Kilmarnock, the town where I spent my childhood, is what might adequately be described as a post-industrial or ‘deindustrialised’ shell of some 46,000 people. Through the 1980s and 90s my experience of being working class was one of constant tension; factory closures, rising unemployment, an increasing security apparatus within the state, and a heightening political and middle class discourse on the criminality of the working class left working people in no doubt that they were on the receiving end of decisions over which they had no control. Our schools were modelled on a middle class value system and a set of social assumptions about class which working class children were meant to ingest. These schools were staffed by educated middle class teachers with whom we had little in common, and all too frequently their class prejudices were voiced in the classroom.
Our parents and grandparents spoke often of the 60s and 70s. These were the decades when “We almost won.” In the three decades before I was born working class identity meant something. Organised labour, social cohesion, and real parliamentary representation had brought people out of the slums and the disease ridden tenements and put them in publically owned houses with clean running water, and gave them social security and a National Health Service. Harder times, under a privileged Thatcherite conservative resurgence, broke the trade unions and with them our sense of togetherness. We had worked together, but now we were all unemployed alone. Competition was the watchword of the neoliberal agenda and it became the brute reality of survival in working class towns.
Religious bigotry had long been part of the fabric of Scotland, and as more people came to our country from other places racism too found a place. Working people’s growing sense of powerlessness meant that “foreigners” were viewed with suspicion as competition for scarce employment. In secondary school I had Chinese and Muslim friends. While racist jokes and racist names like “Chink” and “Paki” were well-known and employed often, they were rarely used with malice. This statement does seem absurd and will require a fair amount of unpacking, but this will have to wait until another time. Given the small number of Muslim and Chinese families in the town racial tension didn’t really exist, and although we were aware of it in other parts of Britain it wasn’t on our radar – although, looking back, this may have been experienced differently by the people we called “Chinks” and “Pakis.” Perhaps I might describe this as a soft or naturalised racism.
It would be wrong to say that this was not violent racism. It was horrendously violent. Never did I see, thankfully, this soft racism mutate into physically violent racism, but as a means of excluding others and alienating them it was a real violence. Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, is a man I have struggled to accept. His open racism and Islamophobia have turned my stomach. Yet he and I share much in common. We are almost the same age, we were raised in the same country, we are both working class, and we are both trying to put into words and actions the confusing thoughts and ideas that are swimming about in our heads. The conclusions he often reaches and the things he then often says I disagree with deeply, but, having watched him and Mo Ansar in discussion over a number of months on the BBC, I believe he is asking the right questions.
He asks about Islam’s radicalisation and the danger it poses to so many innocent people around the world, and this is a valid question. What he fails to interrogate, and the British media has no small part to play in this, is the huge diversity within Islam, the history of the West’s colonisation of the Islamic World, and the many examples of peaceful coexistence and non-violent resistance. On Islam’s treatment of women his question is equally valid, but again he makes the same mistakes. He fails to take into account women’s agency and Muslim women’s right not to be owned by Western or Muslim men. He fails to see that the veil, for example, remains very much a part of the Christian religious experience for women even in Britain.
Watching him with Ansar I was struck by Robinson’s charm and his humanity. Racism and bigotry are often upon him, but time and again he shows that these are not of him. Tommy Robinson, up close, does not give the impression that racism and hatred are part of his nature, and I suspect that this may be closer to the truth for all those racists and bigots we so easily caricature. It has left me more than a little confused. Two things, however, stand out in this examination of Robinson; ignorance and fear. When I say “ignorance” I do not mean he is a stupid man. He most certainly is not. What I mean is that I see he often does not know, but each time we see this we see him working hard to learn. As he does this he changes. He and I share much of that ignorance in common, and the fear we definitely share. This fear is not natural to us, and if we want peace and understanding then we are forced to look beyond the image and the rhetoric of Tommy Robinson to find its source.