“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.”