The historian who cried wolf
A year on from the riots it is worth noting how the analysis has moved on about their causes and consequences. We now have a much more rounded debate than the polarised bickering that broke out within hours of the first violence.
Many on the Left have come to accept the importance of character, culture and human relationships as insulators from violence and criminality. Many on the Right have begun to rediscover Margaret Thatcher’s own insight that people are more likely to buy into the norms of a society when they have a proper stake in it. We may not yet have found the solutions but we are getting closer to understanding the problems that the riots revealed.
One commentator back with a second round of analysis is the Tudor historian David Starkey. It’s fair to say his first attempt, twelve months ago, did not go so well (watch for yourself here if you need to refresh your memory). The problem with his second attempt, in the Telegraph today, is not so much that he has changed his position but rather the attempt to re-write history – so to speak. In his article Starkey says:
‘Actually, I never mentioned race at all, since, in its proper sense, of a group with fixed hereditary characteristics, I regard it, as all sensible people do, as eugenicist nonsense... Instead, I focused on “a particular sort” of black culture: the “violent, destructive, nihilistic, ‘gangsta’ culture” of the street.’
Except he didn’t. What he actually said was:
‘What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black.’
This, distinctly unparticular analysis was quickly followed by:
‘Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white.’
So much for being the victim of ‘wilful misunderstanding’, as he claims today.
This is the real problem with Starkey’s comments: it is not, as he would like to think, that he is willing to say the unsayable – but rather that he says things because they are unsayable. Crying wolf twelve months later doesn’t get you very far, particularly when anyone with an internet connection can watch the footage all over again.
I am no expert on rap culture or its origins, but I do know that interventions like this one are designed not to inform but to provoke. Their impact, as I expect Starkey knows, is only to make debates about particular sub-cultures in society harder not easier for the rest of us to have.