Anti-racism has been largely an urban tradition, associated with towns and cities with settled black communities. But as William Hague, backed by the Tory press, targets seasides and shires, the need to address racism there is more urgent than ever.
It was on 15 March that the editor of the Sun gave ‘timid’ William a dressing-down for the Tories’ failure to launch a massive campaign ‘against beggars and fake asylum seekers’. The Sun implored Hague, far too nervous about being ‘branded jingoistic, nationalistic or racist’, to speak out on the ‘real issues that engage voters’.
Hague: the new Enoch Powell
Two months later, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Mail had transformed drooping William into ‘resilient’ Hague, the ‘uncomplaining man from Yorkshire taking on the whole new establishment’. Central to Hague’s transformation into the people’s champion against ungrateful asylum-seekers was the way in which the press hyped up interest for a speech Hague was due to make at the Social Market Foundation on 18 April – the text of which was handed over to the press at least a week beforehand, leading to a flurry of ecstatically supportive editorials and comment pieces. So that even before Hague spoke to recommend the detention of all new asylum-seekers in secure units and the formation of a special removals agency to get rid of rejected asylum-seekers, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph welcomed the most important speech of Hague’s political career, praising him for a text which ‘radiates a sense of determination and purpose’ and the Daily Mail noted that at last Hague was ‘at one with ordinary people’s concerns’. The next day the Sun‘s editor patted Hague on the back for ‘getting it dead right’ – hardly surprising given that Hague had learnt his words by rote from the Sun.
Targeting seasides and shires
Even before the Sun‘s dressing-down of Hague, the Tory leader had been rallying the Conservative rank and file around asylum, organising a ‘crisis summit’ of Tory council leaders in September 1999 on asylum and claiming that in Westminster there were more asylum-seekers dependent on social security than old people in nursing homes. But after the Sun‘s rebuke, Hague upped the ante. In April, he visited Kent and Rochester, urging Conservative councillors to give the asylum issue a central place in the May local elections. In a speech in London in support of Tory mayoral candidate Norris, Hague warned that asylum-seekers were costing taxpayers £180 million a year – equivalent to the cost of 5000 new Metropolitan police officers. His message, Tory focus groups announced smugly, would play well in shires and seaside constituencies.
Indeed of the 3337 seats on 152 English councils contested in the May local elections, half were in shire districts, where the Tories put up their strongest showing. Of 13 councils and around 600 council seats won, Eastbourne, Southend-on-Sea, Torbay and Great Yarmouth were amongst the Tories’ seaside gains, Stratford-on-Avon, West Oxfordshire, Reigate and Banstead its more leafy suburbs and shires. Hague paid Torbay two visits during a campaign which drew succour from constant rumours that around two or three hundred asylum-seekers were to be housed in local bed and breakfast hostels and empty nursing homes. On May Day, Hague made a flying visit to Southend-on-Sea, announcing that the Essex seaside town, which has 2000 refugees (many unofficially dispersed from London boroughs) had already taken too many. Tory councillors who describe Southend as a ‘dumping ground’ for asylum-seekers, celebrated its 11-seat majority as a ‘vindication of its hard line on asylum-seekers’.
The challenge to Macpherson
Hague’s demonising of asylum-seekers was not just a populist attempt to play the race card at the May local elections. Hague’s populism is ongoing, as was demonstrated by his championing of jailed Norfolk farmer Tony Martin (again at the Sun‘s instigation) in a campaign which feeds on rural anti-Gypsy racism. With Hague appearing to have few convictions and still fewer policies, his advisers are searching for the ‘big idea’ capable of challenging Labour at the next general election. And the conceptual framework from which to launch this big idea is provided courtesy of the right-wing press. Race and immigration, Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley predicts, will be just such a big idea. For while Thatcher demolished the post-war liberal consensus on economics, ‘It may be the business of this generation’s Conservatives to attack the Left-liberal consensus on society’.
In fact, Hague’s big idea is just the reworking of two aspects of the Conservative racist tradition into one strand: into Powellism is plaited the anti-anti-racism of the Thatcherite period. And if Daily Telegraph columnist Clifford Longley is right, Hague hopes to add a third dimension of Christian conservatism, modelled on the right-wing fundamentalism of the American republican movement. Longley reported on the Tory leader’s warm reception at an Evangelical youth festival in Somerset in April. He predicts that Hague (who has a close adviser in Conservative shadow minister Gary Streeter, chair of the Conservative Christian Fellowship) will soon flesh out a vision of a ‘Conservative Judaeo-Christian tradition’ of family values to be pitched against the ‘politically correct secularism and moral relativism of Labour’. But Hague’s ‘big idea’ needs to pit itself against another ‘big idea’. And this is provided by Labour’s apparent willingness to define Britain as riddled by ‘institutionalised racism’. To accept this view of society, the right wing argues, is to be unpatriotic to Britain.
Ever since the Macpherson inquiry acknowledged institutionalised racism, the right-wing press has been campaigning to undermine reform. Now Tory tribunes have jumped on board the press battleship, as witnessed by Anne Widdecombe’s hysterical outbursts and Hague’s speech to the Police Federation urging police officers to rebel against ‘politically correct race awareness courses’ in favour of spending more time fighting crime. So much has the press led in this that the Tories increasingly resemble not an opposition party but the parliamentary wing of the Sun.
