Tim Lott: So what did tolerance ever do for us?

Tories are cool about coke. Roman orgies on TV? Even the Mail isn't fussed. We've calmed down, chilled out, grown up. Yet vicious prejudice will never die

It all adds up to a very contradictory picture of tolerance in Britain today. Are we becoming more or less permissive - of sexual otherness, of drug use, of the depiction of sex and violence?

Further confusion reigns when one looks at the picture for hate crimes about race, with the most recent figures showing racist attacks in London decreasing slightly, while anti-Semitic desecrations, assaults and property crime have doubled since the turn of the millennium to more than 500 last year.

To get a handle on the conundrum of toleration, we have to ask ourselves who is doing the tolerating - government, society, or media - and what is it exactly that they are meant to be tolerating?

One thing is perfectly clear. In terms of legislation at least, there is no doubt that this country has become more "liberal" under the Labour administration. The abolition of Section 28, the establishment of gay civil partnerships and the equalising of the age of consent have all given the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) far greater legitimacy in the eyes of the state. All forms of race-hate crime have been prioritised, particularly since the Stephen Lawrence débâcle, and the Government intends to make even intolerance of another's religion a crime in forthcoming legislation.

As for drug use, again, the recent downgrading of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug has sent a message that drugs are not necessarily the undiluted social evil they were portrayed as being in the not far-off days of "reefer madness" scares - and the fact that even the majority of Tory grassroots supporters are prepared to forgive a potential leader indulgence in any class A drug (which, don't forget, includes crack cocaine and heroin) means that social panic over illicit drugs has shrunk significantly over the last generation.

When it comes to sex, again, the so-called bossy, priggish Labour Party has been remarkably laissez-faire, with legislative tolerance of the admittance of pornography into mainstream cinema. The licensing of films such as Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs marks a new low-water mark for traditional British prudery.

So far, so promising. The state, all appearances to the contrary, has brought us to an unquestionably more tolerant place in our legislative framework. It is when it comes to examining that much larger and more amorphous beast, society - or "us" if you prefer - that reaching a conclusion becomes more knotty.

Certainly it's the case that in terms of what we watch on television, we have come a long way from the sniggers behind the hand at, say, Larry Grayson, to the in-your-face non-PC depiction of the only gay in the village in Little Britain. This seems to indicate that we are now so secure with issues of gay identity that we can lampoon and ridicule a caricatured gay man without worrying that it will be seen as homophobic, so antique is that prejudice perceived to be.

It is similar to what happened with Ali G and his "Is it 'cos I's black?" catchphrase, a caricature that could never have been seen in the 1980s because issues of race were just too sensitive.

The acceptance of the mockery of certain strata of black Britain and gay Britain by Sacha Baron Cohen and Matt Lucas indicates the assumption of new levels of assimilation.

And yet what are we to make of a 10 per cent rise in homophobic attacks in the capital from 2002-2003? Taken in combination with the murder of Dobrowski, and of David Morley in October 2004, and a subculture of homophobia evidenced in the rise of both fundamentalist Islam and Jamaican artists like Beenie Man, it seems that the hatred and marginalisation of the LGBT community is very much not a thing of the past.

But then, it never will be. Prejudice and hatred are not some virus like polio that can be eradicated by social and legislative medicine from the face of the earth. There is an ever-replenished sump of resentment and violence that is always with us.

You don't have to go to statistics for this. Anyone who looks in their own heart honestly enough knows it to be true. Prejudice is one of the principle constituents of the human personality - we need somewhere to put our hate.

The question is not whether we suffer prejudice, but whether we are prepared to put our prejudices to one side while we let other people live the lives that they choose. And that decision - the decision to tolerate - tends to be very much dependent on the wider social picture.

I am sure that both as a state, and as a society, even allowing for the continuing presence of homophobia and racism, we are demonstrably more tolerant than we were even a decade ago. And compared with other European countries, we do pretty well - there is, for instance, no equivalent to prejudice on the scale of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in this country. Figures about European homophobia are hard to come by, but it's hard to believe that homosexuality is less acceptable here than in, say, the macho cultures of Italy, Spain or much of Eastern Europe.

But the fact that we are actually still a progressively more and more liberal society on the whole is very far from being a reason for complacency. The need for scapegoating is as old as society itself, and when things get rough economically and politically - and we've been living through something of a golden period on both those fronts for nearly a decade now - it's then that intolerance, much of it currently latent or unconscious, will inevitably swell up like tissue around a bruise.

As it is, prejudice tends to peak around the poorest and most disadvantaged in society for exactly that reason. We can try and inoculate ourselves against it through high employment and positive cultural messages. But it will always return; there will always be a penalty to pay for being outside the mainstream, whether you are a different colour, a different religion, a different sexual orientation or, if you are fat, ugly or thin, simply the wrong shape.

Prejudice and intolerance may fade - although never entirely - but hate goes on for ever. Lately one can feel it shifting its focus - from "blacks" to "Muslims" and from "foreigners" to "asylum seekers" for instance. A healthy economy and a political and cultural arena that is open and well- informed can keep it at a level that, if not tolerable, is at least no worse than (and in some cases considerably better than) other countries and other periods in history.

The question for Britain now is no longer are we tolerant enough - our record, although inevitably imperfect, shows we have been moving in the right direction for a long time. The question now is how far should tolerance go - that is to say, should we tolerate the intolerance of others?

Should we tolerate as part of their culture the homophobia of a significant number of young Jamaican men and the radical imams? Should we tolerate anti-Semitism because it is given a principled façade by Israeli policy in Palestine? Should we tolerate female circumcision, or the practising of witchcraft, or the segregation of one part of a community from another in schools on religious grounds?

In my view the answer to all these questions is "no". Tolerance is no longer simply the cure-all for social unrest in this country (although it is a solution, of course). Disturbingly, for liberals and leftists alike, it is also rapidly becoming part of the problem.

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