Tories in disarray

Playing the race card

The parlous state of the Tory Party is self-evident. Beset by permanent internecine strife over Europe. Lagging miserably behind in the polls. Successive by-election trouncings. Facing general election wipe-out. Senior party figures - one in particular who some insiders call 'Doris Karloff' - are national figures of fun. What is to be done?

Take a desperate gamble. Resort to the nuclear option and hope you crawl triumphant - well, at least alive and kicking - out of the wreckage. So at the end of last week William Hague drew a deep breath and in a speech to the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies aimed a few punches at the MacPherson report, a near sacred document which marked a qualitative development in the ideology of bourgeois anti-racism.

Choosing his words well, and claiming to speak for the "mainstream majority", Hague declared: "The tragedy of the Lawrence family and the further urgent work that needs to be done building up trust between our ethnic communities and the police do not excuse the way the MacPherson report has been used to brand every branch of the force as racist, has contributed directly to a collapse of police morale and recruitment and has led to crisis on our streets". Naturally he promised to overturn the tide of "liberal political correctness", which he said had "brought the criminal justice system to its knees".

A subsequent row about crime statistics saw Tory officials hurriedly blaming a "phrasing error" for Hague's assertion that the number of arrests by the Metropolitan police, following stops and searches, had fallen from 18,752 a month to 11,858 after the publication of the MacPherson report. Apparently, the correct figures show that arrests actually fell from 2,609 a month to 1,898.

Seeing how Hague's speech was greeted with a brouhaha about how he was endeavouring to 'play the race card', many assumed Hague would beat a hasty - albeit tactical - retreat from such a line of politicking, with all its obvious pitfalls. But no such thing. Launching a second wave of attack on "liberal political correctness", Hague embarked at the weekend on a series of interviews, in which he proclaimed that the Blair government was to blame for the rising crime levels because of the - alleged - fall in police numbers. He even issued a blunt warning that another Labour general election victory would lead to "more tragic murders" in Britain's inner cities - i.e., to more Damilola Taylors.

The Tory leader crowned it all with an article for The Sunday Telegraph (December 17), emotively titled 'Where was Jack Straw when Damilola Taylor died?' Here he argued that the "post-MacPherson crisis" has "led to a collapse in police morale and recruitment, and a rise in street crime, that affects millions of people in this country" - before condemning "Labour and its liberal elite" for not "confront[ing] the truth that it is the members of the ethnic communities themselves who are suffering the most from the post-MacPherson collapse in police morale and the rise in street crime". Hague backed up his contention with the latest bulletin from the home office which shows that total police strength at the end of September this year was 1,241 less than it was at the end of March, and quoted a written parliamentary answer from Charles Clark, the Labour home office minister, who confirmed that 1,236 police officers resigned this year, compared to 774 in 1997.

The response to Hague's new offensive was predictable - but no less sanctimonious for that. He had broken ranks over the MacPherson report and was hence akin to a Judas. Steve Norris was dismayed. Jack Straw said Hague was "disgusting and disgraceful". Alistair Campbell commented: "Having lost on the economy, lost on the big arguments in Europe", Hague is now "just casting around to get himself noticed". Neville Lawrence - father of Stephen - thought that Hague "has been desperate to play the race card and has found a way to do it here". Bill Morris had a flashback to Enoch Powell's infamous 'rivers of blood' speech in 1968 - for the transport leader racists would interpret Hague's comments as "permission to attack young black people". As for Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, she thought that "Hague's speech is racist in every sentiment, linking crime with colour, blaming MacPherson and a few random stops and searches on black youths for street crime" (December 15).

Tom Butler, the bishop of Southwark, was very upset that Hague had reneged on a supposed 'gentlemen's agreement' he had made in September to a group of church leaders that the Tories would refrain from making political capital out of the MacPherson report and/or play the 'race card' - calling the Tory leader "foolish" to link falling police numbers to Damilola Taylor's death. The chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Gurbux Singh, took the opportunity to announce that he has been in private talks with the mainstream parties to persuade them to - once again - sign the "compact" they had all agreed to prior to the 1997 general election, which amounted to a publicly agreed understanding that no one would use "race" in an attempt to gain votes.

So what of the accusations that Hague and the Tory Party have cynically decided to go for gutter politics and play the 'race card'? There is a certain degree of truth to such a suspicion, in the sense that Hague knows exactly what social-political constituency he is appealing to in his latest salvos - i.e., the inhabitants of Daily Mail land, a not inconsiderable section of the electorate notable for being in thrall to all manner of stomach-churning 'Middle England' prejudices (some of which take on a racist agenda to varying degrees). Yes, of course, the police's stop and search tactic adversely targets young blacks - ask anybody who regularly drives through the 'ring of steel' cordon in central London, which was supposedly designed to foil diabolical acts of Irish republican terrorism (how many black/Asian members has the IRA, INLA, Real IRA, etc actually got?).

