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Artillery Row

Enough with the bigotry mind-reading

Why do people insist on jumping to the least generous interpretation possible?

There is no row in British politics that can’t be elided into an argument over whether somebody is racist. So it was only a matter of time before an angle emerged on the story of Rishi Sunak bunking off the D-Day commemorations that would make somebody other than the British prime minister look like the bad guy.

Whether or not she was the first to do so, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg became the most prominent journalist to stick a pin into Nigel Farage over the story. Speaking to the lately re-enthroned Reform leader, Kuenssberg suggested there was an underhand implication to Farage’s criticism of Sunak for abandoning Normandy prematurely.

Farage had claimed that Sunak “is not patriotic – doesn’t believe in the country, its people, its history, or frankly even its culture”. Reading his remarks back to him, Kuenssberg’s Scottish accent bent the “our” of “our history” and “our culture” into two syllables, the inference being that Farage denied the prime minister’s Britishness.

It has provided a rare moment of unity amid the general election campaign. While work and pensions secretary Mel Stride pointedly avoided the r-word, he said the comments had made him “feel very uncomfortable”, adding that he was “very proud of the fact that we have a British Asian who is right at the top of our government”.

Labour shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood described it as “a classic Nigel Farage trick, lean just enough to signal a bit of a dog whistle and then lean straight back and sound perfectly reasonable”, in this case by citing the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers in the two world wars.

This is the kind of logic you can expect in such allegations. It’s difficult to see how one avoids a charge of racism if sounding perfectly reasonable is a sign of it. And at this point the dog whistle metaphor should be retired, the progressive ability to hear such frequencies having long outstripped that of the most committed racists.

A more plausible metaphor is that of the tinnitus sufferer hearing things that aren’t there. While Farage might enjoy a certain reputation on these matters, intellectually honest observers would have to admit that in substance he wasn’t saying anything not said by most other pundits — including critics from the prime minister’s own party.

Frankly, nobody much cares that Sunak is from an Indian background and that he is a practicing Hindu. Back when he became prime minister, US-based comedian Trevor Noah claimed this was a significant hang-up for the British, but most of us found the suggestion laughable.

The majority were far too busy nursing the country’s most cherished prejudice against Sunak, namely that he is obscenely wealthy and didn’t even have the good manners to inherit it — not that you’d have guessed it from the way he mishandled a credit card when trying to pay for petrol.

Much to his disadvantage, Sunak has never been able to escape the suspicion that his calling is high finance, not high office. Since becoming prime minister it’s been widely assumed his next move will be back to California, with some of his more unhinged online critics suggesting he wants enough time to settle back there before the school year starts.

Sunak hasn’t helped this impression by holding a summit on AI, complete with a brown-nosing interview with Elon Musk. In a speech to the Royal Society he argued that technologies like AI “will bring a transformation as far-reaching as the industrial revolution, the coming of electricity, or the birth of the internet” – which certainly sounds like something you’d say at a job interview.

His choice of life partner also has done little to reassure people that he’s committed to the UK.

The couple met in the US, with Akshata Murty being the scion of an Indian dynasty that founded Infosys, an IT company worth almost £58bn. Such is her intent on remaining in the UK that she declared herself as non-domiciled for tax purposes. 

This is all to say that the case that Sunak is a bit of a citizen of nowhere — to quote the dread phrase — is pretty good. Despite his assurances to the contrary, I’m sceptical that he will be spending much time on the backbenches after he leaves 10 Downing Street, nor his weekends rambling through the Yorkshire Dales in his constituency like a reboot of Rory Stewart.

observers of British politics, whether writing on dead trees or dead pixels, are overly prone to eisegesis over exegesis

None of this is to say that it is a bad idea to interpret politicians’ words, nor to give them a negative gloss when they are being evasive. But observers of British politics, whether writing on dead trees or dead pixels, are overly prone to eisegesis over exegesis — interpreting what they wish to see rather than what was meant.

Clearly many have made up their minds what Nigel Farage thinks about other races. But it’s still not an allegation that should be made on the flimsiest of pretexts, in Kuenssberg’s case by stressing a word so that the surrounding sentence has a new meaning. This stuff is intellectually sloppy at best, and outright dishonest at worst.

I can understand the temptation to move the story on, and the spicy headlines that resulted. But I don’t think anyone who does it can claim these stories are enlightening. People who think the worst of Farage already thought the worst of him, and those that like him can plausibly say that the BBC tried to stitch him up — once again, as they would say.

It should not be enough to think that a negative gloss can be put on somebody’s words. You should be required to think it’s plausible — or better yet likely — that somebody actually meant what you are accusing them of conveying.

The alternative is to claim to be reading minds while merely rationalising your own preconceptions about a politician you’ve decided you don’t like. Given Sunak’s experience on the campaign trail, that’s a prospect he wouldn’t even wish on Nigel Farage.

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