My latest column for the International New York Times is on the furore created in Britain by Emily Thornburn’s tweet, and what it tells us about British politics. Published under the headline ‘A Collision with “White Van Man”‘, here are the opening paragraphs. You can read the full version in the INYT.
Rarely can such an unremarkable photo have such heavy political repercussions. Last Thursday, a senior Labour Party member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry, tweeted a photo of a house on Rochester, Kent. It showed three flags of England draped across the facade and a white van parked outside. Ms Thornberry’s caption simply read: ‘Image from #Rochester’.
This seemingly innocuous message was freighted with political meaning. By the end of the day, the tweet had become headline news, and Ms Thornberry had lost her job as the opposition’s chief spokeswoman on legal affairs.
Why such a rumpus? The flag of England (the Cross of St. George) and the white van have both become symbols of working-class identity. They are, for many, markers of racism, philistinism and social conservatism. The flag is as closely associated with far-right groups and with football fans as with England as a nation. So-called ‘white-van man’ has become an archetype of the self-employed tradesman, assumed to be xenophobic, hostile to immigration and dismissive of liberal values. The phrase has the same kind of resonance as ‘redneck’ in American culture. And like redneck, this cultural shorthand implies a snobbish contempt for the masses.
As it happens, Ms Thornberry is a member of Parliament for the North London borough of Islington. In British political iconography, Islington stands for the liberal metropolitan elite — the polar opposite of white-van man.
The immediate context of the ill-fated tweet was a by-election in the constituency of Rochester and Strood, southeast of London. The election was triggered by the defection of the local Conservative member of Parliament, Mark Reckless, to the populist, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, whose appeal to white-van man has caused consternation in British politics. The situation mirrored events the previous month in a constituency just across the Thames estuary, in Clacton, Essex. In a spiky by-election there, another defector to UKIP humiliated the Conservatives.
In this febrile atmosphere, Ms Thornberry’s tweet seemed to reveal the metropolitan elite sneering at the customs and traditions of the working class. It was politically inept, certainly, but what made the affair so incendiary was not the photo itself but Labour’s response to it. Rather than deftly dealing with an insensitive comment, the party chose to treat it as a potentially mortal blow to its electoral prospects. Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, was reportedly ‘more angry than he has ever been in his life’. A plethora of opposition ministers lined up to condemn Ms Thornberry, seeming almost to revel in her sacking.
Thanks to Labour’s clumsy handling, the story of the Rochester by-election became as much about Labour snobbery as Tory humiliation. It exposed the panic that now grips not just the Labour Party but the entire British political class.
Read the full article in the International New York Times.