Robert Verkaik, Independent (London), March 9, 2007
Britain’s institutions stand accused of fostering a climate of casual racism after a series of race rows yesterday provoked clashes between MPs, academics and leaders of the black and Asian communities.
In the most high-profile case, David Cameron, the Tory party leader, was forced to sack his frontbench spokesman on homeland security, Patrick Mercer, because he suggested that being called a “black bastard” was part and parcel of life in the Army for ethnic minority soldiers.
Shortly afterwards the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced that it was to investigate the brutal assault of a black teenager by a white police officer outside a Sheffield nightclub.
In Manchester, a magistrate who was overheard talking to a colleague about “bloody foreigners” in private after a hearing was reprimanded by the Judicial Appointments Commission but allowed to return to work.
In Oxford, a university professor was forced to defend himself after students protested at his outspoken comments on immigration.
Last night MPs and leaders of Britain’s ethnic minority communities said the incidents, although all unconnected, painted a picture of resurgent racism at the heart of British society which needed to be tackled.
Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: “Racism is sneaking back in to mainstream respectability and this is very dangerous. It is not isolated incidents . . . it’s been happening for some time. In some aspects, it’s coming through on the back of Islamophobia and in other ways, it is mainstream, old-fashioned racism.”
Michelynn Lafleche, director of the Runnymede Trust, a think-tank on ethnicity and cultural diversity, said that while significant steps had been made in the fight against racism much of the legislation had failed to make a mark on British life. She added: “The fight against terrorism . . . gives people the excuse to step back 40 years in time and say it is OK to say these things when it is not only morally reprehensible but often illegal. We may have the legislation in place, but it is of great concern because too often we are not seeing that permeate into our everyday lives.”
Many institutions have tried to implement the recommendations of Sir William Macpherson of Cluny who published a landmark report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. But almost 14 years after the black teenager’s murder and eight years after Sir William’s report Britain is still trying to combat racism in society.
Critics seized on Mr Mercer’s comments as evidence that the Tory party is one of many institutions still plagued by such problems.
The Labour MP Shahid Malik said they showed the Tories remained the “nasty party” and had not changed under Mr Cameron’s leadership. “It doesn’t matter what they tell you, they still are the nasty, racist, sexist, homophobic party they have been for many, many, many years,” he said. “It is going to take a long time to weed out the inherent racism that actually exists in that particular party.”
However, the Tories are not the only political party facing accusations of fuelling racial tensions. Earlier this week the Home Secretary John Reid faced criticism after promising to make life difficult for illegal immigrants in Britain. He came under fire after pledging a crackdown on foreigners who “steal our benefits”.
Darcus Howe, the prominent journalist and broadcaster, believes there is a new-found confidence among the right when discussing racial issues in Britain. He described the latest race rows as “very disturbing” saying there was no one to speak up for black and working-class people.
“This is not the same country I came to 50 years ago. I have great sympathy for the whites because everything has been swept away by Mrs Thatcher and now Tony Blair but there is nothing to take its place.”
Some commentators believe the 9/11 attacks led to a dramatic change in race relations in Britain. Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, said: “Respectable figures in British society have begun to speak in a way they never would have spoken in before 11 September. I believe the rise in much of the right-wing discourse we hear from these prominent people, was triggered by the events of 11 September, and fuelled by fear and ignorance. It is becoming much more normal to use racist, Islamophobic discourse.”
Lee Jasper, Secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, said Mr Mercer’s comments followed David Cameron’s own reference to multiculturalism as a “barrier to cohesion” which he said was designed to make headlines. “It is this approach that results in a full-scale Tory attack on the principle of black self-organisation,” said Mr Jasper.
He added: “While we welcome the resignation of Patrick Mercer, we remain deeply sceptical about the Tory party’s commitment to root out racism within the party itself.”
Patrick Mercer, the Conservative homeland security spokesman, was sacked by his party leader, David Cameron, yesterday after claiming it was acceptable to use the phrase “black bastard” in the Army. He later said: “I very much regret the interpretation that has been put on my comments.”
