An examination of the contradictions in electoral racism in the UK.
Across the Channel, Nicholas Sarkozy has been shamelessly courting supporters of the extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen ‘by proposing a referendum on illegal immigrants, threatening to pull out of the Schengen agreement, and calling for the labelling of halal meat’.
Of course, these are exactly the tactics and politics which British mainstream parties followed in the 2010 election, on the question of ‘immigration’, ‘triangulating’ beyond the BNP and taking on board their policies.
Current party political campaigning and spin asks us all to believe that we are already in the next election campaign. There are daily polls on the state of the parties and party leaders in many of the major newspapers. It is significant perhaps that the head of David Cameron’s policy unit, Andrew Cooper, is the former head of political polling company Populus. The constant narratives – which refer potential voters to the threats of Muslim terrorists, foreigners taking jobs, foreign criminals and human rights, immigrants refusing to become ‘British’ and rejecting ‘Christian values’ – all play out to triangulate policies of Conservatives and Labour beyond UKIP, and now, presumably, the EDL.
The problems with this approach have become apparent to Conservative politicians over the past few weeks. In a diverse and still multicultural Britain a simple racist ‘retail offer for voters’ actually puts off BME voters. At the next election, Conservative strategists are planning to target ethnic minority voters who hold the key to victory in up to 100 key urban marginal seats. Thus playing with far-right themes is indeed playing with fire.
The Bagehot column on 3 March in the Economist, confronting this dilemma for the Conservative Party, had a detailed analysis of ‘David Cameron’s race problem’. It pointed to Labour’s ‘crushing dominance amongst ethnic minority voters’ in 2010, and the failure of the Tories recently to go much beyond token anti-racist gestures, like David Cameron’s ‘summit on racism in football’, to win back these voters.
The Tory Right and far-right tendencies
The Murdoch press has now been virtually abandoned by Conservative advisers and press strategists – the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph are now the dominant channels to the public, and for setting, in turn, the agendas of TV and radio.
The media channels are still dominated by a continuing onslaught from the Tory far Right to shape party and policies. Tim Montgomerie of the influential ConservativeHome website, and former aide to Ian Duncan Smith, put his view on Cameron bluntly: ‘rather than creating a right wing party with a heart, he created a centrist party with cuts’.
The Tory ‘veto nationalism offensive’ in January seemed to satisfy right wingers, whatever it did to the xenophobic reputation of the party as a whole. David Cameron, in his Oxford speech on 16 December, had linked his attacks on multiculturalism to a need for Christian values. Michael Gove was set to send out bibles to every school.
This Christian theme has now re-emerged with a vengeance. The jibe that the Church of England is the ‘Tory party at prayer’ looks increasingly a reality. The Tory Christianity theme always includes hints about it reinforcing Tory Britain against multiculturalism and the threat of Islam. Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Secretary, is adept at exploiting this use of ‘Christian’ arguments. He managed to seize on an obscure case of a council, which apparently had lost its right to have Christian prayers before its meetings. The real agenda emerged on Channel 4 News on 10 February when presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, visibly annoyed with Pickles, quoted Tory councillor Imran Khan on Reigate and Banstead council who alleged that bringing back prayers was simply a measure to exclude other faiths from official life.
As the debates on the alleged marginalised place of Christianity in public life developed, the underlying agendas of the Con-Dem coalition surfaced, with homophobic debates on gay marriage, and a continual stress on ‘normal’ family values. This was in a real sense a predictable result of opening up the territory of discrimination and difference. Media and political narratives had, over the past two years, highlighted differences and disadvantage – between the ‘scroungers’ and hard working people, and between ‘foreign criminals’ and immigrants good for business. These debates and policies of course also create real social harm with for instance the rhetoric around welfare ‘reform’ and scepticism of disabled people increasing the number of violent attacks on disabled people.
Meanwhile Eric Pickles had already built a strong Christian element into his department’s new ‘integration/assimilation’ local grants programme, called ‘Near Neighbours’, aimed at places like Luton, home of the EDL. ‘Near Neighbours’ is, according to the 16 March CLG press release, ‘a highly successful programme that uses the parish infrastructure of the Church of England to bring together people from diverse communities and different faiths in challenging areas to get to know each other better, take action on local issues and help them transform their local neighbourhoods.’
