Politicians are inflaming public opinion against asylum seekers. CARF reviews three months of racist campaigning and reporting and asks, what can be done?
There are two racisms in Britain. The racism that discriminates and the racism that kills.
But, whereas the racism that discriminates has long been outlawed through successive Race Relations Acts, criminalising the racism that kills – race hate and the violence it spawns – has proven far more complex. True, provisions in the Race Relations Act and the Public Order Act specifically prohibit incitement to racial hatred. But for such measures to be brought into play it has to be proved that a particular inflammatory speech, for instance, incited a particular violent act based on racial hatred. So, while laws exist, in theory, to protect people from the racism that kills, in practice, such measures are rarely used.
And then, there is a second, related problem: namely, the total absence of any restraints, either legal or voluntary, to deal with the kind of public speeches and interventions that inflame public opinion, but often, through the adoption of covert, coded expressions, avoid the direct language of racist extremism. And it is into this glaring legal and moral vacuum that the likes of Hague and Heseltine step in, confident that although their words may give a licence to hatred, they do not breach the letter of the incitement laws by actually telling Joe Bloggs to go out on the street and attack an immigrant. Why are we always campaigning after a racist attack, or a racist murder? What more can we do to protect people from an overall culture of racism? How can we hold the politicians who licence hatred to account?
The culture of acceptance
From Heseltine’s attack on asylum seekers on BBC’s ‘The World this Weekend’ to Hague’s ‘foreign land’ speech at the Conservative spring conference in Harrogate; from Yorkshire MP John Townend’s first attack on minority communities and the asylum seekers who breed crime, to David Blunkett’s pledge to Sun readers that, should he be appointed home secretary under a new Labour government, he would blitz society of asylum cheats – the general election campaign created a climate whereby racism towards asylum seekers was deemed culturally acceptable. Pivotal to the creation of this climate was the right-wing attack on the CRE-brokered ‘race pledge’, a code of conduct between the political parties that race should not be exploited for political purposes in the run-up to the general election.
“The most serious trend we have seen is a rise in reports of incidents when the issue of asylum seekers and refugees is brought into the public domain by reputable politicians making inflammatory statements.” – Scotland Yard
The CRE has, by virtue of the Act under which it operates, been primarily concerned with ‘the racism that discriminates’, although former chair, Sir Herman Ouseley, pushed to the limits the CRE’s other duty ‘to promote equality of opportunity and good race relations’. And it was he who encouraged the political leaders in 1997 to sign up to the first race pledge. For those of us fighting racist violence on the ground, the shallowness of the CRE’s approach is all too evident. For nowhere does the CRE address the question of a government policy which, by deliberately stigmatising asylum seekers, creates new structures of discrimination and thereby provides the ideological space in which racism towards asylum seekers becomes culturally acceptable – something that the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers subsequently addressed in its open letter to the press. Nevertheless, the CRE-brokered code of conduct is important in that it prioritised an area of racism in British culture, namely the political process, previously ignored, and set a benchmark for what should be considered socially responsible political behaviour in a multicultural society which puts a premium on good race relations. Surely, nobody could attack such principles or justify the kind of unbridled ‘freedom’ of speech that undermines the freedom to life?
From Conservative spin to New Right anti-anti-racism
But as the general election campaign took off, the CRE compact became the pretext for a massive New Right offensive against anyone who attempted to fight ‘the racism that kills’ and, most importantly, against post-Macpherson reforms of the criminal justice system. But what was most worrying was that, with the single exception of TWGU leader Bill Morris, there was not one Labour commentator capable of clearly articulating the principles involved. Worse still, a significant section of liberal opinion took the New Right’s framework as given and even joined in the attack on Macpherson in the name of a new anti-anti racism.
