David Cameron has many failings, but he is patently not a racist. There may just remain a few old Powellites in his party rank and file but largely, whether we like it or not, accusations of latent racism no longer dog the Tories. And it may just be, paradoxically, Cameron’s Saturday speech was more of a success than we think: perhaps he has just stolen a march us on the whole debate about radical Islam and on issues of race and ethnicity in general. Not because he is right but because he, at least, has raised them.
Was he being merely populist? That is a more tricky question but, in the main, I don’t believe the reasons behind his Saturday speech on multiculturalism was sheer populism. It was, as Anthony Painter put it, “nuanced”. It tried and, if we believe much of the press, failed to ignite a sensible debate. Well, perhaps it didn’t deserve to. And it was surely open to misinterpretation; but the point is that race issues always are. There is always some interested party to the left or right who will wilfully twist what you are saying.
It failed largely because it was both clumsy and wrong. It started all reasonable, said some reasonable home truths - such as our failure to judge our ethnic communities like the rest of the population on matters of basic human rights - and then didn’t deliver because the proposal seemed to be that you can just train people to be good, integrated British citizens with a few courses for 16 year-olds. But it also failed because not just the left, but much of the London-based media have a knee-jerk response to this kind of delicate area.
Proposition: Labour is endemically incapable of having a debate on any issue remotely related to race (i.e. immigration, social problems endemic to particular communities, Islamist terrorism, culture-specific sexism/racism/homophobia) which gives rise to any kind of action. Our main preoccupation seems to be to look at what everyone else proposes and go tut-tut, that will never do.
Some examples: Jack Straw tries to raise a real issue of grooming by Pakistani men. Because he does not have evidence – yet – which can be considered 100% statistically watertight (although very considerable anecdotal evidence) he is widely criticised. But his critics could only really say that the case was not proven or the timing ill-judged and not, convincingly, that it was a non-issue. The oppression of women which is rife in many Asian communities leaves us silent. Trevor Philips raised the problems which underlie a multiculturalist approach seven years ago – Cameron’s is hardly a new debate - and was also widely criticised. That, er, terrible old fascist Johann Hari has also written about the limitations of multiculturalism. Maybe they are wrong: but they get people talking. One sometimes wonders exactly who might be able to make any kind of criticism of a problem endemic to an ethnic minority community without cries of “racist”. An approach which is not only tedious but solves nothing.
While the Tories have, cack-handedly, at least attempted to take on a sensitive subject, we seem to be looking on, rabbit-in-the-headlights, paralysed by the nature of our past and present relationship with Britain’s ethnic communities. As a party we have deep relationships with various communities in the East End, the West and East Midlands and elsewhere. We are historically the party of integration and tolerance, of which we should be proud. But let’s be honest, too: these close relationships can also have an unhealthy side (the attempts at selection-fixing that have often dogged Tower Hamlets politics springs to mind). And we are very, very slow to criticise.
And oh, how shocked we were that Cameron made a speech on the same day as a rally of the English Defence League - he surely did it on purpose! And that he made it – horrors! – in Berlin (the quite ridiculous intimation being that he was therefore somehow connected with, by association, Nazi Germany). Awful, lazy, knee-jerk politics. I disagree with David Cameron on, well, practically everything, but I despise this smeary thinking more.
In short: as normal, moderate, minority-friendly Britons, we should not have our politics dictated to us by what a bunch of racist thugs happen to be doing today. We must treat them as the irrelevance they are, and not be refraining from doing things because of whatever they or their ugly brethren are up to. That way lies madness (and besides, they will always be up to something).
The most foolish thing about the debate which has happened since Saturday is the following: if you make a statement on a race-related issue which someone else does not agree with, you are immediately “playing into the hands of the fascists”. This is a mad, inverted logic, for the obvious reason that the EDL and the BNP cannot ever, and must not ever, drive our actions. Because if we react always in fear of what they might do, they are driving the agenda, not us. We fail to join the debate to address legitimate concerns of the public – that we all need to play by the same rules, for example – in order to placate those who have illegitimate concerns. We also free those same ethnic groups from any kind of criticism, and no group should ever be free from criticism. It’s what keeps society healthy.
We could continue to disengage entirely from this debate. But its future is vitally important. The left, through its inability or unwillingness to engage, leaves a vacuum which the right, and even the extreme right, are happy to fill.
This post first published at LabourList.
This post first published at LabourList.