Leading Article: Britain's four decades of progress and imperfection

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This day, 40 years ago, saw the introduction of the Race Relations Act, which made discrimination on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity illegal in Britain for the first time. The government of the day wanted to signal that the sort of day-to-day racism that had resulted in black and Asian people being barred from boarding houses, or excluded from jobs, would no longer be acceptable. Four decades on, we have largely stamped out such obvious injustices, but the debate about race in modern Britain is far from over.

Earlier this week, the new Tory leader David Cameron lamented the fact that nine out of 10 Conservative MPs at the moment are white men. We hope he is able to help rectify this situation. But Mr Cameron has - so far - outlined no plans to introduce a mechanism to overrule local selection committees. Sceptics will argue that nothing is about to change.

Indeed, it is not difficult to be pessimistic about the state of British race relations more generally at the moment. Ethnic minority Britons are under-represented in many areas of public life, not just Tory politics. A campaign to do something about the low number of black and Asian curators working in London's museums and galleries was launched yesterday.

It is not just in professional life where institutional racism still exists. Figures made public yesterday revealed that black people are three times more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals than the rest of the population. Last week also saw the jailing of two men for the horrific, racially motivated murder of the black student Anthony Walker.

Troubling, too, are relations with Britain's Islamic community. An increase in the use of stop-and-search measures by police since the September 11 terrorist attacks has caused justified resentment in young Muslims. And the Government's draconian plans for new terror laws, introduced in the wake of the July 7 attacks in London, threaten to exacerbate the situation.

But it would be wrong to paint a wholly bleak picture. The police were assiduous in bringing the Walker murderers to account. There are signs that they are beginning to learn the lessons of the Macpherson report. And we should remember that Britain is more ethnically integrated than many other nations. The 2001 census showed that the UK has the highest rate of ethnic intermarriage in Europe.

What success we have had in Britain is largely due to the promotion of "multiculturalism" since the 1970s by successive governments at a local and national level. This policy has always been a source of contention. The reactionary right opposed it from the start. And now even Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, appears to have fallen out of love with it. But it remains the best way forward. There are examples of over-zealousness, of course. Every year stories about local councils "banning Christmas" for fear of offending other faiths appear in the right-wing press. But such examples are the exception.

Thankfully, attitudes in Britain have changed greatly over the years, despite the reactionary tendencies of an ever-dwindling minority. And we should bear in mind that the real impetus for social change will not be government legislation - as invaluable as the 1965 Race Relations Act has been in protecting ethnic minorities - but rather the attitudes of new generations. Time and social contact are what will break down cultural barriers.

No one should be fooled into imagining that Britain is today a country entirely at ease with itself. This is not yet a colour-blind nation. But that is no longer the impossible goal it appeared four decades ago.