When I was asked to write this article, the task was to respond to the statement, ‘2020 Britain is just as racist as it was in the 1980s.’ I am not an expert on the matter and feel it to be too broad a topic for 800 words, so decided to narrow the scope down to the way attitudes towards race amongst the political class have changed over this time.
Firstly, I will make a broad-brush observation on how the societal landscape appears to have changed. It does appear to me that, since the 1980s, significant advances for those from ethnic minority backgrounds have been made. More importantly, this seems to be a view generally shared amongst members of ethnic minority communities. 66% of ethnic minority respondents aged over 65 and 73% of those aged 55-64 to a recent study by British Future said they felt that racial prejudice was worse 50 years ago than it is now. That’s not to say that there is not still work to be done. As recently as 2013, a YouGov poll revealed that a third of the electorate would feel uncomfortable with a PM from an ethnic minority background. Racist attitudes certainly persist within British society.
As promised, that’s all I will say with regards to British society as a whole. The rest of this article shall be devoted to the attitudes of the political class towards race.
Back in 1980s Britain, it was clear-cut who the racists were. While Margaret Thatcher was opposing international sanctions on apartheid South Africa and dismissing Nelson Mandela as ‘little more than a terrorist’, top Labour figures such as Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn were meeting with key leaders of the ANC. On the domestic front, as the Conservative government stuck their heads in the sand over a 55% (55%!) rate of black youth unemployment which helped to precipitate the Brixton riots, Bill Morris was rising through the ranks of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. When he was elected leader of the TGWU, he became the first black person to lead a trade union in the UK. Whilst running, he insisted he was, ‘not the black candidate, rather the candidate who is black.’ It’s my contention that Mr Morris was one of the last major political figures on the left in this country who understood that liberation for ethnic minorities would not be achieved through woe for past injustices but instead through organisation and hard work.
This attitude is in marked contrast to much of today’s left. It seems that identity politics has much to answer for this. Borne out of good intentions, it’s become a pernicious movement intent on separating everybody into distinct groups of immutable characteristics, the exact opposite of Dr King’s dream that his ‘four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
Whilst the left has obsessed over issues of race, the Conservative party has been undergoing a slow, unassuming transformation. Let us be clear: Boris Johnson has said some pretty disgusting things about people of colour: describing black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ comes to mind. There are also serious questions that need answering surrounding the Windrush and Grenfell scandals.
However, centre-right politics as embodied by the Conservative Party has undergone something of a makeover with regards to ethnic diversity. Take its senior members for example: a Muslim Chancellor (Sajid Javid), a Home Secretary of Gujurati descent (Priti Patel) and a party chairman whose mother came from Sierra Leone (James Cleverly). Meanwhile, our politicians on the left seem unable to believe that an individual from an ethnic minority background could have the capacity to choose for themselves a party to represent other than Labour. Particularly shocking is the insult one has often heard directed at Mr Javid that he is a ‘coconut’ (visibly of colour while harbouring a ‘white’ interior). And all this does not even touch on the left’s anti-semitism problem.
It seems clear to me therefore that while the Conservative Party has made tentative steps towards Dr King’s dream since the 1980s, the Labour Party appears, disappointingly, to have gone very backwards indeed.