David Starkey’s comments on Newsnight with regards to the London riots were misguided, in places bizarre and uncharacteristically simplistic. He seemed to conflate aspects of urban culture, with being black and implicitly seemed to associate being ‘white’ with being a law abiding citizen.
As Starkey himself has admitted perhaps his biggest mistake was to quote Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech. It is speech that comes with more emotional baggage than any other in recent British political history and is guaranteed to provoke a reaction. For Starkey to evoke Powell’s disastrous vision of Britain, even if he went on to qualify where Powell got it wrong, during such a sensitive situation, was deeply crass. .
In some respects however the reaction to Starkey’s comments has been more worrying than anything Starkey said. David Starkey, whatever his other faults, is not stupid enough to appear on television and say something that he knew to be racist. Yet many commentators have jumped on the bandwagon and condemned Starkey, without properly considering what he was trying to say or why he might have been moved to say the things he did..
Now I disagree with much that Starkey had to say. The real issue that Starkey’s appearance on Newsnight has raised however, is that it showed that it is still nigh on impossible in this country to have a reasoned and sensible debate, where issues of race are concerned.
This was amply illustrated on the programme itself. The chair of the debate seemed incredulous at Starkey’s comments and quickly lost control of the discussion. This meant that Starkey was neither effectively challenged nor was able to clarify his views, something which may have helped to diffuse the situation. Starkey at one point attempted to make the point that he was only condemning a small part of Black culture but was drowned out by the protestations of the other panellists. Owen Jones and Dreada Say Mitchell, the other guests, contributed to the shutting down of what could have been a useful debate had Starkey’s points been challenged more thoughtfully. Mitchell looked out of her depth, while Jones seemed happy to settle for cheap point scoring, which only drove Starkey further into a hole of his own digging. .
Much of the reaction to Starkey’s comments was also either sensationalist and restricted in scope. Piers Morgan and Robert Peston quickly condemned Starkey, with Morgan arguing that Starkey should not be allowed back on the TV. Ed Miliband got involved calling Starkey’s comments ‘’disgusting and outrageous’’ while Conservative MP Louise Mensch was also quick to condemn Starkey. Any potential for a broader debate on the issues raised by Starkey was washed away in a wave of sanctimoniousness and moral indignation.
This strikes me as deeply unhelpful. Starkey said on Newsnight that ‘’so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country’’, articulating a view that multiculturalism has failed and has left some British people feeling alienated from the immigrant communities they live side by side with. This has long been a concern amongst sections of the white working class, in particular. Yet much of the media refuses to even discuss this point of view. The hysterical reaction to Starkey’s appearance on Newsnight has, as Harold Jacobson recognised in the Independent, effectively ruled out any chance of the points he was trying to make being openly discussed. .
The irony is that only by discussing the issues Starkey raised, by challenging and being prepared to listen to them, can these concerns be addressed and in the long run hopefully put to bed. The knee jerk reaction by many to Starkey’s comments will ultimately serve only to hinder this.