Has political correctness gone mad - or has Michael Howard lost the plot?

We hardly hear words like 'nigger' now for one reason: generations of politically correct people fought against them
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard is playing a dangerous game. This week's Conservative party political broadcast was a naked rant against "political correctness". An array of white people - and one token Asian - were shown talking about their fear of crime. Michael Howard then explained - with a pained expression - that the reason for this terror is the "handcuffing" of our police by the forces of political correctness.

Starting next year, extra measures will be put in place by the Labour government to stop the police harassing innocent black people. The reasons are stark and simple. A young black man is still six times more likely to be randomly stopped by the police than a young white guy. Black drivers of smart cars complain they are constantly pulled over for the unofficial offence of "Driving While Black". This police harassment - quite apart from being wrong and racist in itself - actually increases crime, because it makes the black community more reluctant to co-operate with police investigations.

Howard knows this. He knows the new measures - which require the police to log each person they stop and take a quick note of it - were strongly recommended by the public inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's murder as "necessary to tackle institutional racism in the police force". He has decided to play politics with it anyway - and in the most inflammatory way.

The Tory leader has chosen publicly to charge - in a broadcast entirely free of Afro-Carribean victims of crime - that "political correctness gone mad" is feeding lawlessness. It doesn't take an expert to join the dots between his statements: if you stop harassing black men, crime will grow.

Howard likes the charge of "political correctness" so much he has decided to use it as a spear in the general election campaign. This summer, he laid out his approach in a remarkable speech. He said PC was "driving people crazy" and "playing into the hands of extremists". Yet the only evidence for this "cancer" that Howard and his army of full-time researchers could come up with was a handful of trivial anecdotes. You know the drill: a council refusing to hang the St George's flag during a football match, a few prisoners allowed to claim a "right" to hard-core porn, and so on.

Why the lack of examples with real victims? Easy: because the stories always trotted out as evidence of the excesses of PC - the banning of "Baa-Baa Black Sheep" and so on - turn out to be urban myths. Far from being a "left-wing tyranny" and "a thought-crime", political correctness exists far more in the wild imaginations of the right than in everyday life. When PC does impinge on our daily lives - as in the Government's new police proposals - there is a very good reason for it.

But for all the intellectual emptiness of his speech, Howard got the headlines he wanted - "Tory boss savages PC". "Political correctness" has become a generic term used by the right to slap down the extension of equality to minority groups without seeming like monsters. Few people will openly admit they believe it's acceptable for the police to bully black men, or for gay people to be denied equal rights, or for grossly abusive terms to be used about the disabled or women. Instead, they simply sneer at everybody who actually wants to end these abuses.

How do these people imagine words like "nigger", "faggot" and "kike" faded from public discourse? We hardly ever hear them now for one reason: earlier generations of politically correct people fought against them. Minorities - supported by, yes, decent left-wingers - made it clear that they were unacceptable.

Michael Howard, of course, implies he would always have been on the side of decency in the past; it's just now that things are "over-stepping the mark" that he has turned against all progressive reforms. He boasts today, "I have supported all sensible measures to combat race, disability and sex discrimination. I support civil partnerships [for gay couples]."

There's only one problem with this: it's not true. For him, every decent step has been a step too far. Howard personally piloted Section 28 - the most nakedly homophobic piece of legislation introduced in the past 50 years - through the House of Commons. He chided all the Labour MPs who warned that it would lead to homophobic bullying and teenage suicides as - you guessed it - "politically correct".

It gets worse. He refused - flatly, bitterly refused - to launch a public inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence when he was Home Secretary. If his stubborn policy of hear-no-racism, see-no-racism had prevailed, we still wouldn't know about the endemic racism in our police force, and there would have been even more poorly-investigated black deaths and more racist murderers walking free. (So much for him being "tough on crime".)

"Censorship! Censorship!" the right cry when these facts are pointed out. "Why are you trying to silence people? Why can't people be free to use the words they are comfortable with?"

This sounds appealing at first. I believe free speech is the most important right in a democracy, and if anybody wanted to enforce PC codes legally, I'd be totally against it. But in ordinary social discourse, there always have to be limits. Nobody except the BNP wants to bring terms like "Paki" back into our schools and newspapers. So, outside the far right, we are all merely haggling about where the boundaries of offensive speech should lie: a female "chairman" here, a "crippled" there. These are plodding adjustments to our speech, and they are always slowly happening. Who now, for example, remembers terms like "Hottentots" and "piccaninnies"?

But that doesn't make for a rabble-enraging speech; it doesn't allow white wealthy Tories to believe they too are victims of persecution by a silent, unseen élite. So Howard ignores it.

If you want to understand the nature of this anti-political correctness scam - and what it panders to - take a look at the people who are routinely praised for being "gloriously politically incorrect". In a quick search of press cuttings, I found two people who repeatedly receive this accolade: the late Denis Thatcher and the Spectator columnist Taki.

Ah yes, Denis, that old cove. According to his daughter Carol, he would refer to black people as "coons", and vigorously lobbied for the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa. How glorious. How incorrect. And then there's Taki, who thinks he is terribly brave when he writes that "Britain is being mugged by black hoodlums" and praises the French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen as "a hero".

Of course Michael Howard does not agree with these ugly positions. But he is knowingly using language that makes some of the ugliest people in Britain look brave for "standing up to the PC thought police". And he is desperately trying to stigmatise anybody who believes black people should be free to walk the streets of this country without the police hassling them.

People who know him well assure me Michael Howard is not personally a bigot. Fine. Then he is something worse: a man who is choosing to tango with bigotry for electoral gain.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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