He was right; and he was wrong. On the night there were no stage invasions, à la Jarvis Cocker (1996), or spilling of iced water over politicians, à la Chumbawamba (1998), but there was an act of radicalism which was all the more powerful for being delivered without aggression or the look-at-me flamboyance at the heart of most pop rebellion.
It came when the rapper Dave, whose debut album Psychodrama had just won him an award, ended his song Black with a minute-long evisceration of the prejudice at the heart of the UK.
In just over 200 words, he managed to reference: the comparative treatment of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle; his admiration for London bridge attack victim Jack Merritt; Grenfell; the Windrush scandal and the continued need to confront our role in slavery.
“It is racist whether or not it feels racist,” he sang. “The truth is our Prime Minister’s a real racist. They say: ‘You should be grateful we’re the least racist’. I say: ‘The least racist is still racist’.”
This virtual volley of shots was as potent as KLF’s literal one, more so perhaps because of its timing – just days after Johnson’s government had been gripped by a row over eugenics.
Just writing down the phrase “a row over eugenics” is terrifying. How did we get back to a place where we are debating the rights and wrongs of the ideology that drove the Holocaust?
Incrementally, that’s how. Just like the last time. The views of aide Andrew Sabisky, who believes black people have a lower IQ, may have led to his resignation. But he was brought in by politicians who are not so very far from him ideologically and who, even once his previous writings were exposed, struggled to distance themselves from him.
Dominic Cummings, the man responsible for his hiring, has himself expressed an interest in designer babies, positing that the NHS should cover the cost of creating children with higher IQs.
Nor was Cummings’ suggestion the idle musing of a bored provocateur. He has given thought to how selective breeding could be sold to a resistant public. In another blog discussing the screening of embryos for medical defects, he acknowledged the potential for backlash, but suggested society would move towards his way of thinking. “It ought to go without saying that turning this idea into a political/government success requires focus on A) the NHS, health, science, NOT getting sidetracked into B) arguments about things like IQ and social mobility,” he wrote. “Over time, the educated classes will continue to be dragged to more realistic views on (B) but this will be a complex process entangled with many hysterical episodes. (A) requires ruthless focus.”
We know where Johnson stands on race. He has called black people “piccaninnies”, suggested Islam has caused the Muslim world to be centuries behind the West and spoken of young people having “an almost Nigerian sense of money”.
Johnson is possessed of a belief that his own achievements are born of his exceptional genes and/or his own brilliance, as opposed to the vast privilege that came as his birthright. The corollary of his self-satisfaction is an inability to connect with people who have fewer advantages: the poor, the marginalised, those who have faced early trauma, those with disabilities.
At first merely a personal trait, this innate sense of superiority – shared by a many of his colleagues – has become the central theme of current Conservatism. You can see it in the way the government writes off those who deliver care to our elderly as “unskilled workers”, and in the stoking of public fear of immigrants. You can see it in (now ex-Tory) Rory Stewart’s reference to black musicians as “minor gangsters” and in Tory MP Sally-Ann Hart’s suggestion that those with disabilities should be paid less than the minimum wage.
Outside (but not so far outside) Westminster, efforts are being made to rehabilitate eugenics by sticking the word “progressive” in front of it. One of the chief proponents of this is Toby Young, who was appointed and then resigned from the government’s higher education watchdog Office of Students. Young’s offering was similar to Cummings’. “My proposal is this,” he wrote. “Once [genetically engineered intelligence] becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs?”
Some of these far-right ideas are being smuggled in under the guise of protection of freedom of speech. Last year, a conference on censorship held at Pembroke College Oxford featured an array of right-wingers including professor of political science Bruce Gilley, defender of colonialism.
And yet, apparently, some speech is more worthy of protection than others. Writing in the Telegraph shortly after the election, historian Andrew Roberts called for a purge of universities so “we never again reach such an existential moment where one third of the electorate vote for an anti-Semitic, pro-IRA Marxist.”
Sabisky’s rancid haverings may have been portrayed as “out there” – but they are merely a more extreme expression of views that others harbour. What is the two-child cap but an attempt to control the reproduction of the less advantaged? How great a step is it from there to Sabisky’s notion that we should sterilise those considered unworthy?
Such ideas are filtering down to the general public and back up again in a cycle of awfulness. The woman on last week’s Question Time who claimed the country was sinking because of all the people who can’t speak English wasn’t ranting in a vacuum. She was repeating ideas she’d heard elsewhere and the fact she was given a national platform makes it more likely those ideas will be embraced by others.
Slowly but surely far-right thinking is becoming re-legitimised. This is why we must reject the notion that the appointment of Sabisky was an aberration or mildly amusing retribution for Cummings’ boast that he wanted to employ mavericks who think outside the box. Sabisky’s thinking belongs inside a very particular box marked “fascism”; and, far from being a maverick, he is part of the alt-right brat pack.
So long as we present him as an outlier – someone who slipped past the moral gatekeepers of the Conservative Party – we are failing to recognise the risk he poses.
He wasn’t appointed because no-one noticed what he was, but because what he was raised no eyebrows. After all, the spokesman for No 10 wasn’t even able to confirm Boris Johnson disagreed with him.
In this context, what Dave did at last week’s awards ceremony was profoundly important. His dignified, yet lethal calling out of racism was a counterpoint to the complacency that has allowed this to happen. If only those at the top were listening.