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Stormzy vs Michael Gove: how the Twitter feud revealed the Tories true colours

Stormzy isn't any less deserving of a voice because of the way he talks, and Gove's crass dismissal of the artist is just another example of how little the Tories care about anyone who isn't rich, upper-class and preferably white.

Remember that not-so-distant past before Britain voted for another five years of this guy? Yep, me too. It was nice, wasn't it? This is the story of a social media spat that also serves as a pretty good summary of the kind of people that just got yet another power mandate.

Just before the voter registration deadline, Stormzy took to Instagram to urge his 2.6 million followers to cast their ballots—preferably for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

View this post on Instagram

It is very very very important that every single person who reads this goes and registers to vote. The deadline is 23:59 tomorrow, the link is in my bio. Do not just scroll past, don’t sit there and think “my one little vote ain’t gonna do anything”—your vote is CRUCIAL. Your “one little vote” can quite literally tip the scale for what will be the most important election of our generation. Your “one little vote” means everything, there were millions of people who thought there “one little vote” didn’t mean shit and now Trump is the president of America and we are leaving the EU. So your vote really does count. I will be registering to vote and I will be voting for Jeremy Corbyn. There are several reasons as to why I’m voting for him - I would be here all day if I began to list them...but in my 26 years of life I have never trusted politicians or relied on them to be the bearers of hope and righteous people that we’ve needed them to be. And for me, he is the first man in a position of power who is committed to giving the power back to the people and helping those who need a helping hand from the government the most. I think Boris Johnson is a sinister man with a long record of lying and policies that have absolutely no regard for the people that our government should be committed to helping and empowering. I also believe it is criminally dangerous to give the most powerful role in the country to a man who has said that the sight of a “bunch of black kids” makes him “turn a hair”, compared women in burqas to letterboxes and referred to blacks people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. I think it’s extremely dangerous to have a man with those views as the sole leader of our country. These are all MY views, I don’t care for your love or hate for them. I just think it’s important that we all register and go out and vote. And I think it’s important that we use our vote to make sure that the person who runs our country for the next 4 years is someone committed to doing what is right. GO OUT AND DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH AND TRY YOUR BEST TO LEARN AND UNDERSTAND WHO IT IS YOU’RE VOTING FOR. THE LINK TO REGISTER TO VOTE IS IN MY BIO. 💪🏿

A post shared by @ stormzy on

When asked about this, MP and cabinet minister Michael Gove dismissed the criticism, claiming that Stormzy is "a far, far better rapper than he is a political analyst." Labour MP and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner fired back with "And Michael Gove is crap at both", to which Gove responded... by putting his foot in his mouth so badly that Twitter nearly died of second-hand embarrassment, quoting Rayner's tweet with one of Stormzy's lyrics, "I set trends dem man copy". (Yes, and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan decided to respond to that with "Big man ting!" Please kill me now.)

But while many were busy cringing, others found that sentiment giving way to anger at the rich, white political higher-up using his platform to mock both the accent and beliefs of a black, working-class artist. MP David Lammy, for example, laid into Gove for "sanctioning crass stereotypes". Others were even blunter, with one Twitter user calling the tweet "naked anti-black trolling" and another calling Gove "a racist badger-killing Tory".

And for everyone in Lammy's replies fussing that it's perfectly alright (because Gove was quoting Stormzy's own lyrics), it's... not. It's really not alright. Gove's mockery of Stormzy, far from being an innocent if lame dad-joke, reveals an outlook that smacks of racism and classism.

Obviously, prejudice against BAME and working-class people is nothing new. For instance, it was only a few months ago that a Guardian investigation highlighted the scale of racism—and reluctance to tackle it—at UK universities. And unfortunately, Brits have a long history of unfairly judging people who don't speak the Queen's English (i.e. a nice, posh middle-to-upper-class-sounding London accent, a.k.a Received Pronunciation or RP). According to a study by the Accent Bias in Britain project, people with posh accents are still seen as more intelligent, competent and hireable than those with "working-class" accents. And remember Angela Rayner? She's allegedly been attacked by hard-right trolls who think her Northern accent makes her sound "thick". Add on the fact that BAME people are still more likely than white ones to live in "persistent low-income households", and you've got a huge chunk of society facing double the discrimination.

In this context, Gove's (and Hannan's) pig-headed written imitations of a black man's MLE (Multicultural London English, a dialect that mixes cockney with English spoken in the Caribbean, India and Africa) aren't just a jibe at the rapper's political views. They're a sneering dismissal of him and any other young, black, working-class person with a political opinion in their brain, and the audacity to say it out loud. From Gove's standpoint, unless you're white and posh, you don't get to use your own authentic voice and expect to be taken seriously. Instead, you should sit still, shut up, and leave the intelligent, serious topics—like who should run the country—to RP-speaking, Oxbridge-educated white toffs like Gove and Hannan. (They make exceptions, of course, for BAME people who parrot their views. Case in point: Pritti Patel, a daughter of Indian migrants who seems determined to throw every other non-British person plus gypsy and traveller communities and people in poverty under the bus.)

