This is a quite remarkable book. Badly written, devoid of anything even vaguely approaching a methodology, patronising, hideously mistaken on almost every page — and yet it does, inadvertently, answer the very question posed in its introduction: why are certain sections of the white working class so angry about immigration and Islam?
The author is a Taiwanese journalist from the metropolitan liberal left. Her MO is to venture — ‘bravely’, we are informed — into quite the most ghastly areas where working-class people live in their decrepit social housing, with their beer and their tracksuits. Her purpose is to find ‘racists’ and inquire as to why they are ‘racist’. And yet she is utterly incurious and dismissive about their explanations. She believes that they have anti-immigration views because they have been fed a diet of nasty racist propaganda by the mainstream media — the right-wing press (which means for Hsiao-Hung Pai, pretty much every daily newspaper except maybe the Guardian, on a good day). Nothing any of these beastly low-brow people tell her can shake that perspective: they are simply quite wrong about everything, and that’s that. As far as her own theories are concerned, she is limitlessly credulous, to a degree which makes me suspect that she is a cast-iron idiot.
So, for example, she heads to the frowsy estates in Luton to confront members of the English Defence League. The EDL is unique in being the only political movement drawn from the nation’s football grounds and having consisted, in its early days, almost entirely of hooligans. But it has some purchase in Luton, the town where it began. Pai speaks to people called stuff like ‘Darren’ and condescends to them. She finds any antipathy in Luton towards immigrants, and especially Muslim immigrants, utterly mystifying. She dismisses out of hand the statements of those white folk living there that they feel like strangers in their own land. But Luton is still 68 per cent white! she exclaims. (It isn’t: according to the 2011 census, it’s 54 per cent white.)
She is mystified, too, at the anger shown towards Muslim groups which held demonstrations at which the Union flag was set on fire and returning British soldiers were told that they would ‘burn in hell’. She does not even mention that roughly once a week Luton is in the news because a family of jihadis has been arrested. Indeed, so credulous is this woman that, reading her interview with the incendiary Muslim hate-monger Anjem Choudary, you’d think him absolutely charming, twinkly-eyed and lovable, and not a bit like the horrible papers say he is.
This is the man who organised those Luton demos, is accused of supporting the Islamic State, praised the 9/11 bombings, believes in death to apostates and so on. ‘As Muslims, we reject democracy, we reject secularism and freedom and human rights. We reject all of the things that you espouse as being ideals,’ he once said. But for Pai, he’s like a cuddly old uncle. And absolutely none of this constitutes possible reasons for local disquiet. The Lutonians are simply mistaken, gulled by the fascist press.
When people tell her that they are proud of their English heritage, or of their Britishness, she sneers at them (as she admits, while interviewing a chap called ‘Viking’ in Reading). She lacks even the slenderest vestige of empathy for the people she speaks to, finding them pitiable, pathetic and loathsome — and of course wrong, on every single count.
But you cannot write a serious book about why a tiny minority of the white working class is drawn to extremist organisations such as the EDL and Britain First (and indeed Ukip — all one and the same to Pai) if your mind is so resolutely closed. And so, as I mentioned in my first paragraph, this is how she inadvertently does provide a kind of answer. The rage felt within many white working-class communities is occasioned primarily by bone-headed, arrogant, absolutist liberals who insist to them — contrary to the evidence — that their fears are utterly baseless and should not be taken seriously.