Brendan O’Neill

Why do those who abuse Priti Patel get a free pass?

Why do those who abuse Priti Patel get a free pass?
A protestor wears an outfit mocking Priti Patel (Getty images)
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Remember when Labour MP Clive Lewis got into trouble for saying, ‘On your knees, bitch’? It was at a fringe event hosted by Momentum during the Labour conference in Brighton in 2017. Lewis uttered the line as a joke to the actress Sam Swann. People went nuts. Labour bigwigs accused Lewis of misogyny. He eventually ‘apologised unreservedly’ for his ‘offensive’ language.

That phrase — ‘On your knees, bitch’ — sprung back into my mind this week as I read an exchange between Alastair Campbell and Priti Patel. No, Campbell did not use the B-word. He is far too civilised for that. But he did tell Patel to get on her knees. 

In response to Patel’s Twitter condemnation of the racist abuse being sent to some of England’s black football players, Campbell issued a three-word instruction: ‘Take the knee.’

There is something a little chilling, or at least discomfiting, in this. A white man telling a woman of colour to bend her knee? It is striking that in an era in which we are constantly invited to obsess over and condemn the allegedly arrogant behaviour of white men, so few people criticised Campbell for telling an Indian-heritage woman to do something she doesn’t want to do — to subjugate herself, essentially.

This social-media run-in is revealing. First, it confirms what ‘taking the knee’ has become. Contrary to the claims of left-wing activists, and of Tories like Steve Baker who foolishly think the Conservatives should be more open to knee-taking, this gesture is not about anti-racism. Rather, it has become like a moral test, a ritual one must perform to demonstrate one’s moral fitness, one’s suitability for entry into polite society. It has a coercive feel to it now — fail to stoop in the approved manner and you will be judged a suspect person, a potential racist.

This is why someone like Campbell feels that he can command Patel — the Home Secretary, no less — to get on her knees. He is essentially challenging her to prove her decency, to physically demonstrate that she has recanted her earlier criticisms of knee-taking and is now prepared to prostrate herself before the correct-think on these matters. 

Campbell is calling on Patel to bow down to her superiors — in this case, our supposed moral superiors in the identitarian movement. It brought to mind my mother’s severe expressions of disapproval if I failed to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. The big difference being, of course, that Priti Patel is a free, autonomous woman, not a child. Campbell knows that, right?

Secondly, the Campbell-Patel clash — or to be more precise, the lack of concern about it — confirms once again that Patel enjoys none of the protections of identity politics. You can say anything to her, and anything about her, and there will be no pushback whatsoever from those who fearsomely police speech to ensure no one is being prejudicial or offensive. Patel is excluded from this process. In the eyes of those who call themselves anti-racist, she is fair game. Insult away. The end result is that Patel suffers more abuse, including racist abuse, than any other public figure and there is virtually no public anger about it. It has become obscene.

The latest vicious pile-on against Patel was fuelled in no small part by England player Tyrone Mings. Following Patel’s condemnation of the racist hounding of black players like Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka, Mings tweeted

‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as “Gesture Politics” and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.’

He was referring to Patel’s criticism of taking the knee as ‘gesture politics’ and her defence of fans’ right to boo it. 

The fallout from his tweet was extraordinary. Almost 180,000 people have shared it; 550,000 people have 'liked' it. It received frontpage coverage. Senior Tories, including Johnny Mercer and Daniel Finkelstein, have taken the side of Mings against Patel. Across social media it was once again open season on Patel — this horrible, vile woman who ‘pretends’ to be anti-racist but actually ‘stokes the fire’ of racial hatred.

Mings is a bright man, and a great footballer, and of course he has the right to say anything he wants. But anyone who has even a fleeting familiarity with social media could have predicted the consequences of singling out Patel as a stirrer-up of racism, as a ‘pretend’ decent person. Those consequences came to pass. Patel has been subjected to hatred, abuse and racial harassment. To a social-media hounding that has been far larger and scarier than the disgusting abuse aimed at black players.

It is awful stuff. As Camilla Tominey writes in today’s Daily Telegraph, some of the messages fired at Patel over the past few days include ‘Go back to India’, ‘Coconut’ and ‘You forgot your own skin tone dancing for your white daddy’. Will Mings condemn this vile racial harassment of an Indian-heritage woman? If not, could he not also be accused of having ‘stoked the fire’ of this racialised fury being aimed at Patel?

The tragic thing is that none of this is new. Patel has for a long time been treated as a racial traitor. She is one of those ‘ministers with brown skin wearing Tory masks’, said a writer for the Guardian. A Guardian cartoon depicted her as a cow with a ring through its nose, adding a touch of Hinduphobia to the anti-Patel madness. 

Even when Patel spoke movingly in the Commons about having suffered racist abuse in the past, she was accused of exploiting her own experiences to do down the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems faced by black people. I can think of no other public figure in this country who would be mocked and insulted for recounting their experiences of racial hatred.

As an anti-racist, I deplore the abuse that has been heaped on brilliant young men like Rashford and Saka. I also deplore the ceaseless singling out of Patel — the denunciation of her as the brown face of Tory rule, the mockery of her as an ethnic-minority front for white racism, the branding of her as a 'coconut' who should go back to India. 

The lack of anger about the racial demonisation of Patel is deeply disturbing. Are we against racism or not? If we are, then get off your knees for heaven’s sake and say something about the fact that the most powerful ethnic-minority woman in the country is constantly being subjected to anti-Indian, anti-Hindu and misogynistic abuse.