“In this foreign land, I do not fear the racist on our street. I fear the words of our politicians, which are sometimes taken by the racists as a licence to attack anyone who does not look and speak like them.” – Bill Morris
One would have thought that when the veteran right-wing Yorkshire MP John Townend, in a speech to his local Conservative association, blamed ‘coloured immigrants’ for changing British society and lavished praise on Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech, this would have led to an increase in investigative reporting into the racist tendency within the Tory party. Briefly, as two other Conservative MPs joined Townend’s attack on the CRE compact which they refused to sign, it seemed that this might be so. But on 2 April, as the news stories about Townend and his racist cohorts spread, Michael Portillo – the caring Tory with a social conscience – came out against the code, launching a backbenchers’ revolt in what has been described by the Observer as ‘the Spartacus defence’. The Tory leadership, powerless to get Townend et al to shut up, declared that almost everyone in the party was a rebel too. But Portillo, unlike Townend, was a rebel with principle; namely that MPs are somehow above all this business of pledge-signing and meaningless gesture politics. Conservative Central Office, desperate to cover MPs’ racist tracks, had been working overtime, adopting New Labour spin tactics. First, came the defence. MPs who had signed the pledge marched out behind Portillo, declaring that they had signed merely to avoid any suggestion of racism (as an anonymous shadow cabinet source put it, ‘This is where it all leads to – you are what you pledge’). Then, came the attack. From Townend’s unbridled racism, the terms of the debate swiftly switched to an attack on the CRE which had launched the ‘witch hunt’ against anyone who refused to sign up to its anti-racist orthodoxy. Senior Tory John Gummer was despatched to Radio 4 to accuse the CRE of blackmail; Mohammed Riaz, Hague’s chief ethnic minorities adviser, told the Guardian that it was time to review the role of the CRE, and Nicholas Soames, former armed forces minister, said simply that ‘the CRE could go to hell’. Then, the onslaught became targeted at the authoritarianism of anti-racism by attacking, first, Macpherson, particularly his focus on ‘institutional racism’ (Ann Widdecombe, writing in Police Review, attacked the language of ‘institutional racism’ and the current definition of a racist incident), and second, Labour’s handling of asylum issues. Hague quickly put into practice the advice of political adviser Andrew Lansely that stories about immigrants and bogus asylum seekers play particularly well in the tabloids, and penned a piece for the Daily Telegraph (22.4.01), accusing the Labour party of a ‘shabby and contemptible’ attempt to gag his party over asylum issues, positing the Tories as the true party of patriotism and national identity. In this way, the following message percolated from Central Office down to the local Conservative constituencies: Shut up about ethnic minorities (Townend’s ‘mongrel race’ comments will lose us votes) but, yes, go ahead and campaign against asylum seekers. And this, after all, was to return the party to Heseltine’s strategy for the general election. For that was exactly what Heseltine was telling the constituencies when he attacked Hague’s ‘foreign land’ speech (‘does anyone seriously think that Germany is a “foreign” country’) but defended wholeheartedly Hague’s stance against asylum seekers as in the true national interest.
Shifting sands of social responsibility
In this way, while privately calming the language of their extremists, the Conservatives publicly shifted the debate from overt racism and the way politicians inflame public opinion against minorities and asylum seekers, to political correctness and the new McCarthyism of the anti-racist movement. And, with barely an exception, it was a spin which was embraced wholeheartedly by the media, from local and national newspapers to television pundits like Ian Hislop.
The principle that politicians are accountable, and have a social responsibility not to inflame public opinion against minorities, was happily discarded as journalists and politicians ploughed into the CRE and thus indirectly justified their verbal attacks on asylum seekers on the grounds of defending the good old British values of freedom of speech against the ‘Race pledge which stifles debate’ (Daily Mail 21.4.01) or the ‘Asylum gags which are no joke’ (Daily Mirror 25.4.01). Far from having a responsibility not to inflame opinion against asylum seekers, press and politicians had a responsibility to halt an ‘intimidatory campaign’ (Independent on Sunday 22.4.01) in the name of a wider truth (‘It’s time to speak out’. Hague is right, problems can’t be solved by shouting ‘”Racist!” at anyone who disagrees with us’ Daily Star 23.4.01).
Suddenly it was OK to let it all hang out. Newspaper reporters provided intellectual justification for the gangs of racist youths who terrorise asylum seekers and other minorities on council estates. For this is precisely what press commentators like Julie Burchill (Guardian 5.5.01) and Maureen Messent (Birmingham Evening Mail 27.4.01) do when they (Burchill) defend the ‘indigenous working class people of this country’ who have ‘a thoroughly legitimate reason for becoming more agitated about immigration than the tolerant middle class’, or (Messent) speak up for a ‘Western European island nation’ which is ‘fearful’ ‘of being overrun by those of different cultures’ and worries ‘lest our traditions are sacrificed and our indigenous race outnumbered’. As Gary Younge pointed out in the Guardian (does Burchill read the newspaper she works on?), the whole debate took place ‘almost entirely without reference to the black communities’ and the established link between racially charged campaigning and racial attacks was not even discussed.
Who defends the freedom to life?
