Posted on April 11, 2005

The Bad Old Days of Racist Scapegoating Appear to be Back

Independent (London), Apr. 10

In the 1964 election in Smethwick in the Midlands, the Labour shadow foreign secretary Patrick Gordon Walker was crushed by the Tory candidate whose slogan was: “If you want a nigger neighbour vote Labour.” Conservatives would never use such rude, crude methods today.

One of their enormous posters has appeared on Acton High Street, near the old town hall. In innocent, feminine writing it asks: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” and then: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” The words hiss, intimidate, sting black, Asian and Irish residents of this locality. Acton is rundown though it is gentrifying. Blocks of flats — many dismal and dead end — cut a swathe through this area. The poor no-hopers who live there, especially those who feel an indigenous entitlement to this land, will be stirred by the poster, the juxtaposition of race and immigration — a connection denied and yet irrevocably entwined by that denial. Clever and evil and modern.

Just up the road, there is a raucous pub for Australians seeking blow-out inebriation. And shops catering for the thousands of antipodean Londoners. The poster was not stuck up there. Conservatives and New Labour have no problems with these migrants, nor with white Zimbabweans, South Africans and Americans who have taken up opportunities here and made good. These people are not the enemy within unlike black Africans, Arabs, Gypsies and South Asians. It is all about race.

New Labour has responded feebly to this poisonous Conservative campaign. Their own refugee policies are now driven entirely by a growing national hysteria about asylum seekers. (Britain has 0.47 per cent of the refugee population of the world; Iran has 17 per cent.) Instead of making the pragmatic case for managed migration and the moral case for asylum, they have surrendered to rabid anti-immigration tabloids and whipped up further panic over terrorism in part to facilitate pernicious anti-terrorism laws.

I asked black and Asian Britons in Acton how they felt about race and immigration in this election campaign. Mr Wilberforce, ex RAF, Jamaican Briton, said ruefully: “It is Powell come back — he must be clapping in his grave. This country will never be for us, you know. Whatever we do, they will always be hating the dark-skinned immigrant. Too late for me now, but young people must move away. It is getting ugly again.”

Some young mixed-race and black men told Mr Wilberforce furiously that they were going nowhere. They were going to show the whities, not run scared. None of them was going to vote. “What’s the point, man?’ asked Terence, who works for a cable company. “They’re all the same. They are all racists — just want our votes so they can get back in power. What they doing for us, man? Police still treating us like shit, I was in prison. Set up by the pigs, eight months on remand, no reason.”

But what about the Lawrence inquiry and the new race laws brought in by New Labour? A couple of the men agreed that these had been important steps but felt it had all been washed away by what they see as a new racism across Europe. Three Muslim men — two young and unemployed, one a local Arab shopkeeper — agreed with this. They have all experienced humiliation, abuse.

A fortnight ago I gathered 20 women of colour to talk about the election and they too were very anxious about the rise of racism. Some blamed anti-immigration warriors from the right and these days from the left, too. Almira, an Egyptian dancer, said: “They are attacking newcomers and all of us are suffering. They don’t ask if you are legal or not, they just see us and think we are liars and thieves.” But black women in that group blamed Muslims for these new tensions. They felt that the behaviour of militant Muslims had frightened “normal” people and ruined everything. These women were Labour supporters. For many others the Lib Dems were perceived as fairer and free of bigotry.

Not one of my interviewees in Acton said they would vote Conservative, but in the women’s group the party had some support. They believe the country’s prosperity and stability could be imperilled by an influx of undeserving immigrants and refugees. When probed further you realise that this is not so much “support” as fearful assent. They are anxious that life will only get tougher for them and theirs if attitudes harden further.

Under New Labour, Britons of colour have divided off spectacularly. They define themselves in specificities, and don’t unite to fight against racism. Politicians have encouraged this trend — it worked so well under Empire, why not now? Africans and Caribbeans have split apart; Asians have broken up into various ethnicities and faiths and they all appear to loathe Somalis and Albanians. Abduallah, a Somali entrepreneur in Southall told me that the local political Asian mafia excludes them and violates their rights. They will not vote for Labour because of this.

Then the war. Only three people, all black, supported the action in Iraq. The rest thought it was a demonstration of ugly white power. Most were furious that so much money had been spent on that venture. Some were outraged at the lies and bloodshed.

In general among many Britons of colour the mood is sombre; hopes low, fears high. The bad old days of racist scapegoating are back.

The election is felt to be the most important ever, yet there is no real faith that democracy will deliver them from this wave of hostility which is drowning their optimism about the future.