Row over tweet reveals differences of understanding

By Savi Hensman
November 22, 2014

A row over a tweet shows deep differences of understanding among people in the UK. Those who live in the same society can make very different assumptions and effort can be needed to bridge the gap.

Anti-foreign feeling nationally had been stoked in the run-up to Rochester and Strood by-election, won in the end by serving MP Mark Reckless, who had defected from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party. Campaigners from various parties arrived in the constituency in droves.

One of these was Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. She tweeted an “Image from #Rochester” of a house with three England flags, part-obscuring the windows, and a white van outside.

She was widely accused of being disrespectful and a snob. Party leader Ed Miliband was reportedly furious. She apologised and resigned from the shadow cabinet.

Clearly her tweet was a blunder. In fact the householder appears to have been an ardent sports fan rather than a nationalist. But some of the interpretations reveal a gulf of experience and understanding.

One of the most common is the apparent idea that the image represents the heights of ‘ordinariness’, of what it means to be working-class in Britain today, while Thornberry represents an Islington elite.

In fact, though part of the establishment now, she grew up on a council estate. And, despite pockets of prosperity, her constituency is one of the poorest in England.

Two-thirds of the households there do not own a single car or van, compared with just one-fifth on Rochester and Strood (though part of this may be because, in an inner-city area, it can be easier to get by without a vehicle).

In Islington South and Finsbury, most households live in rented accommodation: only 27 per cent own their homes, compared with 68% in Rochester and Strood.

To some, the image of a typical ‘white van man’ (if such a thing exists) is of someone self-employed or running a small business, perhaps struggling during the economic downturn but still better off than many others.

“This is a party that was founded for working people, this is a party that I strive every day to make the party of working people. That’s why I was angry, that’s why it is right she has gone,” Miliband emphasised. Sadly those worst-off economically and socially in the UK tend to be invisible to most politicians.

Reactions to the England (St George) flag also reveal a range of experiences based partly on community. “Respect is the basic rule of politics and I’m afraid her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect. There is nothing unusual or odd, as her tweet implied, about having England flags in your window,” he said.

In some parts of England, and during major football and other sports competitions, this is true. But it varies.

“In some working class communities, a sense of Englishness filled the vacuum. I grew up near the centre of Stockport: publicly displayed English flags were not uncommon. ‘I am here, and I am proud,’ was the implicit, defiant cry”, commented Owen Jones in the Guardian.

But “As a general rule – whatever our class – the English do not tend to flaunt the flag apart from, say, sporting occasions.” And “For many non-white people – including working class people on council estates – the St George’s cross is dripping with whiteness in every sense. To a sizeable proportion of the population, flaunting the flag sometimes seems territorial and exclusive, perhaps even intimidating.”

Of course, many who fly the flag are anti-racist. But misgivings are common, and not just among ethnic minorities. A survey in 2012 for think-tank British Future found that that only 61 per cent of the English associated the St George’s Cross with pride and patriotism, and 24 per cent considered it racist.

Far-right groups often carry the England flag, today as in the past. There used to be a strong racist presence in or just outside south Islington, especially the Shoreditch area, with a string of attacks and the odd murder. Even now, it is not entirely safe.

To many, this may seem trivial. But for black and minority ethnic youngsters growing up in many areas over the decades, ignoring such symbols would have been like wandering around in a thunderstorm carrying a metal curtain pole.

The sensitivities of those who feel attached to, but also fearful of, particular cultural symbols should be taken into account, and the fact that ‘working people’ are not all the same. The furore – though to some extent exaggerated for political purposes – highlights the risks of miscommunication in a society marked by deep differences.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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