But why was Bill Morris the only leading Labourite to articulate a clear position against the racism that kills and to uphold the principle that politicians have a responsibility not to inflame public opinion?
“In effect there are two racisms in Britain today, the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills. The solution to the one is no solution to the other.” – A. Sivanandan
Part of the problem was that much of the Labour Left got sidetracked, particularly after Robin Cook’s so-called ‘chicken tikka masala’ speech, into fighting other issues, failing to make a distinction between violent race hatred and racial discrimination. And this is part of a wider problem. For, since the Macpherson report, organisations have concentrated overwhelmingly on Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism and, applying this to the internal running of organisations, failed to relate it to the larger racist culture in which all groups operate and, especially, the levels and seriousness of racial violence. Hence Diane Abbott and Sharon Grant, who have the experience and know-how to speak out against the racism that kills, became diverted by Robin Cook’s speech into attacking the internal racism of the Labour party which had failed to meet its own targets on selecting black and Asian candidates. ‘Tony Blair has surrounded himself with groups of young white men’, wailed Diane Abbott, who, like the Conservative Lord Taylor of Warwick, seemed more concerned that black people should feel at home in their own party than feel safe on the streets. The intervention of Abbott, and other leading black spokespeople who prioritised discrimination over violent race hatred, was then taken up by the rightwing press to focus attention on discrimination – something that they could write off as an ism we are all guilty of. Hence, the Daily Mail had its own ethnic commentators anxious to prove that racial discrimination was rife in the CRE. Disappointingly, the Voice also failed to elucidate the real principles involved. In its pages Darcus Howe condemned the CRE and declare pompously that ‘If anyone had asked me to sign this race pledge, I would have told them to p*** off.’ Perhaps, Howe didn’t realise he wasn’t an elected MP, or, more alarmingly, perhaps he believes he is!
Free speech prioritised
Not one Labour member of parliament, to CARF’s knowledge, came out to defend the principle of political accountability or socially responsible campaigning; not one Labour MP publicly defended the CRE pledge, despite all having been asked by their leader to sign it. And leading Left-wing Labour party members and backbenchers, by rubbishing it as a worthless gesture, actually legitimised Portillo’s ‘Spartacus defence’. Veteran leftwinger Tony Benn dismissed the code as ‘irrelevant to race relations’, and Tam Dalyell MP described it as ‘ill thought out and patronising.’ Perhaps most damagingly for the anti-racist cause, the influential editor of Tribune, Mark Seddon, reinforced New Right invective against the code as a major threat to freedom of speech by implying it was a slippery slope towards wider authoritarianism. ‘Why stop at anti-racist pledges. What about compacts of support for the free market, or oaths of undying loyalty to the party leadership?’ he asked, thereby joining the chorus of commentators belittling the principle that socially responsible and non-racist campaigning was an essential component of ‘race relations’ in a multicultural society.
“By opening the door so wide on the immigration debate, the erratic, opportunistic Hague has hastened the day when the BNP will be in a position to slam the door on immigration.” – Nick Griffin
Editor Seddon was also quoted by Guardian columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft to justify an attack, which mirrored that of the New Right, on the Macpherson report. In a piece entitled ‘McCarthyism goes anti-racist’ (24.4.01), Wheatcroft condemned all race relations laws as an attack on free speech which introduces a new form of censorship. The Macpherson report has led to ‘illiberal bullying’. This view was reinforced by Martin Mears (Times 1.5.01), a former president of the Law Society who is part of the growing ranks of legal experts now attacking Macpherson. Mears supported Justice Poole’s attack at the end of the aborted Leeds footballers’ trial on Macpherson’s definition of a racist incident, and criticised the ‘liberal establishment’s nervous collapse and acceptance of a dangerous orthodoxy on racism’.
The degradation of political principle
While it is clear that we anti-racists have much work to do to defend the spirit of the Macpherson report, and in particular its recognition of institutionalised racism, what is profoundly depressing about this debate is that over twenty years after the brutal murders of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, Altab Ali, Michael Ferreira (to name but a few of the many who died in the 1970s), this country has not even come to first base when it comes to recognising the right of minorities to live their lives free from fear of racist attack. What the CARF collective wrote in an editorial in 1978, at the beginnings of the black self-defence movement, applies even more than ever today. ‘What is this freedom of speech which exhorts to kill and encourages to harass? Of what use is it, if it takes precedence over the first freedom – the freedom to life?’