If even the police can learn a lesson in fighting racism, so can the Tories

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The Independent Online

The Metropolitan Police have been furious with me for a long, long time. Mainly, I must confess, because for more than 15 years I have been ruthlessly critical of the way London officers treat black and Asian Britons.

The Metropolitan Police have been furious with me for a long, long time. Mainly, I must confess, because for more than 15 years I have been ruthlessly critical of the way London officers treat black and Asian Britons.

A few months ago, when I was on the Nicky Campbell show on BBC Radio Five Live, talking again about why I found it hard to trust the force, the phone lines were jammed by furious bobbies who accused me of never giving them any credit. I pointed out that evidence provided by researchers, journalists, community activists and writers in London continued to show the police to be either downright racist or unwilling to treat non-white Londoners with dignity and as equals.

Too many black and Irish men have died while in police custody, although this is not only a London problem. Last week we heard about the unlawful killing in Hull of ex-paratrooper Christopher Alder, who died choking on his own vomit and blood, handcuffed and helpless on the floor while five policemen ignored him and carried on talking and joking. He was the fifth black man to have been unlawfully killed by those who are paid to protect and defend citizens.

Many more such deaths remain unexplained; an alarming number of these victims are either black or Irish, and therefore rightly or wrongly, black, Asian and Irish people have grown to believe that the police are all against them. With so many of us concentrated in London, this tension and suspicion is most obvious in the capital.

The Macpherson report confirmed what many of us had felt - that there was a deeply embedded culture of racism in the Met. Depressingly, Sir Paul Condon, the erstwhile commissioner, was neither magnificently co-operative during the inquiry (he spent most of his time as a witness denying that there was any need to question the integrity of his officers), nor all that credible after it when he begrudgingly accepted that something needed to be done by his force to win back the trust of all the people who lived in London.

I said then that he would not be missed when he left with his title and substantial pension. He had presided over and defended a force which had become arrogant and self-serving. Racist police officers were protected through "confidentiality" and massive pay-offs to those who complained. Meanwhile, moaning minnies such as Glen Smythe, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, droned on about how Met officers were suffering nervous breakdowns because black and Asian people were no longer content to be treated like scum and were becoming more assertive. In the aftermath of the Macpherson report, we were subjected to ever more such cloying self-pity, which is why I never trusted the promises of change made by Sir John Stevens, who replaced Condon.

So it is with much and long-delayed relief that I write this today. For the first time in a very long time, I feel that the Met has provided some credible proof that those in charge are beginning to take race relations seriously.

After years of phoney and expensive feel-good race training courses and equally ineffectual policy documents (all intended to change nothing while appearing to be doing something), I can see progress which even my cynicism cannot reduce to rubbish.

The new handbook, Policing Diversity: The Metropolitan Police Service handbook on London's religions, cultures and communities by Constable Jonathan Wilson is sensitive, useful and practical. It is written with humility and genuinely felt concern. There is even a pre-emptive "unreserved" apology on the back cover to those who might feel that the information is inadequate or incorrect. Basic information about why different groups came over is given in a clear and concise way, and officers are advised on how to interact professionally with people without offending their beliefs or values. The handbook is not perfect. There are some gaps. Rastafarians do not appear for some mysterious reason, and the information provided could actually lead to further cultural stereotyping. The Met Black Police Association has not been involved.

Some cultural practices deserve not to be respected - forced marriages for instance - and I hope police officers do not feel handicapped by too much sensitivity to cultural difference. But my biggest concern is that knowing differences will do nothing to deal with the deaths and abuse of black people at the hands of policemen and women. That needs tough, uncompromising and punitive responses, which are nowhere on the horizon yet.

But nevertheless, this is an important document because it publicly acknowledges the face of modern, multifarious Britain and because it puts the onus on institutions to recognise this fact instead of carrying on as if this is still a white, homogeneous nation with a few cultural deviants who must assimilate or else expect to be ignored, excluded or punished.

Which brings me to the contemptible remarks about foreign doctors made by that populist Tory politician, Dr Liam Fox, a man I spent an uneasy time with in Brazil last year when we were both part of an official British Council delegation. He might think that I am being unfair when I say this, but I did feel at the time that he longed for those days when the whole world knew that English-speaking white Britons were forever and everywhere the best, and those less blessed understood their place. All these years of education and politics, and this learned chap seems not to have grasped the basic realities which are now self-evident even to coppers on the beat: that urban Britain reflects all the complexities of a multiracial, globalised world and that our public services should seek to find better ways of serving their clients and nurturing their staff.

The irony is that, unlike the police services, diversity has been at the heart of the NHS since the beginning. The NHS has always depended on the contributions of "foreigners", including doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks, transport staff and low-paid carers. I wonder what would happen if all these workers - with good and bad English - went on strike just for one day.

Well, PC Wilson, author of the new Met handbook, send a signed copy of your excellent and useful little volume to Liam Fox and Co. Tell them I suggested that they should read it and learn from you how to respect and value diverse Britons instead of scapegoating them to win the votes of resentful xenophobes. Say that if the Met can do it, surely anyone can.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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