Leading Article: A silly hat but a sophisticated message

Yesterday's pictures of John Major in a funny hat on the Hindu Kush are not going to win him a nomination for the milliners' Brit awards. His official talks in Delhi and Islamabad were hardly the stuff of high foreign policy. Yet there is something to be said for the modesty of Mr Major's demeanour on such trips abroad. This year, especially, the 50th anniversary of the end of the Raj, is a good one for a display of British prime ministerial humility in the sub-continent. But the Prime Minister was wearing his silly hat for a purpose, and a domestic political purpose at that. That hat was meant to say something reassuring about the relationship of the modern Tory party and Britain's south Asians.

The message can also be read in recent speeches and party political advertising. What it is intended to say, more or less, is that you (Asians) belong to us (Tories): Asian values are Tory values. Together we enthuse over economic aspiration based upon individual acquisitiveness, the desire to move on and up, but we don't forget respect for family and traditional sources of authority. Of course this is a gross caricature. There is no such thing as "Asian values". People in Southall of Sikh descent think and live very differently from Bradfordians of Bengali origin - and both tend to vote Labour anyway. The Tory appeal is aspirational, designed to appeal to younger, professional British Asians in the suburbs.

It will not win the election: Asian votes are unlikely to make much difference to the fates of Tory candidates in any but a small handful of seats. But there is something admirable about what the Tories are doing. They are being explicit about their view of the politics of race - saying, in effect, that identification by ethnicity may be less important than the conventional lines of political difference, which are material interest mixed up with related attitudes and values. In that way it seems rational for Conservatives, supporters of ownership and enterprise and liberal economics, to appeal to middle-class people who happen to be Asian.

Still, let's not get carried away. Today's Alf Garnett, if he votes at all, also votes Tory. Young Asian businessmen and women may be welcome as Tory voters but they are not yet being welcomed into the suburban golf clubs where the local Tory party chairman goes to play. Were the Reigate Conservative Association finally to ditch Sir George Gardiner it is hard to believe that an Asian would be invited to succeed him. Party leaders were able to make John Taylor into a peer but they failed to persuade the local party to choose him as the party's standard-bearer in Cheltenham. It does not take a long political memory to recall which well-known Tory prime minister made concerted efforts to wind up the Commission for Racial Equality - a body which, in spite of everything, continues to do effective work fighting discrimination.

Nevertheless, the Tories' pitch to the ethnic minorities is essentially right. It is an invitation to join a common front. What matters is not whether the Tory offer is sincere, nor even whether such values as acquisitiveness and family authority are compatible. It conveys a sense of political and social progress which must, in principle, be attractive to all those dissatisfied with their position, who want to move on and up. Labour, by contrast, seems less sure-footed. The excesses of the left in the Eighties have left the party vulnerable to the impression that Labour associates more easily with the idea of ethnic minorities as victims, casualties, people stuck outside the mainstream, thereby placing the party outside the aspirations for improvement which are as natural to black and Asian people as to any other.

The extravagances of "multiculturalism", which too often became a set of excuses for failure to progress, were never as widespread as Labour's enemies made out. Tony Blair's rhetoric is inclusive and achievement-oriented. Labour ought to be able to present itself to, for example, those many African-Caribbean parents dismayed by their children's educational performance.

The coming election will not place colour, race, or even policy for the ethnic minorities as dominant issues. Is that a depressing sign for race relations? Not at all. The only really depressing sign is that large numbers of African-Caribbeans (in particular) have not registered to vote at all. Whatever else is going on, that must represent a feeling among many that they have no stake in mainstream society, either because they have been penalised by educational underachievement, or by unjust exclusion from jobs. If the Tory appeal succeeds in convincing Asians and other ethnic minorities that they have a stake, or at least a right to bid for one, then that will be a step towards a more sophisticated understanding of politics and race in Britain.