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’.
She wants (perhaps desperately needs?) to be ‘more British than the English’. And thus cleaves towards Empire, British stiff upper lip and all those other stereotypes of the ‘pukka’ British person which I’m sure were prominent in her Kenyan-Asian colonial family.
I also saw some of this this among my parents’ generation of post-War Polish immigrants. I recall my Mum and Dad being keen to emphasise ‘British Fair Play’ – a positive (and real – certainly back in the 50’s and 60’s anyway) stereotype!
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One possible explanation for right wing and authoritarian children of immigrants might lie in the experiences of their parents and the values they passed on to their children. Two Asian members of the Cabinet are the children of small shopkeepers whose values (like Thatcher’s) tend towards self-reliance, individualism, dislike of the state (taxes) public spending, and a petit bourgeois awareness of social class. They might also resent other immigrants who don’t subscribe to these values, and support ‘kicking the ladder away’ to prevent others enjoying the chances they had. It might also help explain those black and Asians happy to play their part in the culture wars on behalf of the Conservatives, even if their parents were not small shopkeepers.
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A sensible analysis, but what now makes it clear that the whole Cabinet is a madhouse, is that 24 hours after taking control….it has been announcved that a new Minister will take up the role after all – it seems she didn’t know of this????? Damian Hinds is the new man in charge!
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