Last Thursday, I opposed the motion ‘This House believes that Britain is still a racist country’ at the Cambridge Union Society. My speech (minus the rhetorical flourishes and debating points that would be out of context here) is below. I am pleased to say that our opposition team, which included David Aaronavitch and David Goodhart, won.
Thank you for inviting me to speak in this important debate and thank you for breaking your busy revision schedules to be here.
There are some shocking statistics about the UK. If you Google ‘racist attacks’, you will find some horrific stories. According to the Institute of Race Relations, there have been around a hundred killings with a racial element since the Stephen Lawrence murder of 1993 – that’s five a year.
But there are lots of positive facts about our country too. For example, young people from black and minority ethnic groups are actually slightly more likely to go to university than young white people, even if they’re less likely to study at some of our oldest institutions. The UK has record proportions of mixed marriages – on some measures, more than in any other European country. Whole areas of life are completely colour-blind, such as pop music. And sport: just look at Lewis Hamilton or the Premier League – sorry none of us is Stan Collymore, who (according to the Union website) was due to be here tonight.
So we on this side of the debate are not claiming that racism does not exist. Rather, we are claiming that Britain has made real progress in tackling prejudice – and that we should not be characterised as a racist country.
As a former History teacher who has taken pupils around a concentration camp, I know the horrors racism causes.
But my own academic research has focused on British fascism in the 1950s. It’s a topic worthy of study because it was fascists like Oswald Mosley who were the first people to try and embed racism at the heart of modern British politics. More than anything my research proved to me that racism in British politics is the province of the fruitcakes and the loonies. Let me tell you about those I studied.
- First, I looked at Arnold Leese, one of the leading British fascists, who taught his cat to give the fascist salute before eating.
- Then, I looked at RK Jeffrey, who funded the establishment of the National Front. He survived on walnuts, which he kept in a bathtub in case of a world shortage.
- And, finally, I looked at Colin Jordan, the British founder of the World Union of National Socialists, who in 1975 was arrested for shoplifting women’s underwear from Tesco’s in Leamington Spa.
Those who propose this motion are in effect claiming the views of such weirdos symbolise modern Britain. Well they don’t represent me and I hope they don’t represent you.
In 1968, Enoch Powell famously predicted there would be ‘rivers of blood’ flowing through Britain’s streets as a result of mass immigration. He found enormous support for what he said, and immediately became one of the most well-known and most popular politicians in the country. Thousands of workers flocked to Parliament to support him – and that doesn’t often happen to a Conservative. Powell even found support from the odd Afro-Caribbean migrant to the UK who claimed integration can not happen. But Enoch was wrong.
And everybody now knows he was wrong. No leading politician today would write a speech in which the argument is built around various quotes from racist letters. In a racist country, that would be lauded. Here, it would be career ending.
Yes, the English Defence League exist and, as I have written in the Cambridge News, they are the heirs of the National Front and the British National Party. But they represent nobody other than their tiny number of members. That’s why the recent EDL rally here in Cambridge was such a flop. Surely the proposition do not seriously believe the EDL are representative of Britain in this Olympic year as we get ready to host all the races of the world in London, a wonderfully multicultural city?
Sir Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, doesn’t think so. He has written in a national newspaper: ‘I believe that Britain is by far – and I mean by far – the best place to live in Europe if you are not white. That’s not just my view, it’s an empirical truth.’ And he goes on to show some of that evidence.
Do not think I am downplaying racism by saying it’s not as much a feature of modern Britain today as the proposition think it is. A few years ago, I visited Rwanda. I went to a technical school which had never actually opened as a school. Just before it was due to open thousands of Tutsis fled there during the genocide of 1994. 50,000 were killed. Only a handful of people survived, including the man who showed me round. Today, they leave the place as a monument to the dead and the rooms are piled high with the skeletons of those who died. I defy anyone who has seen that to be relaxed about racism. But it is because such examples of genocide are so horrific that we have to be careful about when and where we apply such terms.
When I stood in Cambridge in the 2010 general election, I was told incorrectly by two people that Conservatives flirt with racism in the European Parliament. The first was the Labour candidate who said it in this very chamber. On election day, our vote rose by 8% and theirs fell by 10%. The other person who came to Cambridge and accused Conservatives of flirting with racism was the columnist Johann Hari, who has since had to resign his job at the Independent for making things up.
They were wrong because I stood on a ticket which was proud of Cambridge’s diversity. This city is most successful where it is most diverse.
Take, Mill Road – the most cosmopolitan and most interesting street in Cambridge, with numerous independent shops, the mosque and a proper community spirit at events like the Winter Fair. I am delighted that Cambridge has recently elected Shapour Meftah, who runs a shop on Mill Road, to be a Conservative councillor.
Yesterday, I was reading a new book celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cambridge becoming the premier high-tech cluster in Europe. I was certain the book would have evidence of the multi-cultural nature of this great city because its success relies on attracting the brightest and best from all over the world. But nowhere in the book could I find a chapter dedicated to celebrating this diversity. It took a while for me to realise why. It’s because diversity is so embedded within Cambridge that it is taken completely for granted that success depends upon it.
A couple of weeks ago, on the same day that Cambridge was electing Councillor Meftah, London re-elected Boris, who celebrates the diversity of our capital, and rejected Ken, whose record is more questionable.
If, in those recent elections, the BNP had won seats, then perhaps I’d have to accept things are going in the wrong direction. But on the same day that Boris won, the BNP lost every single seat they were defending.
Do I think we have some real problems of prejudice? Yes
Do I think we live in a wholly racist country? No
And those who do are the doom mongers. We must not define ourselves by the fruitcakes and the weirdos. When you look in the mirror, do you see Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood or do you see a tolerant, welcoming and unprejudiced nation?