Leading article: Meaning well is not enough

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR, speaking at a dinner for successful Asian business people last week, said that he was proud that Britain was a multicultural society which worked. If he had said he was proud that there were parts of Britain where race relations could be surprisingly good - in areas of London, for example - we would have agreed. But politicians do not like conditional statements. Consequently, we must go unconditional, too: the trouble with the Prime Minister's assessment is that it is wrong.

Perhaps Mr Blair's view was influenced by the fact that he had just been in France where overtly racist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen have had substantial electoral success. The continual failure of the British National Party to win votes may well have been in the Prime Minister's mind when he made his remarks, but the obituaries of Enoch Powell are a reminder that there is no reason to be smug. We have been fortunate that our mainstream politicians, and, significantly, Conservative Party leaders, have had a mostly honourable record in checking the threat. But that is not inevitable and eternal vigilance is still the rule. Mr Blair and his speech writers do not have to look too far to see why we should be on our guard.

They could start by examining the remarks made last week by one of Mr Blair's own ministers. Reflecting on his experience of dealing with the arrival of a group of Kenyan refugees dispatched to Britain by the Belgian authorities, Mike O'Brien, the immigration minister, told us that it was "rather like being the government plumber. I keep getting reports of floods and I have to go and sort them out". We are sure that Mr O'Brien is not a racist, but language is crucial in race relations, and Mr O'Brien's metaphor suggests an unfeeling approach to a human problem. His colleagues should tell him to watch his tongue.

Few things illuminate the dark side of race relations more clearly than the Stephen Lawrence affair. Each aspect of the case undermines the Prime Minister's confidence in the multiculturalism of our society: the stubborn refusal of the police to take seriously the evidence of the likely involvement of five young thugs; the anguish that the family has had to go through at the hands of the legal system and the mortifying fact that the memorial to their son's death has been defaced.

To be fair to him, the Prime Minister did tell his audience from the ethnic minorities the other night that "crime levels are far too high, especially in the inner-city areas where many Asian businesses are located and where many Asians live. And be in no doubt that we will not tolerate racial harassment". But it is a mistake to suggest that racism is confined to the inner cities. Possibly the deepest wells of racism are to be found in the countryside, where mistrust of the "big smoke" is laced with the kind of baseless fears that fuel racism. We need to watch the "Keep them in Birmingham" brigade.

Had Mr Blair hurried straight home after his dinner with the "Asian 200" group he might have caught the head of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt, telling Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, in answer to questions about the high numbers of black people dying in custody, that people of Afro-Caribbean background were more prone to suffer "positional asphyxia" than white people. "There is a physiological difference. That is the evidence emerging in other countries as well," he told Mr Paxman, whose grimace became even more pronounced. That is not a matter of language, but of prejudice. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, should sack Mr Tilt.

The Prime Minister's view of racial harmony also seems to ignore the 2,000 applications for assistance to the Commission for Racial Equality last year, and the millions of tiny incidents that those statistics represent. It is astonishing to us that, as we report on page one, the Home Office should have told the CRE that its budget is to be cut by a sum large enough to prevent it giving help to people bringing cases of discrimination before industrial tribunals. That decision should be reversed.

Racism is not just about the violence of the far right. It is not just about the electoral success of people like Le Pen. It is not just about casual stereotyping of blacks and Asians. Showing racist footballers the red card is a suitable symbolic gesture, but Mr Blair's speech last week suggests that the Government is still not sufficiently conscious nor critical of the fragile state of our race relations. Being well-meaning is not enough.