Derek Laud: My nickname is Golly, but I don't insist on it

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A racist uses stereotypes to abuse or deride. I do not believe Prince Harry – revealed last week as having referred to a fellow soldier as a "Paki" – is a racist. Nor would his father, who has long advocated more ethnic minorities in the armed forces, ever allow him to be. Far from suffering the taint of racism, Prince Charles is frequently criticised of an aching Cameronian political correctness.

When I was a boy, I'm ashamed to say, we regularly used the word "Paki" pejoratively if Mr Patel in the corner shop would not sell us fags. My own nickname is "Golly", partly because of my collection of gollies, collected from the old Robinson's jam labels. Only close friends call me this, and by invitation, although I have no Princess Margaret-type insistence on it. (She often demanded to be called Your Royal Highness.)

But that is not to say that racism isn't very real. In nearly three decades, one Conservative cabinet minister has called me an "Uncle Tom". Another Tory, now in the shadow Cabinet, asked me if I thought I was white, as if being "white" was a superior and unattainable aspiration. Both instances were racist in motivation, tone and context. And here is the point. Context is all. I don't particularly celebrate the fact of being called Golly. It isn't that important, although, of course, it could be. Did Prince Harry mean offence or was he just trying to be "one of the lads"? Did Prince Charles use his friend's nickname "Sooty" to demean him? Of course not.

Nonetheless, I should be grateful to those who seek to minimise offence. Once, in 1990, when involved with Mrs Thatcher's leadership campaign, I mentioned to the prime minister that I had been "working like a black". She glared at me. "Derek, we work like Trojans, and talk about 'flies in the ointment'," she explained.

Even longer ago, Johnny Speight put outrageously racist opinions into the mouth of Alf Garnett, in a deliberate ploy to fight racism by mockery. More recently, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is Jewish, similarly used Borat's anti-Semitism and Ali G's racism to reflect uncomfortable truths about the superficiality of modern politically correct attitudes.

Baron Cohen has explained: "Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice... they sometimes feel much more relaxed about letting their own outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out." He observes acutely that his anti-Semitic and racist creations are a "dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry". Quite so. The government of Kazakhstan was unamused and threatened Baron Cohen with legal action. Baron Cohen, as Borat, replied that he was nothing to do with Mr Cohen and fully supported the decision to sue "this Jew". The daughter of the Kazakh President, at least, got the message and called for an end to censorship.

In my view, satire can improve race relations. Getting worked up by trivial examples of "technical" racism like Prince Harry's detracts from the real point. It is too easy to remove visible symbols of racism without altering the submerged reality.

For example, David Cameron has attempted to change the Tories' image by selecting a handful of ethnic minority candidates with little or no history in the party, precious little political nous and distinguished only by their capacity to conform. These are the real "Uncle Toms", preferred by their pigmentation rather than their principles. What could be more of a racist joke than that?

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