Tuesday 25 August 2009

Boris must know Grayling's Wire argument is piffle

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling offers an eye-catching but silly comparison for the August newspapers.

The Wire used to be just a work of fiction for British viewers. But under this Government, in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too.

As Michael White points out, the comparison is hyperbolic and absurd, when it comes to the facts.

And Paul Waugh suggests that Grayling has neither watched the series, nor understood its central political message about why the type of posturing which he is engaged in fails, quoting David Simon's hope that politicians who use and abuse the series in which way will be told they are "full of shit".

But since Grayling's agenda is to get the Tory 'broken society' argument back up, somebody might tell Simon that the correct British expression for Grayling's speech is the rather politer piffle, as Boris Johnson previously said of his party's broken society argument.

So it is certainly to be hoped that the Mayor of London will be pointing out why Grayling's inaccurate stigmatising of "many parts of Britain's cities' is dangerous too.

Grayling's pose is progressive - "when the Wire comes to Britain, it is the poor who suffer" - but the analysis is not.

Grayling has little to say about the causes of social breakdown.

Why are these problems greater in the United States of America? Why, in his view, are we witnesssing "cultural changes going back a generation or more"? David Willetts tells us the Conservatives are now convinced by Richard Wilkinson's evidence about the importance of inequality in explaining the scale of social problems. There is no sense that Grayling has read it: there is not even a nod in the direction.

Instead Grayling does offer us a root cause: the benefits culture: "I remain convinced that this is the biggest problem at the core of our broken society, and that it has engendered a culture of irresponsibility in many parts of the country".

Why was an increased in these social problems triggered not by the introduction of universal welfare provision in the 1940s but following the enormous rise in social inequality in the 1980s? Perhaps Grayling believes that benefit recipients engineered a "culture of irresponsibility" among MPs and bankers too?

Finally, there is a very important strategic idea behind the way the modern Tories express this concern for social breakdown and the poor.

Everything Grayling says - under the cover of social concern - is intended to "other" and segregate "the poor" from the rest of society.

This is perhaps the most important strategic goal of the narrative of the "broken society' - developing the earlier right-wing argument about a crisis of "underclass".

This allows concern for 'social breakdown' to be expressed in a paternalistic way - while consciously undermining the sense of a universal approach. This deliberately separates issues of social breakdown from questions of the broader distribution of opportunity and power in British society - and is strategically designed to break-up social and political coalitions between the bottom and the middle.

When The Wire is invoked, it inevitably evokes a racial othering too. (Unwittingly on Grayling's part? Well, perhaps. But I would be surprised if the highly image-conscious Tory media team are flabbergasted at what picture desks might do with the story).

In many parts of Britain's cities, people are living lives that might be straight out of The Wire.

Not Grayling's. Not Middle England's. Not mine. And not yours - whoever you are, given the hyperbolic exaggeration involved.

But "theirs".

This is a myth and a lie.

But Grayling won't mind demonstrating his ignorance of The Wire - and he probably wanted a row about the state of our cities.
For the myth is being propagated for a political purpose - and it is not a progressive one.

This must be what matters to Grayling. Talking piffle is a small price to pay.

Talking piffle is probably a small price to pay.

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