Brendan O’Neill Brendan O’Neill

The tragedy of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott (Photo: Getty)

Here’s the tragedy of Diane Abbott. She entered British politics as a trailblazer for black Britons and now she leaves public life on the sour note of insulting Jewish Britons. She started out as a warrior against racism but ended up seeming to minimise racism. She devoted her political career to standing up for beleaguered minorities and then made the grave moral error of playing down the beleaguering of Britain’s Jewish minority.

The moral fall of Diane Abbott tells a broader story about the moral decay of the left

How did this happen? How did our first black female MP end up in the eye of a racism storm? How did this consummate foe of racial hatred end up putting her name next to that now infamous letter to the Observer last year in which she said Jewish people do not experience racial hatred? Prejudice, yes, but not racism. Jews get similar flak to gingers, she said. I cringe even now when I think about it. (Abbott claims a wrong draft of the letter was sent to the paper and she withdrew from the remarks.)

The moral fall of Diane Abbott tells a broader story about the moral decay of the left. It was more than misjudgement that led her to write the letter that sealed her political fate. Rather, her odd missive spoke to the corruption of the left by the poison of identity politics; to the left’s shift from the ideals of solidarity to the dead end of competitive grievance. That a resolutely anti-racist MP should end up essentially saying ‘I experience worse racism than you’ tells you everything you need to know about the crisis of progressive politics.

According to reports, Ms Abbott has had the Labour whip restored but has been banned from standing for Labour in the election in July. It was the Observer letter, of course, that led to the veteran Corbynite getting the heave-ho. Her comments were ‘deeply offensive and wrong’, Labour said shortly after the letter was published in April last year. Then it launched an investigation into Abbott which was apparently wrapped up five months ago.

Whatever one thinks of the party’s decision to readmit Abbott while banning her from standing for re-election – it seems a tad harsh to me, but I’m a softie – it’s worth looking back at the letter that landed her in this mess. It really was nuts. She was responding to a comment piece that said Irish, Jewish and Traveller people, like people of colour, experience racism. No they don’t, Abbott essentially said. They ‘undoubtedly experience prejudice’, she wrote, but ‘they are not all their lives subject to racism’.

Let’s leave to one side Irish and Traveller people (my view is that anti-Irish racism has declined hugely in recent decades). The idea that Jews are not affected by racism is just morally and historically illiterate. Abbott’s reference to redhead prejudice in the same breath as anti-Jewish prejudice is one of the maddest, most tone-deaf things I’ve ever heard an elected representative say. 

Anti-Semitism is the oldest racism. The destruction it has caused is incalculable. It’s the racism that refuses to die. Indeed, mere months after Abbott penned her career-ending letter, Jew hatred returned with a vengeance to western societies. In the aftermath of Hamas’s 7 October pogrom there has been an explosion in anti-Jewish racism in Europe. 

Of course, Abbott could not have predicted the future. But it is unfortunate indeed that she seemed to minimise anti-Jewish racism just six months before we witnessed the worst act of anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust, followed by a truly alarming spike in the persecution of Jews across the West. Show me one ginger who’s ever feared walking the streets of his own city because anti-redhead hate mobs are on the rampage.

The hypocrisy of the pro-Abbott left has been something to behold. These are the kind of activists who are hyper-sensitive to racism. Criticise the Koran and you’re ‘Islamophobic’. Ask someone where they’re really from and you’re ‘racist’. As for minimising the suffering of racial minorities, especially black Britons – that’s blasphemy in their circles. They’ll damn you as an excuse-maker for race hatred and cast you out of polite society.

And yet they were quick to forgive Ms Abbott for seemingly minimising anti-Jewish racism. In fact they rallied around her. They’re demanding she be allowed to stand for re-election in Hackney in July. Do you think they’d be so understanding if a Tory right-winger had said black people don’t experience racism? Of course not. Perhaps anti-Jewish racism just isn’t a big deal for these supposed anti-racists.

Beyond all this cant, the Abbott scandal shows what happens when anti-racism is replaced by identitarianism. When the old left that really did care for equality is superseded by a new left consumed by self-pity. When the noble goal of defeating racism is elbowed aside by the petty one-upmanship of victim politics, where every social group seems hell-bent on outdoing each other in the suffering stakes. You end up with an anti-racist MP saying the racism her people experience is worse than the racism other people experience. As if fighting racism were a competition rather than the moral duty of all good people.

The tragedy of Diane Abbott is the tragedy of the British left. Parliament may have lost an MP but British society has lost something infinitely more important: the principled anti-racism of yesteryear. Which is terrible because we need it now more than ever with everything that is happening to our Jewish citizens.