Cook plays the curry card

At last we know what the UK general election is really about: it's the Tandooris against the Tories.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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So now at last we know what the UK general election is really about: it’s the Tandooris against the Tories. According to the lecture given by foreign secretary Robin Cook last night, New Labour is now the party of chicken tikka masala, symbolic national dish of multicultural New Britain, while the Conservatives remain wedded to the old disease-ridden roast beef of British racism.

The foreign secretary’s speech was an artificial attempt to cook up an important difference between the parties, and put a bit of political spice into the blandest of electoral contests. With the major parties looking about as exciting as the obligatory ‘Omelette and chips’ at the bottom of an Indian restaurant’s menu, there is little public interest in the coming election. By portraying William Hague’s Tory Party as the friend of racists and extremists, Cook hopes to galvanise support for New Labour as the defenders of a tolerant and civilised society.

While that seems unlikely, raising the race issue certainly highlights the insuperable problems facing the Tory Party, as it attempts to straddle the widening gap between its past traditions and the present. On one hand, Hague wants to hang on to the rump of the old Tory core vote by making chauvinistic speeches about Britain becoming a ‘foreign country’ under New Labour, and refusing to condemn backwoods MPs who attack asylum seekers. On the other, he is trying to adapt to the new political culture by denouncing racism and intolerance. The mixed-up message that results is about as appetising as a plate of curry and egg custard.

One of New Labour’s central allegations against the Tories is that certain MPs have refused to sign the pledge to keep race out of the election that was issued by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). The importance attached to this document reveals that the use of the race issue today is more about establishing a new etiquette for the political class than addressing real problems facing people in Britain. In practice, both parties can compete to see which treats refugees the worst, just so long as in principle they have signed a promise not to use rude words in front of the CRE.

It used to be the Tory right that liked to play the race card, turning everything from crime to cricket into a racially charged issue. Now the climate has changed, and such racism is no longer considered decent in political circles. Instead, we see New Labour and the race relations industry attempting to racialise everyday incidents from the other side of the fence.

The Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence set the benchmark for this, by redefining a racial incident as anything ‘perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’. As a result, an 11-year-old schoolboy who called a taunting classmate a Paki and punched him in the back has now been charged with racially aggravated assault. And the recent little riot in Bradford, a messy affair involving whites, Afro-Caribbeans, Hindus and Muslims, has been retrospectively rebranded as a racist attack.

The artificial racialising of life in this way is just as unhelpful as old-fashioned racism. It can only exacerbate tensions old and new within British society, and distract from addressing real issues of inequality and injustice. In the name of liberal tolerance, it is also helping to create an intolerant and ban-happy political climate that is as bad as any right-wing regime.

The last thing we need in this stillborn election campaign is a code of conduct outlawing discussion of the race issue or any point of view. The clash of opinions is the spice of democratic life. How about putting a taste of open and honest debate about everything on the menu instead?

Read on:

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill

After Bradford: engineering divisions, by Josie Appleton

British racism – a new original sin, by Frank Furedi

Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: Race

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Topics Politics


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