PC Anthony Mulhall has been removed from frontline duties after allegedly beating up a black woman outside a nightclub in Sheffield. A South Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “The force is outraged at . . . the possible suggestion that this may be linked to any kind of racist incident.”
David Coleman of Oxford University has provoked student anger after it emerged that he was a co-founder of the anti-immigration pressure group Migrationwatch. He has said that immigrants contribute the equivalent of “a Mars bar a month” to Britain. Yesterday he defended his views.
The colour divide
* African Caribbean pupils are up to six times more likely to be excluded from school than white pupils, but no more likely to truant
* 70 per cent of all ethnic minorities live in the 88 most deprived areas, compared to 40 per cent of the general population
* Prisoners from ethnic minorities accounted for a fifth of the male prison population, 12 per cent of whom were Black British
* The number of arrests for black people is three times higher
* 87,000 members of ethnic minorities say they have been a victim of racially motivated crime, the latest figures show
* 49,000 of those say they have been a victim of violent crime
* The average wage for ethnic minorities is £7.50 per hour, compared to £8.00 for whites
* Just over a fifth of people in England and Wales live in poverty, compared to 40 per cent of African Caribbeans and 8 per cent of whites in 1997
Figures from 2004
David Cameron tried to bury the Conservatives’ image as the “nasty party” by sacking a frontbench spokesman who claimed that black soldiers invented allegations of racism to cover up the fact they were “idle” and “useless”.
Patrick Mercer, a former army colonel, said being called a “black bastard” was part and parcel of life for ethnic minorities in the armed forces. He paid the price for his outspoken comments by losing his post as the Opposition spokesman on homeland security.
Mr Cameron, who is determined to stamp out any suggestion of racism as part of his drive to widen his party’s appeal, did not believe Mr Mercer was being racist but judged that he was adopting a “laissez faire” attitude towards racism. Mr Mercer accepted his fate but denied he had ever been complacent about racism.
The Tory leader’s tough stance provoked criticism from party activists in Mr Mercer’s Newark constituency. Sheelagh Hamilton, who chairs the local Conservative Association, said the sacking was unfair. “I am extremely angry that what has been said has been taken out of context and David Cameron has behaved precipitously. I think it’s all been done in a huge amount of haste,” she said.
Mr Mercer sparked the controversy when he spoke to the Times Online website about the formation of a new anti-racism trade union being set up by servicemen from former colonial countries, which he described as ” complete and utter rot”.
He went on: “I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”
Mr Cameron said: “I think they are shocking remarks, I think they are completely unacceptable. I made that clear and I think the right action is for Patrick to return to the back benches. It is no good making excuses for racism. It isn’t right, it isn’t defendable, it isn’t acceptable in any institution and we all have to make a very clear stand about that.”
Labour MPs claimed racism was still alive in the Conservative Party and pointed out that officials had initially dismissed Mr Mercer’s remarks as a personal matter. But Mr Cameron’s aides said he dismissed the frontbencher in a telephone call as soon as he had read his comments in full.
Mr Mercer said he “deeply regretted” the offence his comments had caused but stopped short of a full apology. “I had the privilege to command soldiers from across the east Midlands, of whom many came from racial minorities,” he said. “It was a matter of great pride to me that racial minorities prospered inside the unit, and, indeed at one stage all of my company sergeant majors were black. What I have said is clearly misjudged and I can only apologise if I have embarrassed in any way those fine men whom I commanded. I have no hesitation in resigning my frontbench appointment.”
Former corporal Leroy Hutchinson, who served under Mr Mercer for 12 years, said: “I was promoted under his command. He never tolerated racism in the battalion and not a single one of his men would consider him to be racist.”
Mr Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary, Desmond Swayne, said last night that Mr Mercer’s comments were not racist.
“What he did, however, was he created an impression that racism is somehow an acceptable, part of the natural background in the Army,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight. “[Racism] is always and everywhere a poison and the chain of command are stamping it out.”
An ally of David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Mercer was seen at Westminster as a “natural” in his homeland security brief. He was frustrated at not winning promotion to the Shadow Cabinet.