Yesterday evening came news that Priti Patel was to be given overall control of the British Security Services. – Priti Patel! The most outrageously authoritarian (or proto-Fascist, if you like) member of the present UK government; she who wants to bring back hanging, and to imprison lifeboat crew who save asylum seekers from drowning at sea! ‘I must write a blog about that’, I thought, being as I am a bit of an authority on the history of the security services (seen from the outside, I hasten to add), and probably more genned up on it than she is. I was planning the post as I fell asleep, fitfully; only to awaken this morning to find that Johnson had ‘u-turned’ on this in the meantime, and had appointed someone else. So I’ll leave the juicy topic of the relationship between the secret services and the political Right for now. (You can follow it up in my Plots and Paranoia, 1989, if you’re interested.)
The incident however did get me thinking about Ms Patel, and her extraordinary situation, as the daughter of asylum-seeking immigrants (Kenyan Asians) turning out to be the most anti-immigrant minister Britain has ever had – even including Theresa ‘hostile environment’ May. At the very least I thought that this must have something to do with her ignorance of the more liberal aspects of Britain’s ‘national identity’; which may in turn have had something to do with her education, which so far as I can gather took in very little history. Others might point to her ‘ethnic’ origins, or to her gender; not in the sense that implies that only Anglo-Saxon men can be truly ‘English’, but in giving her a feeling of ‘alien identity’, on both these grounds, which inclines her towards what she believes are more assertively ‘English’ attitudes, in order to establish her Englishness. Or perhaps she’s just pandering to the ‘mob’? Or, alternatively, and to give her the benefit of the doubt: perhaps she has in fact thought it all through rationally, and genuinely believes in what she says and does.
Whatever: the phenomenon of ‘outsiders’ adopting more fervently ‘insider’ views in order to compensate for their foreign or lowly origins is a fairly common one. I remember that one of the most Right-wing members of our ‘High Table’ when I was a Cambridge Fellow was the only one (apart from me) who wasn’t upper-class and Public school-educated. (The genuine ‘nobs’ may have been no less Rightist, but had learned – perhaps at their schools – to politely conceal it.) And isn’t it interesting how many of the present Tory cabinet are of Asian and African origin (admirable in itself, of course)? And how many of the leading Brexiters have scarcely-hidden ‘foreign’ family origins: Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, even Boris himself, born in America and with some ‘Turkish’ DNA? And remember that Hitler was an Austrian, and Stalin a Georgian. (No other comparison with Farage and Co. intended here!) There must be other examples; all of them ‘outsiders’, anxious to establish their ‘insider’ credentials.
This impressed me too when I was studying British imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries: that many of the most rabid ‘British’ imperialists and imperial propagandists of that time had either German or Indian or Ulster Protestant backgrounds, placing them outside the general run of English liberal thought. (I’ve cited examples in my ‘imperial’ books.) I don’t know how significant this pattern is; but Priti seems to fit it to a ‘T’.