Making a racial joke out of politics

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on Britain's all-party spot-the-racist-joke contest.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Heard the one about the racist Tory MP, the Islamophobic Labour backbencher, and the anti-Semitic member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet? No, it’s not funny.

Just when you thought that public debate could sink no lower, it degenerates into an all-party spot-the-racist-joke contest. Ann Winterton, the veteran Tory right winger, was loudly denounced from all sides last week for telling a gag at a private dinner about hungry sharks going to Morecambe Bay for ‘a Chinese’.

Now the Conservatives accuse Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, of anti-Semitism for calling Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, a ‘21st-century Fagin ‘ at the Scottish Labour conference; and the Labour MP who ‘leaked’ the Winterton gag has himself been attacked for publishing ‘tasteless’ jokes about Muslims on the internet.

A confident Labour Party might have laughed off such straw-clutching efforts from their opponents. It seems pretty obvious, for example, that while Mr McCartney may be an anonymous, incoherent incompetent in the Cabinet, he is no anti-Semite in the closet. Yet it was striking how defensively the Labour MPs responded, feeling obliged to issue formal statements about their non-racist taste in humour.

Racism is the one thing that nobody in public life can afford to be accused of dabbling with today, even in jest. Our multicultural society will officially tolerate anything except racial or cultural intolerance. A personal declaration against racism is seen as a necessary password to gain entrance to respectable political circles, in the way that swearing allegiance to the Crown might once have been.

New Labour has rewritten the law to emphasise that racism is a special evil, empowering the courts to hand down harsher sentences if a crime is considered to be ‘racially motivated’. Thus an individual can be punished, not only for what he has done, but also for what he is judged to have been thinking at the time. In their efforts to become a credible party of government, the Tories are at pains to demonstrate that they, too, are now on the side of the anti-racist angels. Mrs Winterton’s gaffe was not only an embarrassment for Michael Howard. It was also an opportunity for the Tory leader (fresh from triumphantly pulling faces at the British National Party), to stage a public show of kicking her out.

To judge by this furore, one might imagine that public racism is dangerously on the rise. Yet by any reasonable assessment Britain is a far less racist society than 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Those who try to compare today’s vague public insecurities over asylum and immigration with the focused, violent hatred directed against immigrant communities in the 1970s are either historically ignorant or amnesiac.

Our society has not become more racist. It has, however, become far more racialised. Racial discrimination may be relatively rare, but racial awareness is everywhere. Racial significance can now be attached to almost any issue, word or deed. An allegation of racism has become a powerful all-purpose shortcut to stigmatise whatever you find offensive.

So it is that jokes that might once have been accepted as bad-taste gags can now be denounced as intolerable racial insults. Mrs Winterton’s weak effort stands in a long tradition of jokes about death that circulate quickly in response to any tragedy. Except that today it is automatically interpreted as racist rather than rum.

The charge of racism need no longer bear any relation to real issues of racial equality. It is more likely to centre on what an individual is suspected of thinking or laughing about. Racism has been turned into a petty matter of personal morality, the standard by which we are supposed to judge whether somebody is on the side of Good or Evil, a sort of lowest common denominator for polite society.

In the early 1980s one of the more risible poster campaigns launched by Ken Livingstone’s GLC asked: ‘Are you a racist? You’d be a much nicer person if you weren’t.’ Now it seems as if the GLC-style cultural Left has conquered the world. It is the new thought police, rather than the old racist ones, who are running riot today.

I come from a different sort of left-wing tradition: one that opposes all discrimination, and also defends absolute freedom of speech; one that believes in both the right to be equal, and the right to be offensive. As I listen to the current round of name calling, does that make me a racist, an anti-racist or (I hope) neither? The state of political debate is becoming a far bigger and even worse joke than Ann Winterton.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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