Witch-hunts whipped up by the affluent
By Chris Harman
"SALEM-ON-SEA." That was the image that came to mind last week as a crowd rampaged through the Portsmouth suburb of Paulsgrove, driving innocent people on a supposed list of alleged paedophiles from their homes. Salem was the New England town where, in 1692, accusations by a group of teenagers triggered a panic that led 19 people to be executed as witches.
Arthur Miller wrote a powerful play about the event, The Crucible, that has been turned into an equally powerful film. It shows how hysteria takes hold of a community. It begins when the deep-felt anxieties of some of the most downcast and oppressed lead them to imagine that there are evil influences living in their midst.
This feeling is then used by some of the less downcast and oppressed to further their own interests. Suddenly no one, however innocent, is immune from accusation. Paulsgrove is like thousands of other suburban and inner-city estates in Britain. It contains a mix of people with different jobs or none, some longtime residents and newcomers driven to take the only housing they can find.
Among all of them there are degrees of bitterness at what is happening to their lives after 18 years of Thatcherism and three years of abandonment by New Labour. They feel someone must be to blame, but don't know who. Such alienation pervades every advanced capitalist society. And it can lead to quite irrational moods developing.
This happened three years ago with the hysterical glorification of Princess Diana after her death in a drink-drive accident. It has been happening with the anti-refugee attacks in recent months, and last week it led to the events in Paulsgrove. Such upswellings from below shake mainstream parties, especially New Labour and its media followers.
The more they devote themselves to the cosy world of Westminster, with its business breakfasts, public relations freebies and champagne parties, the more they fear the millions of people they have no real contact with. To read some of the posh papers last week you would think that council estates are beyond the boundaries of civilisation.
So David Aaronovitch writes in the Independent that "watching Paulsgrove Woman at work has re-emphasised for me how scared I am of a certain part of our society. Paulsgrove Woman, I felt, was of an alien race to me." He then goes on both to call for the prosecution of those leading the Paulsgrove demonstrations and to accept their central demands.
"Concerns about 'demonisation'," he writes, in words which could have come from the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Salem, "should not blind us to the existence of demons." The Guardian editorial is hardly any better.
It says the "standoff" has "exposed the chasm which divides the 3,000 or so estates like Paulsgrove from the more affluent, sheltered parts of Britain". In these it claims "calmer discussion prevails", based on "the liberal arguments familiar in newspapers, TV studios, parliamentary tearooms and bishops' studies".
But it is precisely in these "more affluent" places that the poison which afflicted Paulsgrove originated.
The witch-hunt was started in a newspaper by Rebekah Wade, the highly paid editor of the News of the World and a welcome face in Downing Street. It followed on from the witch-hunt against refugees, incited from the parliamentary tea rooms by William Hague and Ann Widdecombe, and the witch-hunt against gays over Section 28-backed by the bishops in the House of Lords.
The deepest prejudices in Britain are not to be found on council estates but on the golf courses of Middle England and the grouse moors of the upper classes-as anyone who's ever listened to a House of Lords debate or read the letters page of the Daily Telegraph should know. Sustained challenges to such prejudices arise when working class people have strong, collective workplace organisations that enable them to face up to those who really oppress them.
That is why, for all their faults, unions have been standing up for refugees and opposing Section 28. The tragedy in places like Paulsgrove is that genuine collective class organisation is weak. They become fragmented groups of people with little connection with each other, and easily manipulated by the likes of Rebekah Wade.
I suspect, however, that David Aaronovitch and the Guardian editorial writers would be even more unhappy if such organisation did exist and did lead the people of Paulsgrove in a fight against those who really condemn them and their children to rotten lives.