Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Political labels no longer mean very much

Today the most fanatical holders of prejudices against new migrants are old migrants
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The Independent Online

You just can't tell these days. David Davis, a man with a hard glint in his eyes, a boxer's oft-flattened nose and rigid Conservative certainties, goes all sentimental and wobbly over human rights. Meanwhile, over on the other side, "ethnic" MPs, except for the feisty Diane Abbott, and ex-members of Liberty nod their heads with more vigour than seems necessary or seemly as the PM argues his dismal case for 42 days of detention without charge. An ill win is pushed through with bribes and threats.

But history will recall that when our liberties were at stake, when the guarantees of the Magna Carta were raided, then destroyed, in the name of those same guarantees, the Conservative leadership refused to play – even though that meant rebelling against their own hawkish members. It will also be remembered that the BNP came out against these repellent measures and the invidious ID card programme. When ideological friends of the left turn bad, their adversaries and enemies appear as saviours.

Just as with the anti-war lobby, political lines and allegiances dissolve into each other as New Labour mutates into a fearful tyrant. Now two of Blair's indefensible collaborators on Iraq, the good Lords Goldsmith and Falconer, have found their moral centres again as they whip up opposition to 42 days. Meanwhile, the PM responsible for the bloody Iraqi crusade is now a paid peacemaker between Israel and Palestine. Max Hastings noted: "[in this role] he is as credible as Bin Laden." Just how do we understand our times? What maps do we use to travel through the unpredictable realm where all signposts are twisted around, graffitied over, stolen or kicked to the ground?

On Friday I was performing my one-woman show in a rural idyll near Winchester, at St Swithun's school (motto: caritas, humilitas, sinceritas), an opulent, fee-paying establishment. It was a charity gig for the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group ( SWVG), whose member, Hazel Still, made a stirring speech about their voluntary work. Forty-five ladies of Middle England support asylum seekers in detention, week in, week out, and campaign for their rights in the face of overwhelming hostility. Unlikely men are also members. It is more than heartening this, but yet unsettling. As these folk, whom you might expect to be mindlessly xenophobic, find room in their hearts for the officially most despised people on our islands, London liberals – who know all there is to know about garam masala – turn into curtain-twitching neighbourhood watchers, ungenerous towards migrants and refugees, voluble Little England protectionists. And these days the most fanatical holders of prejudices against new migrants and refugees are old migrants and refugees.

Maybe the fever brought on by this hot issue is itself a symptom of a wider, more generic sickness. Overheard at the Orange Prize ceremony at Festival Hall, as the shortlisted female writers trotted up, behind me I heard a familiar voice saying to her companion – I abridge: "Hope it isn't Rose Tremain. Who wants to read about bloody migrants? What about our lost lives? Dya know, I'm taking Prozac. This country's had it. We let too many in. They want to bomb us and we let them. We should close down all mosques. Who can we vote for? At least we have an all-white list this year, had become a bloody ethnic prize lately." I know her. She is an ex-Trotskyite, who has since moved on to other things. Almost ashamed, I moved away to spare myself and her that moment of guilty discovery. People's views are as amoebic and volatile as their tempers.

These confounding, counter-intuitive examples are all around us. I may find it utterly incomprehensible and dispiriting, but the truth is that there are more visible and high-profile young black and Asians coming up in the Tory ranks than there are in New Labour today, and the blameless party of national conscience, the Lib Dems, remain the most pristine, white party of the three. Nothing is as easy to decode as it once was. We cannot accurately deduce anything from political party identities, from general knowledge, personal or political profiles.

Some of the surprise and unpredictability feels liberating. To see leaders jumping free of constraints and formal affiliations makes politics come alive and we cheer without considering the implications. Twenty years of the rampant pursuit of individual happiness and wealth has fragmented families and society itself. Perhaps that made it easier to proceed with further demolition projects. The disintegration first of political ideology, moral vision, then established boundaries, and now fundamental doctrines governing state power, means we roam a free and fervid public space where, like in the blogosphere, anything goes.

Ours is now a wholly freelance, short-term culture. It has brought us no peace and little understanding. And although populism rules, most Britons are angrier than they have ever been before, or at least complaining incessantly. The philosopher Julian Baggini discusses this emerging Britain of incessant complaints this Thursday at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It feels to me an existential moan, itself disconnected from meaning. Those who run the country have dislocated politics from principles and everything is random, whimsical, unstable, nebulous and valueless.

In these conditions, Fascism creeps to greater favour and we witnessed exactly that in the last local election. However, the same environment can instigate positive, fringe engagement with causes that move people or gives them anchorage. They reach out to good acts, to humanitarian causes, to ecological living, to religion and spirituality. But in a world where there are no eternal truths or ideas of intrinsic value, any alternative to the mainstream is equally respectable. For me, that equivalence is abhorrent, yet for millions out there it is just post-modern reality.

So, what do we progressives teach our children? What hopes can we hold for the future when nothing is sustainable, self evidently "good" for all time, principled, reproducible, capable of both renewal and continuity with a capacity for succession? Sure, Davis will get his moment of excitement as a rebel with a cause, but it is only entertainment. Nothing matters but power and wealth. I have just re-read a fine book, Progress and the Invisible Hand, by the economist Richard Bronk, written ten years ago. He explores the contradictory "surface swells of contemporary optimism and pessimism", and a vanishing ethical consensus. We were on our way to disintegration then; we are there now.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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