Or, as Stormzy himself put it two days ago, “They do it to young people, they do it to black people, they do it to rappers, they do it to entertainers: ‘Just shut up and rap.’ Stay in your lane. It’s very telling of who these people are. As much as I’m a rapper, I’ve also done X, Y, Z. But they’re dismissing everything else. They just look at me and say: ‘No.’ They reduce us to whatever they need us to be and dismiss it.”

Never mind the fact that Gove's party leader has an impressive history of racism all to himself, including but not limited to describing black Africans as "flag-waving piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles", suggesting that Barack Obama has an "ancestral dislike of the British Empire", and claiming that Africa's economic problems can be put down to the fact that "we are not in charge any more".

Remind me again why Stormzy should vote to keep him in charge?

And for someone who Gove doesn't think is cut out for politics, Stormzy is already making waves. After he and fellow rapper KSI put out the call to their fans to vote, an extra 150,000 registrations were logged just before the deadline, all from under-25-year-olds. It was the biggest spike in voter registrations since the previous election in 2017. Before that, he created a scholarship to cover two black students' tuition fees at Cambridge—small in the long run, but badly needed when you consider that only 40 black people attended the university in 2016. (For perspective, remember that it supplied 3,497 places in 2017.) Fast-forward to after the scholarship launch, and what happened next has been attributed to "the Stormzy effect": 91 black students were admitted to Cambridge this year, and the university has seen more young BAME people even just investigating the possibility that they might be able to study there. He's started a publishing imprint at Penguin, #Merky Books, to showcase BAME writers; the second book it published was Taking Up Space, a critique on the black experience at university. (For more on diversity in higher education, read our interview with UOB's Ronke Oladele here.)  And after collecting two BRIT awards in 2018, he delivered a furious freestyle rap asking "Theresa May, where's the money for Grenfell?", prompting a statement from Downing Street that of course, the government cared about investigating the tragic fire that killed 72 and preventing such incidents from occurring again, actually.

That statement, by the way, was undercut slightly by the release last month of an official list of construction firms recommended for building high-rise housing. One of those firms was Rydon, the main contractor on the cheap, nasty cladding that allowed the fire to spread so quickly. Around the same time, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was forced to deliver a flimsy apology after implying that Grenfell residents displayed a lack of "common sense" by following the fire brigade's advice to stay put. And just yesterday Sandra Ruiz, whose niece was killed in the fire, warned that thousands still live in buildings made of the same dangerous, easily combustible materials as Grenfell. Why? Because the government has done absolutely nothing to make those buildings safer.

All of that paints a stark, unforgiving picture of a government that simply doesn't care. One in which two-thirds of the previous cabinet (and 45% of Conservative MPs) were privately educated—compared to just 7% of the general population—and its Prime Minister is the 20th so far to have been educated at Eton. One that's overseen the nightmare of universal credit, the bedroom tax, and has caused one in 50 households to be reliant on food banks. One under which nurses' salaries have dropped by at least 14%, with many turning to those same food banks to eat. One under which the NHS is being increasingly privatised, bed numbers have plummeted and waiting times have shot up.  Low-income BAME people—whether they're writers or students, whether cheap, dangerous cladding is packed in their housing blocks or university halls or both—need high-profile figures like Stormzy speaking up for them. Because Michael Gove and Boris Johnson sure as hell won't be doing it.

But the Prime Minister and his friends are probably never going to depend on benefits or free healthcare to stay alive, so they blame others' misfortunes on lazy "scroungers", immigration and the local governments who rely on their funding, and keep cutting the public services that they'll never have to use. It doesn't affect them if people from Stormzy's background face an uphill struggle, and if they keep doing nothing to change the problems that he's been calling out. They mock him because it's easier than actually doing something.

Governments are going to have to start listening to people like Stormzy and actually engage with their beliefs and critiques instead of making crass jokes about their accents.

But that day's unlikely to come until those governments reflect the people impacted by their policies. People of all ethnicities who know what it's like to survive on benefits and free school meals. BAME people who grew up speaking in MLE. People who can look at their childhood homes and say that, if their luck had been different, what happened to the 18 children killed at Grenfell could easily have happened to them.

Right now, their lives are still run by mostly-white, mostly-male people who went straight from private school to Oxbridge—and did it talking in "well-spoken", RP Queen's English all the way. After all, they don't want to sound unintelligent, do they?

Featured image: Ben Houdijk / Shutterstock.com