Thou Shalt Not Challenge the Rulers

Statement on Home Office Cancellation of my Talk on Anticolonialism, Race, and Empire.

Over the last year or so, the Home Office’s staff network has reached out via agencies to book me for a talk. October 14 this year panned out for both parties, dovetailing with a series the Office is running for Black History Month. I was sent a thoughtful brief; here’s an extract:

Keynote speech on her book [Insurgent Empire], what it is about, why it came about — and who did it affect — and outcomes then and now — why it is essential reading and how it will help Home Office better understand the links between: Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics colonial empire history and Home Office policy today regarding The “Windrush Scandal” — and how these communities and their descendants are viewed/impacted today over and above other racial groups — who were never enslaved — but, appear to being treated much better — we want to better understand whether our colonial history should make a difference and if not — why this does not appear to be happening and would welcome her insights/point of view on these issues. We need to better understand why there should be no need to continually defend ‘against’ our past — but work with it — to improve our policies — to value those who essentially helped to put the “Great” into Great Britain — and still do to a wide extent (despite ‘independence’) to better understand how these on-going relationships should be know and relied upon positively to improve outcome for next generations of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people living in the UK today.”

Three days ago, on Sunday afternoon, my representative received this email (after I had prepared substantial portions of my talk), from the agency acting as the preferred supplier to the Home Office:

‘I have just had confirmation that The Home Office are unable to proceed with this booking due to unforeseen circumstances. Please cancel the briefing call 12th October and the virtual engagement pencilled in for 14th October out of the diary.

They are keen to have Priya in the future and once they are looking again, Priya will be first choice.”

I sighed at the work that had already been put in, but got on with other stuff

Two days later, on the 13th of October, the very right-wing and very racist blog, Guido Fawkes, which frequently showcases white supremacy and other bigotry, put out a crowing statement claiming victory in having had me ‘cancelled’. They claimed to have ‘exposed’ (the new name for finding tweets easily available in the public domain) remarks by me which noted that Asians have frequently participated in anti-Blackness, particularly during British imperial rule in Africa when the two groups were set against each other. This is the tweet that they cite:

“Priti Patel is also a reminder that many Asians in British Africa had ferociously anti-black attitudes and were used by colonial administrations to keep black populations in their place. An attitude she brings to government.”

Far from being a racist statement, as Fawkes implies, this is an observation on the workings of racism under Divide et Impera (Divide and Rule). My criticisms of the hawkish present Home Secretary and her participation in anti-blackness are also a matter of public record. I had been under the impression that criticism of politicians was allowed in a democracy.

Guido Fawkes takes credit for my cancellation, which it celebrates proudly as a ‘No Platforming’, asserting that it ran a campaign with the Home Office to achieve this outcome. It also implies that the Home Secretary herself was involved in the cancellation.

There are really only two things to note here with concern, both part of established rightwing white supremacist strategies to contain opposition and criticism.

The first is the absurd claim that those who work critically on empire, race and racism are ‘the real racists’. The belief — and it may well be well-founded — is that the more ludicrous charge is repeated, the more likely it will stick. The appropriation of the charge of ‘racism’ by white supremacists against their critics is one of the features of the present-day political landscape. Racists claiming that anti-racists are the real racists. Facile but malign.

The second is, of course, the manifest double-standards on ‘cancellation’ and ‘no-platforming’. We have long known that in the hands of the Conservatives and the rightwing more generally, ‘free speech’ is selective, meant only to showcase racist, transphobic, misogynist, homophobic and colonial views. We now have an open example of a rightwing group, influential with government, achieving what it happily calls the ‘no platforming’ of what it calls a ‘hard-left’ lecturer.

The Tory government’s cancellation of a talk and discussion about better understanding colonial history and the role it continues to play in British society today is at odds with its loud claims to defend free speech no matter what the expressed views might be. See for instance the party spokesperson’s recent defence of offering a place at their conference to the ferociously transphobic LGB Alliance:

‘We host a wide range of groups that may have differing opinions on complex issues … We do so as a party that believes in open and respectful debate.” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/03/row-looms-over-tory-conference-invitation-to-gay-lobbying-group-accused-of-transphobia)

Fancy words but selective application of the principle. What we are witnessing, yet again, is an open and uninhibited demonstration of rightwing double standards at a time when the Tories have announced fines for university groups which cancel speakers or ‘no platform’ them. How are the actions of Guido Fawkes and their Conservative friends at the Home Office in cancelling my talk any different?.

The real aim in all the Tory talk about ‘free speech’ is the platforming of Nazis, race essentialists and other sundry discredited ideas which the right wish to give credence to. Funnily, the oft-trotted out right-wing argument that all ideas should be openly debated and exposed to sunlight does not appear to apply at all times and to all speakers.

What this government of authoritarians really wants to have stopped — as is clear from this case as well as many others — is any critical engagement with empire, race, Churchill, gender, migration, whiteness, or capitalism. This cancellation is just one more of many rightwing attempts to shut down critical discourse, because critical thinking, of course, weakens their hold. Their hypocrisy is no surprise but how should the rest of us respond?

Who will fine the Home Office?

Academic and Writer