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The Election Race Card | The Nation

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The Election Race Card

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"Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land. To Britain after a second term of Tony Blair." With these words, Conservative Party leader William Hague began a speech in March that has helped to reignite one of the ugliest political debates over race that Britain has seen since the 1970s. Hague insists that the speech had nothing to do with race or immigration, but many observers here see it as a subtle but calculated attempt to appeal to the worst instincts of the "worst sort of Tory."

About a week after Hague's speech, the leaders of all major parties (Hague included) signed a statement sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality promising that they would not play the race card during the general election. The statement was then circulated to all MPs. Three Tory backbenchers refused to sign it, citing freedom-of-speech concerns. Among them was John Townend, who claimed that immigration was threatening Britain's "Anglo-Saxon society." Hague condemned Townend's remarks but refused to sack him, arguing that to do so would be a hollow gesture only days before the dissolution of Parliament. Many senior Tories are furious with what they perceive as Hague's lack of leadership. The most vocal has been Lord Taylor of Warwick, the most prominent black Conservative, who is now threatening to leave the party.

The race-pledge row is only the latest episode in a year of worsening race relations, in which an increasingly xenophobic "Little England" note has been struck by parts of the country's tabloid press, exploited by the Conservatives and worsened by the Labour government's apparent unwillingness to take a strong stand against it. The ugliness began last spring when Hague, responding to claims by some tabloids that Britain was being besieged by a tide of "bogus asylum-seekers" and illegal immigrants, delivered a speech excoriating the Labour government for allowing Britain to become "the biggest soft touch in the world" and for not doing enough to stem the "flood" of opportunistic refugees. His remarks were not only insulting but also poorly timed, coming less than a year after the release of the MacPherson report on the murder of a black teenager. (That report concluded that Britain's police were "institutionally racist" and called for tough action against indirect racism in public institutions.) The Daily Mail, the flagship tabloid of "middle England" and self-styled enemy of political correctness, hailed Hague's speech, calling it, "in this insidious climate of racial McCarthyism, courageous."

To its credit, the Labour government criticized the use of the word "flood" as being inflammatory, but did little else. Determined not to give the Tories an issue to run on, New Labour avoided pointing out the obvious--that Britain has some of the toughest immigration policies in Europe; that the 78,000 people who sought asylum here in 2000 were overwhelmingly law-abiding individuals desperate to escape persecution; that the cost of providing basic food, clothing and shelter to them was minuscule (a controversial voucher scheme provides a meager £35 (about $50) a week for food and clothing, and housing is often substandard); and, most of all, that immigration is a healthy thing for a modern, open society.

Instead, the government seemed eager to be seen as "getting tough" on asylum fraud, and more concerned with not losing the treasured support of the middle-income suburbanites who had been so crucial to its electoral success in 1997. One of the most controversial provisions of the insidious Asylum and Immigration Act, introduced soon after Hague's speech, was a policy of enforced dispersal of asylum claimants. Home Secretary Jack Straw argued, perversely, that the measure would protect asylum-seekers from the resentment that would inevitably occur if they were allowed to concentrate in large numbers in particular areas. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Until the dispersal policy was introduced, 90 percent of asylum-seekers lived in heavily multicultural London, where they fit into established communities of people from their native countries. Now, immediately on arrival, they were being packed off to places like Dover, with its 99.4 percent white population. A Dover Express editorial moaned about having to receive "the backdraft of a nation's human sewage." Within a short time, the debate between Labour and Conservatives over the asylum issue had become so ugly that the third-party Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, called on the Commission for Racial Equality to carry out an investigation into whether the two main parties were inciting racism, and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stepped in to condemn the tone of the debate.

But the Conservatives had a surprise in store at their autumn conference. Unbeknownst to many, Hague had spent a few days with the Bush campaign, taking furious notes, and he returned all aflutter with ideas for how to "modernize" the Tory party. "Caring conservatism" and "working families" became buzzwords at the conference, as Hague told the party faithful that he wanted more ethnic minorities to be placed on short lists for parliamentary seats. The Tories' true colors soon showed through, however, after a black 10-year-old, Damilola Taylor, was apparently murdered walking home from school in late November. The police, keen to show the lessons they had learned from the MacPhersonreport, tripped over themselves to appear cooperative and respectful to the bereaved family. Only two weeks later, though, Hague drew a specious link between the report and the boy's death, encouraging police to rebel against "politically correct race awareness courses" and spend more time fighting crime.

Straw, meanwhile, still insists on peddling the myth that the Labour government is one of the most aggressively antiracist ever. True, a new Race Relations Act, which just went into effect, widens previous antidiscrimination legislation to cover police activities, and true, Straw's Tory shadow, Ann Widdecombe, who recently proposed that all asylum-seekers be locked up in "secure detention centers," gives pause to anyone thinking about changing his vote. But the reluctance of the Labour government to take a firm, principled stand has left a scar on the lives of black Britons that is likely to remain, and likely to hurt Labour at the polls. Hughes told me recently, "We now have significant support from the black and Asian communities, more than we've ever had before."

The real effects, of course, are felt most acutely in the lives of people far removed from the hurly-burly of Westminster politics. Britain, for all its problems, is probably one of the least racist countries in Europe, but racially motivated crimes have risen steeply: March saw a threefold increase in reports of racial harassment in London, while race crimes in Britain as a whole were up 107 percent in 2000. A Reader's Digest/MORI poll reports that 66 percent of the public now think that there are too many immigrants in Britain, up from 55 percent a year ago. Many of Labour's black supporters blame Labour more than the Tories for the backlash. Among them is Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, who argues that "by heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to the racists."

The limits of New Labour's commitment to racial equality became clearer than ever when it emerged that ten of its twelve new black and Asian candidates are standing for election in what the party admits are "hopelessly" safe Tory seats, including John Major's seat in Huntingdon. This from a Prime Minister who came to power in 1997 pledging to increase the number of black and Asian MPs "to reflect the makeup of Britain." If this is Blair's idea of Britain, then William Hague's "foreign land" will surely be a long time in coming.

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