But all this was excruciating news to senior Tory strategists, who attempted to rein in the lurch to the Right, fearing punishment at the polls. Francis Maude in the Daily Mail put it bluntly, ‘the Tory Party will always be seen as the nasty party unless it backs gay marriage, supports unmarried couples and does more to attract ethnic minority supporters … too few black and minority ethnic Britons see us as their natural home.’
Tories and the Pope
The Christianity theme then took strange detours. Baroness Warsi, the chairman of the Conservative Party, and other Tory ministers headed for Rome on 12 March for an audience with Pope Benedict. Officially the visit marked Margaret Thatcher’s establishing full diplomatic relations with the Papacy thirty years earlier but it also had a rather more sinister outcome, whether deliberate or accidental, associating Tory policies with the Pope’s extreme right-wing views – on the roots of an Islam prone to violence and alien to Christian Europe, and his equally dogmatic assertions on the roots of that same Christian Europe. He has constantly asserted that Europe’s Christian culture must be protected, even as religious belief among Europeans declined.
In the Daily Telegraph on the eve of the visit, Baroness Warsi and her speech writers, certainly argued from a similar position: ‘I will be arguing for Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity. The point is this: the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity. These values shine through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture. And, as I will say today, you cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes.’
Again, this in a European context, is the rhetoric which underpins the ‘Eurabia’ fantasies of a Europe under siege from Islam. It places the British Conservative Party in sympathy with some of the most right-wing movements in Europe. It also sits uneasily with Baroness Warsi’s challenge to ‘dinner table’ Islamophobia in 2011 and the fact that she raised the issue of Islamophobia with Pope Benedict during his 2010 visit to Britain urging him to ‘create a better understanding between Europe and its Muslim citizens’.
Foreign criminals and Strasbourg rights
The xenophobic ‘foreign criminals’ theme, the attacks on the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Muslim terrorist threat, neatly coalesced in the case of Abu Qatada. Both Labour and the Coalition had pursued Qatada’s deportation to Jordan, but the ECHR had blocked it on the grounds that any trial in Jordan would be based on evidence gained by torture. On 7 February in the Commons, Theresa May proclaimed that ‘The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell far away from Britain’..
It was left to an angry Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, on This Week on 8 February, to call for the British courts to try Qatada, and to reject the notion that ‘justice in Britain depends on what passport you own’. Alan Johnson, former Labour home secretary, admitted that Labour ‘had always gone down the immigration route’ because secret evidence could not be heard in court, and a large percentage of the British public wanted Qatada deported. Michael Portillo commented acidly that he did not think justice should be decided by opinion poll. Chakrabarti ended by observing that Johnson was ‘all over the place’ with his arguments.
Attacks on the ECHR continued through to March with the resignation of the right-wing Oxford academic Michael Pinto Duschinsky from the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights. After attacking Ken Clarke and Nick Clegg for restricting debate on the Commission, he betrayed his own agenda as a member of the Commission. ‘I know what the abuse of human rights really means. It is certainly not the kind of nonsense we hear so much about today – parents smacking children, the eviction of travellers from illegal encampments or the deportation of foreign criminals in breach of their supposed “right to a family life”.’
Andrew Neil also betrayed his personal bias in his documentary Rights Gone Wrong (BBC 2, 14 March), where he built his arguments for fundamental changes to human rights procedures by quoting a series of ‘foreign criminals’ cases as well as Qatada’s. These included a failed Kurdish asylum seeker, a Pakistani who caused death by driving whilst on heroin, a rapist from the Caribbean, all apparently saved from deportation by the existence of the Strasbourg court and its obsession with the rights to a family life. A ’forced marriage’ campaigner had been frustrated by a Supreme Court ruling that set an age of 21 for foreign spouses to join British spouses challenged their human rights. Andrew Neil’s indignation at this ruling was not even shared at the time by the right of centre Spectator, which welcomed the judgement: ‘The Human Rights Act, as interpreted by judges, often may well be “anti-democratic” but it also offers protection against illiberal legislation that restricts liberty and opportunity. In those circumstances the courts are a valuable shield for the individual threatened by the state. No wonder they’re unpopular with politicians!’
