Model Race, Model Hate, Modern Britain
by: Jacob Bernard-Banton
Protest music is seldom subtle. When Idles debuted their blistering, take-no-prisoners single Model Village, there was alarm among some in the British music press. One writer, Nathan Whittle, accused the band1 of trading their comradely, love-thy-neighbour message of unity for "cheap tribalism", unfairly targeting Little Englander bigotry and violence instead of nefarious "elites" and far-right populists. He cited the Migration Observatory's findings that 44% of the UK population want immigration controls, but less than 17% actually live in the rural areas Model Village ostensibly castigates. On the one hand, Whittle had a point. If you were being uncharitable, Modern Village's reference to "gammon" comes off a little self-satisfied; you're reminded of Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson’s scathing attack on the Bristolian band ("clichéd, patronising, insulting and mediocre"), giving vocalist Joe Talbot a dressing-down for being middle-class and "appropriating a working-class voice".
On the other, something about the piece, and the subsequent backlash against Idles – centred broadly around the perceived inauthenticity of their left-wing politics – underscores the conspicuous inability to talk unflinchingly about racism and class prejudice in Britain. For starters, let's consider the song itself. It's unclear if the "model village" bellowed about is necessarily the province of the underclass. It sounds more like the leafy-green, sinister rural town mined for pitch-black comedy in Hot Fuzz: all the talk of low crime rates and rose gardens makes you think of Theydon Bois, Cranleigh or, indeed, Sandford, places where you might well find curtain-twitching middle-classes. Granted, these are places that have been levelled by a decade of Tory austerity. Although, it's not as if cities are void of the working-classes. Whittle makes the same mistake British media makes time after time: the condescending notion that anywhere outside the M25 is bleak and anonymous, populated by pig-ignorant poor who, by virtue of their postcode, must be racist.
Whittle naively claims Idles make the cardinal sin of "hitting out at those who have different views", views perpetuated by the right-wing press – "different views" being a rather kind way of saying "racial hatred". Presumably, Talbot shouldn't have called a spade a spade, lest he invoke the wrath of small-town folk, racist or otherwise; it conforms to the distinctly British view that racist views are simply impolite offences, quirky even. It's of a piece with the witless, acutely disturbing remarks made by Matt Forde – comedian and stalwart of the liberal-centrist commentariat, currently a writer on the Spitting Image reboot – around the time that UKIP were advancing their case in the public discourse. "Those of us on the left created this climate for UKIP," he claimed, "by depriving a mainstream voice to be anti-immigration"2. If that sounds like conceding to the resurgence of nativism, that's because it is.
After all, immigration is a net benefit. Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King's College London, said in 2015 that "all the empirical evidence … suggests that any impact on unemployment from free movement of workers has been too small to detect statistically" in relation to other factors3, blaming – you guessed it – a resurgence in nativism for people's misconceptions. According to HM Revenue and Customs, EEA (European Economic Area) nationals paid £15.5bn more in income tax and national insurance than they took out in tax credits and child benefits in the financial year 2015-164. Clearly, this means nothing. Forde, who unironically promoted his book Politically Homeless with its praise from Tony Blair and JK Rowling, was obviously talking about the way anti-immigration voices like – checks notes – David Cameron5 were excluded from the mainstream. It becomes hard to conceive of a respectable, bona fide anti-immigration platform on the left that wouldn't contravene left-wing principles of multiculturalism and equality. You want to tell him it looks a little silly that the guy now impersonating a puppet version of right-wing populist Donald Trump once pushed for something approaching right-wing populism to defeat right-wing populism.
It begs the question: why does anti-immigration need to be legitimised? Isn’t that a repudiation of sensible, moderate, liberal values? No. Forde is symptomatic of the British punditocracy positioning themselves as tireless antiracists, yet, in reality, they're guilty of the worst characteristics of British hypocrisy and racism. Cast your mind back to when Times columnist Philip Collins alleged that Jeremy Corbyn's failure to address Labour antisemitism was "far more troubling"6 than Boris Johnson's "occasional use of offensive language", a remarkable statement belied by the existence of Johnson's "satire" Seventy-Two Virgins, a cavalcade of stereotypes that would make Jim Davidson recoil – mixed-race people are labelled "half-caste" or lacking "Negroid" features, Arabs have "slanty eyes", one woman gets described as a "mega-titted six-footer" and, Bingo dobbers out for your Prejudice Checklist, you get a token mention of "Chinaman" – positing the familiar, frothing conspiracy theory that Jews run an oligarchic cabal, controlling the world's media. It would be more striking still if the Times didn't already employ Melanie Phillips, the writer quoted by Anders Breivik7, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed participants of a Worker's Youth League summer camp.