The asylum battleground
Yet the fight to dismantle Macpherson-inspired reform is, in a post-Stephen Lawrence climate, riddled with contradictions: even the right-wing press does not want to be seen to be attacking the integrated black middle class. So the surer battleground from which the right wing can launch its fight, in the true Powellite tradition, is that of race, asylum and immigration. Following TGWU leader Bill Morris’ attack on Labour policy on asylum, the UNHCR’s intervention on the asylum debate, and the Liberal Democrats’ call to the CRE to investigate Labour and Tories for encouraging racism, Tory press hounds have been unleashed on the refugee ‘race relations industry’ to hunt down those organisations that threaten freedom of speech with the ‘bogus language of anti-racism’ and which are ‘rapidly becoming one of the greatest threats to British liberties’.
The pawns in today’s right-wing anti-anti racist offensive are not so much black Britishers and their organisations but asylum-seekers and groups that back them. The fact that many asylum-seekers are eastern European provides the press with the smokescreen it needs to unleash its unbridled xenophobic racism. How can we be racist, asks the Sun, when most asylum-seekers are white? Newspapers focus constantly on asylum scroungers, ranging from the 71 Kosovan refugees returning home from Leeds Bradford airport (who ‘one year ago turned up in rags and left yesterday in designer gear like models on a catwalk in a fashion show’) to the immigrants who ‘rip off millions in benefits’ (like the Albanian asylum-seeker that a News of the World undercover reporter enticed to exchange vouchers for cash), to the ungrateful asylum-seekers at Angel Heights, Newcastle, who dared to protest against the accommodation and services all provided courtesy of the generous British taxpayer. But behind these ungrateful asylum-seekers (for, as ‘every Romanian Gypsy knows’ Britain ‘is a land of subsidised milk’ and ‘handout-honey’) lies a ‘multiculturalist priesthood’, made up of the UNHCR, Refugee Council, BBC, CRE, the ‘more inflammable bishops’, Blair’s peers, judges who are making ‘Britain the Costa Del Dole for bogus refugees’ and an ‘entire industry of left wing lawyers’. And of course the only dissenter, the only man capable of standing up for ordinary people is yes, you’ve guessed it, that honest Yorkshireman William Hague. A modern St George out to slay the asylum dragon.
Linking the issues
Yet behind these refugee pawns, behind the asylum issue, is the right-wing press’ determination to win the wider fight against Macpherson and to ensure that any remaining liberal tendencies within government are extinguished altogether. One way in which the press attempts to link asylum to Macpherson is by comparing Labour’s ‘generosity’ (if only!) towards asylum-seekers with its parsimony towards pensioners. And Hague, who in a speech in May in London described pensioners as the ‘unwanted, unwelcome and uncool guests at New Labour’s banquet’, is again taking his script from the tabloids when he speaks up for the ‘OAPs that get less than refugees’. But how can the press make that link? In April, the press attempted it by alleging that the chair of the Labour parliamentary party Clive Soley – or was it Peter Mandelson (the papers couldn’t make up their minds) – had recommended to Millbank that Labour abandon any attempts to woo the grey vote on the grounds that pensioners were far too racist to vote Labour, leading the Daily Mail‘s Paul Johnson to condemn ‘Labour’s appalling insult to a generation of heroes’ and to Sun ‘Fury as Labour claim old folk are racist’.
Lessons for Labour
For anti-racists , this demonisation of Labour as anti-racist and pro-asylum leaves an ironic taste, given that there is no major difference between the political parties on asylum, and given that it has been Labour’s introduction of detention, dispersal and vouchers that has led to the current racist onslaught against refugees. Yet is is also profoundly depressing that Labour has failed to imbibe the lessons of that first period of Powellism and continues to play the numbers game, seemingly oblivious to its consequences.
Each time the Tories play the numbers game, Labour responds with numbers of its own. Labour is providing the right-wing press with even more ammunition to fire at asylum-seekers. When, on 11 April, a spokesperson for Tony Blair said that ‘If you take Kosovo out of the equation, then, on the latest evidence, around 70 to 80 per cent of asylum-seekers’ cases are not genuine’, the Sun could say: ‘The majority ARE bogus – the Prime Minister has said as much’. For Labour to sing the same tune as the Tories is also futile, as the right-wing press is out to bring Labour down on asylum, come what may. Thus, on 26 April, Straw’s office stage-managed a photocall for the home secretary in Dover to publicise his tough stance against truck drivers who bring in illegal immigrants. But the photocall backfired spectacularly, with the Daily Telegraph reporting sarcastically that ‘Home Secretary Jack Straw yesterday welcomed a gipsy asylum seeker to Britain with a handshake’ and the Daily Star mocking Straw under the headline ‘Hello Mr. Sponger – Need any benefits’.
By abandoning all principle on asylum in favour of sucking up to the right-wing press, Labour has abandoned Britain’s most vulnerable constituency to the forces of racism. More people in Labour’s heartlands must, like the TGWU’s Bill Morris, stand up and be counted.