But what is worth stressing is that for all his ersatz populist rabble-rousing, Hague's argumentation and rhetoric is still couched in the language of official anti-racism and pro-multiculturalism. A far cry from Enoch Powell's fanatical devotion to 'Anglo-Saxon' values and the British empire - even from Margaret Thatcher's fears in 1979 that UK was on the verge of being "swamped" by immigrants. Whatever the huff and puff, on all sides of the 'race card' debate, the more William Hague excoriates "political correctness", the more clear it becomes that at the end of the day the modern-day Tory Party is itself part and parcel of the official anti-racist consensus. Those hankering for the racist Conservative Party of old - whether from the reactionary right or the economistic, business-as-usual left - are destined for disappointment.

No, the truly nauseating aspect of Hague's 'anti-MacPherson' drive is its naked political opportunism. When the MacPherson report was published, it was universally acclaimed by virtually all mainstream politicians and official society as a whole ... including the Tories. Not a pipsqueak of dissent was audible from the benches of Her Majesty's official opposition. Now the Tory Party has decided to be terribly 'principled' and speak its mind. Nothing whatsoever to do with the general election appearing on the horizon, of course.

More importantly, what the current spat over Hague and the 'politics of race' actually reveals is how permeated the UK state is - on all its levels - by the ideology of anti-racism. In other words, we are visibly confronted by institutional anti-racism. Sir William MacPherson's catch-all and multiple definitions of racism (such as the phenomenon of "unwitting" racism) has served to occlude this essential reality. But as the idea of 'institutional racism' became holy writ, more and more sections of the left have reduced their role to one of trying to out-MacPherson MacPherson and hence becoming a 'left' moralistic appendage to official society and its anti-racist/anti-fascist values. The fact that the bourgeoisie are more than happy to divide and exploit us using the language of anti-racism (just as it used racism in the past) seems to have escaped vast swathes of the left.

We have now reached the absurd situation where the 'institutional racist' organs of the UK bourgeois state are our only real salvation. Sir William MacPherson and his merry bunch of anti-racist men and women are there to salvage bourgeois society ... and we are meant to give them our backing. This was perfectly exemplified by the following joint letter which appeared in The Guardian from Kumar Murshid of the National Assembly Against Racism and Milena Buyum of the National Black Alliance.

It read: "Others since the murder of Stephen Lawrence have been on the receiving end of police racism. Real change in the culture of the police is the way forward if the confidence of the community is to be restored. The Lawrence report provides the basis for that change. If police morale has been undermined, it is because of the utter resistance to the message and recommendations of the report. A wholehearted decision by all ranks of the police to set about eliminating racism from police practice would create a dynamic momentum for change and renewal, which would be the exact opposite of demoralisation" (December 18).

Thus we see the actual aim of official anti-racism: i.e., boosting police morale. Worse still for those dedicated to building working class unity and strength, official and politically correct anti-racism - paradoxical though it may seem - can have the practical effect of dividing us along the lines of ethnicity and so-called race. A classic and fairly recent example of playing the official anti-racist 'race card' is to be found in the none too pleasant shape of Trevor Phillips - now chair of the Greater London Assembly - who notoriously castigated Livingstone for being a 'racist' because Ken offered him the job of deputy mayor (not good enough for our Trevor, naturally), yet, quick as a flash, accepted the same position when offered it by the New Labour-backed, bearded honky from Bloomsbury, Frank Dobson.

The 'Philips factor' can be detected in those who so furiously condemned William Hague for playing the 'race card'. Semi-unconsciously and albeit in his own bourgeois liberal way, Hugo Young of The Guardian heavily alluded to the divisive nature of official anti-racism: "Yet accusing [Hague] of playing [the race card] has now had more impact than the words he originally spoke. By calling him 'disgusting' and 'disgraceful', Jack Straw did as much to play the card as he did. It was a different suit, but had a worse effect. As well as giving voice to his sound anti-racist record, it was designed to have a political result: namely the portrayal of Hague as a crazed extremist who will stop at nothing to retrieve his desperate situation. The hair-trigger alertness of both prime minister and home secretary, and the hyperbole of their righteous language, was their own playing the race card. Their purpose was benign. But that, among other things, is what they were doing: making a wild, intemperate noise about race, thereby reminding ethnic and liberal minorities which side they should be on as the election comes closer" (The Guardian December 19).

The bourgeoisie have appropriated anti-racism and turned it against us. We must fight to make it ours again - which can only be done by developing our communist theory and communist programme.

Don Preston