Leading article: Liberal voices can still overcome the power of prejudice and intolerance

Progress for reactionaries and and forces of ignorance do not mean that Britain has become a small-minded country
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The Independent Online

This has been a week to cause liberals to despair about the state of modern Britain. For the past seven days reactionaries have been in full voice; small-minded movements have made a depressing amount of headway and everywhere prejudice seems to be winning the battle over tolerance.

Predictably, the issue of immigration has been at the forefront of this battleground. The Government's confirmation that substantially more Eastern Europeans than initially predicted have migrated to work in Britain since their nations' accession to the European Union two years ago has been seized upon by reactionaries as evidence that we are being swamped by foreigners. And now these same people have identified the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union as the next great threat to Britain. Such dishonest arguments seem to be influencing official policy. There are signs that the Government is planning to impose restrictions on the rights of their citizens to work in the UK.

If Britons are increasingly suspicious of foreigners, this week we have also showed ourselves just as wary of our compatriots. The idea that ethnic minority communities are an "enemy within" seems to be gaining ground as the tension surrounding the threat from terrorism grows. Yet instead of quashing this ludicrous idea, the Government seems to be encouraging it. In an echo of the inflammatory language of the populist press, the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, this week suggested that our tradition of toleration towards immigrant populations has been a mistake.

The Government also seems happy to see the British Muslim community cast as potential terrorists. There are rumours of an introduction of "passenger profiling" by the Department of Transport to ease security checks put in place at airports since the discovery of an alleged terrorist plot two weeks ago. We all know that this would mean the blanket targeting of anyone with an Asian or Islamic appearance. Indeed there are signs that this sort of ugly profiling is already happening. On a Monarch airlines flight from Malaga to Manchester a passenger "mutiny" intimidated cabin crew into pulling two British Asian men off the plane prior to take-off.

This reactionary resurgence is in danger of encouraging us to turn in on ourselves. For those of us who would like to see Britain become a more outward looking nation, this week's GCSE results were deeply worrying. Since the Government made foreign languages non-compulsory in secondary schools, the number of children learning them has dropped significantly.

Of course, in narrow terms it is possible to argue that this is no great disaster since English remains the only truly global language. But a growing lack of ability in foreign vernaculars leaves us impoverished in other ways. It confirms that culturally we are at risk of becoming an insular people, uninterested in the outside world.

Yet just as one swallow does not a summer make, one week of progress for reactionaries and the forces of ignorance does not mean that Britain has become a small-minded country. There remain heartening signs that we are, at heart, a liberal nation. The ease with which the majority of Britons continue to welcome newcomers and the fact that the ubiquitous propaganda of the reactionary right has made relatively little progress in recent years should give us hope.

The peddlers of fear and prejudice will always be with us. The test of a civilised nation is that it is self-confident enough to dismiss what they have to offer.