Racist expressions have been legitimised by their use by elected politicians and, worse, the government itself.
PG Wodehouse was perhaps the greatest of the 20th-century masters of language. He studied the precise balance of a phrase. He was alive to every nuance of a sentence. One of his most majestic creations was the spoof dictator Roderick Spode, “big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at 60 paces”. It is tempting to treat the Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom and Gregory Lauder-Frost of Traditional Britain as fleshly but similarly risible lieutenants in the prelapsarian dreams of Spode’s Black Shorts. That would misrepresent the significance of the debates of the past two weeks in which they’ve featured.
Mr Bloom’s bongo bongo land and Mr Lauder-Frost’s club of “perfectly normal conservatives“, which among other bizarre and sometimes offensive beliefs regards Doreen Lawrence as a disfigurement to the House of Lords, appear to be at least on the fringe of a wider debate about migration. They are not. They are exploiting the backlash from the charge that a fear of appearing racist has stifled proper consideration of a serious political issue. They are given airtime in the perceived interest of addressing these arguments openly and fearlessly: that is, without looking as if the Guardian’s special branch of political correctness police is waiting outside the door. As a result, they are legitimising racist language. Just like the notorious Home Office mobile “go home” billboards, straight from the 1970s. Words, as Wodehouse understood, matter.
Anyone who doubts that should listen to Herman Ousley on the World at One yesterday trying to explain to the Tory MP Peter Bone how the van fed into the building mood of xenophobia that meant he – a former chair of Commission for Racial Equality – these days carries his passport with him in case anyone questions his right to be here. It is also behind the careful draughting of the public sector equality duty, embodied in theEqualities Act 2010. This is the parliamentary draughtsman’s way of putting into law the basic human instinct for fairness. Public bodies should have due regard to the need to “eliminate discrimination, harassment, [and] victimisation … foster good relations, tackle prejudice and promote understanding”. Complying with this duty is for obvious reasons particularly important for the chief enforcer of migration policy, the Home Office. That is why there is now, along with 60 or so complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, a legal challenge from theRefugee and Migrant Forum of East London. Liberty is considering taking action over the Home Office’s simultaneous tweeting of images of arrests of what were described as illegal immigrants, on the grounds that the arrests were based on race and not on any reasonable suspicion.
There can be no doubt that for many communities these past two weeks have been profoundly damaging. Racist expressions have been legitimised by their use by elected politicians and, worse, the government itself. Social cohesion is repeatedly challenged by the knowing use of debasing and divisive language, a politics where voters are encouraged to imagine all benefits claimants are scroungers and every migrant as potentially illegal. For some Conservatives, and in some quarters of the media, this is what success looks like. Everybody is talking their language, there are ministers in touch with ordinary voters’ prejudices, elected politicians not afraid to use the racist language of the 19th hole. Only close students of the Westminster scene know that senior members of the government, mainly Lib Dems but some Tories too, have criticised the billboards, or that Labour has condemned the whole exercise as a stunt. The debate over migration has gone off the rails. Politicians are so scared of challenging voters’ prejudices they are stoking them instead. This should be Nick Clegg’s moment. Challenge the Home Office, challenge the culture, stop it, now.