Nevertheless, if you've ever seen a Newsnight vox pop, you'll know the British media regards common people as cul-de-sac bigots whose only mistake is not having the class privilege of Johnson et al that would allow them to escape accountability. It's almost as if alloying racist prejudice to working-class identity – implying their racism is natural or intrinsic, that their manipulation at the hands of authentically racist elites, such as, say, the privately educated Nigel Farage, excuses their bigotry, merely an anthropological expression of the immutable social order – is classist. Who'd have thunk it? It explains why a romanticised, "traditional", white northern working-class is held as the true voice of "the left", even if they possess an unreconstructed social conservatism. Dripping with ugly class disdain, the implicit and distasteful message is as follows: they can't help being racist, because they have valid concerns about immigration, because they lost their industries to Tory privatisation and outsourced jobs, because they were hoodwinked by their betters, and so on.
Seen through a pop lens, it remarkably illuminates a sad feature of British culture. Last year, some of the UK's biggest rappers were first admired by critics for speaking truth to power, then shunned by the broadsheets for being too outspoken: think of the furore over Dave's supposedly "anti-white" single Black8, or Michael Gove's attacks on Stormzy for supporting Corbyn during the 2019 general election9, or Slowthai causing a moral panic when he performed at the Mercury Prize awards brandishing a dummy of Boris Johnson's severed head10. In fact, all three constitute another working-class in Britain, a rising cohort of increasingly young, opportunity-starved, pan-racial millennials suffering a multitude of difficulties: insecure work or unemployment, falling home ownership, low wages and living standards, political disenfranchisement. And it's an angst that crosses musical divides. In any other era, Working Men's Club would be a northern indie rock outfit destined for NME hero-worship. However, their affection for a time when indie rock that didn't solely rely on guitars, adjoining them to acid-house synths and dance electronics, and their endearing left-wing idealism – singer Sydney Minsky-Sargeant isn't afraid to wear a t-shirt proudly emblazoned with the word "SOCIALISM" at gigs – is antithetical to the pallid Cool Britannia patriotism that gave us Noel Gallagher swaggering onto the Glastonbury stage with a Union Jack-adorned guitar.
As such, you wonder if Whittle deliberately missed the empathy and despair of Talbot's lyrics in Modern Village's chorus – as if delivering counsel to a mate down the pub who's muttered some xenophobic old cobblers – to evade talking about racism's alarming prevalence. "I'm listening to the things you said," Talbot yells with a pang of anguish and concern, "you just sound like you're scared to death". Truth be told, Talbot has a point. He shrewdly hits upon the mindless, flag-waving jingoism that found a cruel real-world echo when news of a ban on singing Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia! at the last night of the Proms, in accordance with coronavirus measures, was spun as an antagonistic act of political correctness from Black Lives Matter, prime minister Boris Johnson eventually chiming in, urging for an end to "our cringing embarrassment about our history"11: murderous colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, concentration camps in South Africa … cringe, indeed. "Someone's making a killing," Talbot barked, hard to hear without thinking about wealthy Nigel Farage's grotesque political opportunism12or wealthy curmudgeonly divorcé Laurence Fox tweeting his disdain for Sainsbury's supporting Black History Month, right before he called two gay men paedophiles13. Outrage over the supermarket giant's Christmas advert for featuring a black family confirmed the scale of the problem14. Nothing, though, could be more brazen than the Equalites and Human Rights Commission dismissing calls to launch an inquiry into Tory Islamophobia15, then responding to criticism that its panel isn't diverse enough by appointing a man who believes "white self-interest" is a good thingas commissioner. It makes Model Village’s heavy-handedness wholly appropriate: like British racism, it's hardly subtle.
About the writerJacob Bernard-Banton tends to write obsessively about music and pop culture with a fan's enthusiasm and a critic's ear, sometimes makes music of his own, often illustrating or getting angry about politics
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/25/norway-melanie-phillips-hits-back https://www.nme.com/news/music/people-are-scared-of-the-word-black-annie-mac-defends-dave-after-new-single-black-faces-backlash-on-radio-1-2454226 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/nov/26/i-set-trends-dem-man-copy-michael-gove-mocks-stormzy-labour-support
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/nigel-farage-illegal-immigrants-hotels-worcestershire-a9648746.html https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/10/05/laurence-fox-gay-paedophile-nicola-thorp-simon-blake-crystal-sainburys-twitter/ https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sainsburys-christmas-advert-black-family-racism-b1724922.html https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/12/equalities-watchdog-drops-plan-for-tory-islamophobia-inquiry https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/nov/13/campaigners-criticise-senior-ehrc-appointment-david-goodhart