and risible situation Britain has created for itself. In the absence of concerted anti-racist action, it would be inevitable that this whole process will intensify the scapegoating of migrant populations, both through legal measures designed to placate ‘the people’, and through extra-legal violence conducted against everyday people who commit the offences of speaking a language other than English, or of simply not being white.
Against all this, a host of liberal voices in Britain sound their one-note trumpet for ‘legitimate concerns’ about ‘immigration, jobs and welfare’. The order of priority here comes from Stuart Maconie in the current New Statesman, but it applies to a large swathe of liberal opinion, wont to calls for progressive patriotism and the like. They are quite content to throw this rough racist beast more red meat, and congratulate themselves on their bravery in so doing. The New Statesman cover presenting an imperialist butcher like Kitchener as a figurehead for democratic renewal reveals the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of those who look upon themselves as voices of moderation and progress. One might be inclined to laugh at this pathetic rooting around in the bric-a-brac of imperial nostalgia if the likely consequences of this were not so dire.
From where I stand, there is no view that can be improved by sticking a union jack on it. One effect of Michael Howard’s séance for Thatcher, for instance, is to present the history of Britain as one of great patriotic adventures led by great political leaders. The flying of the union jack serves to consign to oblivion the social and political struggles conducted by working class and immigrant populations, and how they shaped the everyday life of the country. One irony in the treatment of Gibraltar this past couple of days, its festooning with union jacks and the chest-puffing assertions of unshakably British character, is how the history of the rock is far more multi-layered and interesting. When the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, the British were supposed to keep Jews and Muslims out, in line with the demands of the Spanish. As Henry Kamen writes in The Disinherited, the British ignored the Spanish and allowed immigrants of all religions in. Yet the same forces proclaiming the importance of Gibraltar to British national pride are precisely those most concerned with keeping Britain free from the supposed threat of encroaching Islam. Strangely, I could not find anything detailing whether more liberal voices among the British had called for the ‘legitimate concerns’ of the Spanish on immigration to be entertained.