July 31, 2020

On Thursday an organisation called “Together” (which is apparently made up of founders from the NHS, a number of charities, companies and media groups) warned that the “feelings of solidarity and togetherness” which typified the early stages of the nationwide lockdown “are already beginning to fragment and fray”.

Even without the polling that the group commissioned I suspect that most people would agree that this sounds about right. Perhaps inevitably the Together group highlighted activities like the weekly lockdown “clap-for-carers” as an example of a newly revived community spirit in the UK which is now disappearing.

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Of course you have to get these things in proportion — the British public could not stand on their doorsteps applauding the NHS forever. But amid the lament for the disappearance of a unified spirit it seems that few people are willing to consider the range of things that might be causing a return of societal divisions, in particular an unwillingness to recognise that much division in our time is not natural, but pushed and encouraged from on high. Consider just one prominent — if so far unremarked upon — example.

During the height of lockdown I had to make a trip to the centre of London — urgent and essential, I promise that I am not giving any material for a Cummings-esque witch-hunt. I was walking through a completely deserted Piccadilly Circus in the middle of the day, where almost no cars or buses ran by, enjoying that unique luxury of being able to walk the streets, and down them, without being bothered by any other living being.

Many people have remarked on how apocalyptic central London looked at the time, and what made it even more like some end-times movie was the fact that the vast screens that dominate the north-east corner of this world-famous junction were beaming out to the deserted city an image of Her Majesty the Queen. This vision was accompanied by a phrase from her recent address to the nation: “We will meet again”. Despite the dystopian nature of the city there was something reassuring in this, something clearly intended to reassure the nation and to remind it that it still had some reserves to draw upon.

Last week I walked once more through this same piece of London. This time there were many more people milling about; not many people, and naturally no tourists. I would say the density at the height of the week was similar to what it would have been on a very early morning in pre-Covid times. But what struck me most was how the images being projected had changed; where there had been just The Queen, now front and centre was a very ominous sight indeed.

It consisted of a set of black-and-white images that were rotating slowly. The first to catch my eye was a close-up of some protestors with “Black Lives Matter” banners. All were masked, but at the front of the image was a masked man holding a child on his shoulders and the child holding a hand-painted sign which reads: ‘You F*cked with the last generation.’

It was a horrible sight, not just for the threatening iconography, but for the profanity — even with the asterisk — blazing out over Piccadilly circus. Other images slowly rotated on the main screen. Another close-up, this time of a solitary, masked, Black Lives Matter protestor. Then another of a white woman holding up another crudely hand-painted sign. “White people we’ve got work to do!” it read.

Next came a quote attributed to the civil rights activist John Lewis: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” I would be amazed if even one in a hundred British people had any idea who this John Lewis is. Say the name in the UK and most here will obviously guess you are talking about the department store. And if you asked about the phrase “If not now, then when”, then an equally small proportion might recognise it as a misquote of a title of a great book by Primo Levi.

In fact the quote is indeed from the recently-deceased US Congressman, who was widely respected for his work in the Civil Rights era, but wholly unknown in Britain. So what was this saying from a recently deceased American activist about life in America doing here in Britain? And what was it demanding that the citizens of London should do? What is this urgent demand to act?

Slowly the images rotated again: crowds of people doing the black power salute; a photograph of a black man wrapped in chains with a manacle around his neck and a gas mask covering most of his face; crowds of frightened people, shouting, screaming, yelling, crying; then a quote from Langston Hughes: “I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see, why democracy means, everybody but me.”

Again the question: who is doing this? And what is this claim — indeed insistence — that some people are completely cut off from democracy? The UK has had equal votes for everyone throughout all of our lifetimes. Parliament, the media and all other professions are filled with people of different racial backgrounds; many of the great offices of state in Britain are occupied by the children of immigrants to Britain. There is no opposition to this. So what is this demand for urgency? This radical insistence that we must pick ourselves up and fight?

The collage, apparently called “The Feelings of Injustice”, is a “photographic observation of diverse voices, faces and emotions united by pleas to end systemic racism”. Whether or not its ends “systemic” racism, an American idea recently imported wholesale, it certainly does not help strengthen the idea that there is a “we” the Queen talked of.

While groups like ‘Together” lament the evaporation of a community spirit in Britain, they fail to identify what’s causing this social evaporation. Perhaps it could be that the hugely divisive rhetoric of a movement that berates people for their skin colour, and is supported by everything from art galleries to the Premier League, does not cause people to feel hugely “Together”.

The division now returning to our society is almost entirely top-down; it is something we are being informed that we should feel and instructed to participate in, epitomised in that sinister rotation of images beaming out over London’s most famous junction. During lockdown we had an image of unity in the figure of The Queen; then a media company took over those same screens to start beaming out images which project not just an idea of disunity, but one that is wholly unsuited, indeed utterly alien, to the country they are being beamed into.

It is as though a television channel has been switched, the programme changed, not by some genuine, nascent, swell of change in attitude, but by often well-funded media organisations deciding to push a new narrative: a narrative of struggle against oppression, a narrative of violence and rage. But most of all a narrative of disunity and dissent.