But Neil was determined to make the case for the ‘decent mainstream majority’ hostile to human rights, (brushing aside the comments of Michael Mansfield that this majority was mainly the invention of the red top press). Human rights was, he argued, a concept which had descended from earlier ‘universal’ support to the present as ‘political poison’. An argument he pursued with an extensive interview with former home secretary, John Reid, who duly introduced some political poison in his defence of control orders, and in citing the universal importance of ‘rights to human life’ of British people over the rights of suspected foreign terrorists ‘playing the system’.
Foreign defendants brought before the courts were also, according to Channel 4 News on 2 March, having a poor time with the revelation that court interpreter services had been privatised and ALS (Applied Language Solutions), a subsidiary of Capita, had won the £300m contract. Courts were in chaos in the East and North of England and magistrates were claiming defendants’ rights were being compromised by interpreters failing to appear or offering a poor service, and the majority of existing interpreters were boycotting the low wages and poor quality privatised service.
Caps and contradictions on immigration
Damien Green the immigration minister, pursuing the key Conservative policies around a ‘cap’ on immigration, announced further restrictions on migration and removed the small protection offered to migrant domestic workers. Interestingly, he chose the Financial Times to defend his policies, which have come under severe attack from the Conservatives’ business allies. Neil Carberry, of the Confederation of British Industry, said the government’s frequent policy adjustments had left global companies unable to take a clear five-year view on the UK’s stance on immigration. Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First pointed out that, ‘When faced with an unduly complex visa application process, [and] … an aggressive political rhetoric on immigration who would be surprised if skilled workers simply chose to go elsewhere?’ Mr Green said the UK economy had become ‘addicted to immigration’ and needed to kick the habit.
Where was Labour in these debates ?
Labour’s stance on these xenophobic themes was predictably to stress the party’s commitment to ‘tough’ policies on borders and terrorism. The Tories apparently had watered down Labour’s effective control order regime (Alan Johnson on This Week 8 February). David Blunkett, another former home secretary, said of Qatada, ‘We are left in the absurd position … of not being able to keep him in prison because his human rights trump the protection of the British people, and a government that has watered down control orders so that they are more lax than was previously the case.’ Hazel Blears and Yvette Cooper called for immediate secure detention for Abu Qatada and an appeal to the ECHR.
There was, though, an interesting blast from Peter Kellner centre left political pollster and president of the YouGov international polling organisation, in the Guardian: ‘Immigration is overwhelmingly a blessing. It brings to these shores new ideas, new enthusiasm and entrepreneurial talent. Those who say immigration does harm, or imply that there is a problem by setting artificial curbs on the numbers coming to Britain are wrong – historically, culturally, economically and morally. I know the polls frighten politicians by showing that immigration is unpopular. But Labour will never win votes by compromising on immigration – the right will always outbid us. We can win over some votes by being honest and courageous.’ 
A threatening future?
In the Financial Times, Martin Taylor, chairman of Syngenta and formerly of Barclay’s, sees the current period as one of ‘false dawns and public fury’, and suggests ‘the 1930’s are not so far away’. ‘Immigrant and refugee populations, tolerated during prosperous times, are now seen as both the cause of unemployment and a potential source of sedition.’
Cecilia Malstrom, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, is certainly pessimistic. ‘However, the political mood in many EU member states is sour. We have not seen as many populist and xenophobic parties in European national parliaments since before the second world war. True to form, they exploit the current crisis, trying to shift the blame on to immigrant populations. Here, we need European and national leadership to make sure that populist rhetoric does not dictate the agenda.’
Matthew Goodwin makes the same point in his recent Chatham House study: ‘In a climate in which mainstream parties have described multiculturalism as a failure and citizens are deeply concerned about immigration issues, populist extremists have moved from the margins to the mainstream … the underlying and deeper trends that have fuelled their rise look set to continue over the coming decades … If politicians and policy makers are to meet this challenge they need to radically rethink their current understanding of and approaches to populist extremism.’