Andrew Whitaker: Racism rows in UK politics

David Coburn's remarks belong to a nasty tradition caricatured in by Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
David Coburn's remarks belong to a nasty tradition caricatured in by Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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UKIP MEP’s offensive remarks reek of comments by other politicians that stoked race rows, writes Andrew Whitaker.

The deeply objectionable remarks reportedly made by Ukip’s Scottish Euro MP David Coburn when he appeared to compare SNP international development minister Humza Yousaf to the convicted terrorist Abu Hamza represent what is a very rare incidence of a race row in Scottish politics.

Comments reminiscent of the sort made by grubby landlord Rigsby in TV’s Rising Damp

It’s very difficult to think of too many comparable incidents of politicians north of the Border being embroiled in such a row, which probably explains the utter shock of most people to Mr Coburn’s breathtaking comments.

True, the Eurosceptic party has form on this and the mealy mouthed attempts by Nigel Farage to move against those of his supporters caught recently making racist comments in TV documentaries mean very little when the Ukip leader calls for the scrapping of racial equality laws and suggests children of new immigrants should not be accepted into state schools for their first five years in the UK.

But Mr Coburn, despite being an affable, personable and media friendly figure, made the sort of grossly offensive remarks that have barely been uttered by a politician in the past two decades or so.

In fact the comments from Ukip’s sole Scottish parliamentarian were reminiscent of the sort made in 1970s sitcoms by characters such as the grubby landlord Rigsby in TV’s Rising Damp, as played so memorably by the late Leonard Rossiter.

So racist outbursts – though not entirely unheard of – are rare from any politician, save those from the vile neo-fascist BNP, which until recently had two MEPs of its own in England.

In 1990, former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest Cabinet allies in the 1980s, notoriously suggested that UK citizens with roots in the Caribbean or Asia were somehow being disloyal to Britain by cheering on the West Indies, Pakistan or India in test match cricket clashes with England.

“A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?” asked Tebbit, then still a Tory MP and later to be handed a seat in the House of Lords by John Major’s government.

Tebbit’s remarks probably sit in the same league as those from Mr Coburn in terms of the offence caused and the political mayhem unleashed, revealing a perception some may have of what their respective parties really think about ethnic minorities, but scarcely say in public.

There are of course much more extreme examples of racism rows in politics and probably the most notorious such incident was the anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered by former Tory minister Enoch Powell in 1968.

Powell talked about how that in “20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”, and prophesied “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”, in a language that is about as inflammatory as it’s possible to get.

There has of course been an oft-repeated mantra from reactionaries, that “Enoch was right” and that the Tory politician was not a racist but was simply warning of the tensions associated with immigration, failing to mention though the huge role new arrivals from the Caribbean and Asian counties made to the rebuilding of post-war Britain in key areas such as the NHS.

Regardless of whatever qualities Powell, undoubtedly a man of staggering intellect and oratory, may have had, the net consequence of his intervention was one that saw the stirring-up of racist feeling at a time when some property landlords as well as pub owners openly placed “no coloureds” signs on their premises.

It was somewhat poignant that the row over Mr Coburn’s remarks emerged during a weekend in which Channel 4 aired an utterly compelling documentary highlighting another ugly racist episode from British political history – Britain’s Racist Election.

At the 1964 general election, in what had been the safe Labour constituency of Smethwick in the West Midlands, Peter Griffiths took the seat for the Tories, with a campaign that included literature containing the sickening slogan – “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour”. Harold Wilson, who emerged as Labour prime minister in that year’s election, stated that Griffiths would be treated as a “parliamentary leper”, by Labour, the Tory and Liberals MPs alike.

Strikingly, though the now deceased Griffiths would sit as a Tory MP, albeit for a different constituency, throughout the 1980s and remained the party’s representative at Westminster, voting on the laws of the land, right up until he was to become one of the many Tory casualties of the Labour landslide in 1997.

It’s hard to picture a figure like Griffiths being tolerated by his party today, but the use of inflammatory language on the immigration issue is not something confined to what Leon Trotsky would have described as “the dustheap of history”.

Aside from Mr Coburn’s insult directed at Mr Yousaf, the Conservative UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon last year claimed British towns were being “swamped” by immigrants and their residents were “under siege”.

Intentional or not, to equate people hailing from other nations with a swamp, is not exactly conducive to good race relations, and is arguably irresponsible when some immigrant communities may be somewhat isolated in certain areas.

There’s also what appears to be an official anti-racism position from some politicians of speaking out formally against actual racist abuse and racist jokes, but one which is all too prepared to have vulnerable immigrants, sometimes children, who may have fled persecution in their home country, locked-up in draconian detention centres, that may be little better than Her Majesty’s prisons.

As for Mr Coburn, with the row over his remarks showing no signs of abating, he may feel it appropriate to heed former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee’s advice to a troublesome party critic: “A period of silence on your part would be most welcome.”

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