Aristocratic privilege and whiteness are among the basic assumptions of British ruling-class ideology. Conversely, Britain’s inner cities – London in particular – are some of the most successfully multi-ethnic experiments in the ‘Western’ world. Multi-ethnic Britain is a result of what scholar Paul Gilroy calls our ‘convivial’ culture, the normal everyday decency of ordinary people that for the most part keeps the peace in the face of enormous challenges.
Racism and anti-racism, complete contempt for the poor and Christian charity, home to the world’s top universities and a strong disdain for learning, the pioneer of ‘Anglo-globalisation’ whose citizens constantly bemoan other peoples right to move freely without a hint of irony – Britain has long been a land of startling paradoxes.
The paradox in the collective identity of Britain blurs across 70 million British citizens but on an individual scale the dichotomy is definitive: Fascist versus Fabian, Pankhurst versus Moseley, Corbyn versus Cameron, Extinction Rebellion versus the Rotary Club, Socialist Worker versus British Legion, etc.
Britain had an abolitionist movement on a far greater scale than any of the other major European slaveholding powers, even while Britain had become the world’s premier slave trader?
Two centuries later, there was widespread revulsion towards and organisation against apartheid by ‘radical’ groups in Britain, even as British government, British corporations and banks actively supported it?
The idea of racial hierarchy and the attendant philosophy of innate white superiority were not invented by poor people, and while we are not excusing the central role that everyday racism has played in upholding racial hierarchies in the UK and elsewhere, critiique should not rest there.
While ethnic bigotry has been around for millennia and probably affects every known human community to some degree, the invention, or at least codification, of ‘race’ was an eighteenth and nineteenth century pan-Euro-American project, in which British intellectuals played a central role. Britain also had a pioneering role in making white supremacy a temporary political reality via its racialised global empire, yet to publicly discuss racism, much less have the gall to accurately name white supremacy as a strong current in Britain’s history, is to be greeted with odium by some who claim to study that history, but it seems would rather be left to uncritically celebrate it in peace.