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Windrush & Anti-Semitism: When Politicians Play With Fire, Minorities Get Burned
David Bennun , April 19th, 2018 11:53

As the headlines are dominated by the cruel treatment of the Windrush Generation and Labour's issues with Anti-Semitism, David Bennun argues that politicians of all stripes must be held responsible (photo Wikipedia Commons)

Immigration has been unpopular throughout this country's modern political history. Every government since the war has struggled with the knowledge it is both an economic necessity and a vote-loser. That "Spirit of 45" electorate of rose-tinted memory which returned the governments that gave us the NHS and the welfare state? You may be confident that many among them never wanted "a n**r for a neighbour" (as a notorious leaflet issued by Tory supporters had it), any more than its 1960s counterparts.

You can blame the modern right-wing press for encouraging fear and distrust of immigrants and their descendants, and certainly it has done that. Its outrage over the Windrush scandal is rich, to put it mildly; it seems black people have been here in numbers long enough to be deemed safe and respectable, while certain brown people have not. But it did not create that fear and distrust. It stirred a pot that was already bubbling. And you can blame successive governments, of both stripes, for taking a hard rhetorical line on immigration while pursuing policies which countered that line, and making almost no provision for local pressures brought about by those policies. And again, this can only have made things worse. But at least the policies did counter it. Until recently.

Today, former civil service boss Bob Kerslake has said that some ministers saw Theresa May's policies when she was Home Secretary as creating an atmosphere around immigration that was "almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany". When the New Statesman's Stephen Bush writes that the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation is not a bug in May's policy but a feature of it, I have no doubt he's right. As Home Secretary, May pandered to the Right beyond her party on an issue that obsesses it (as did David Cameron as Prime Minister, when he tried to spike UKIP's guns with the promise of a referendum he thought he would never have to call). This is what happens when a mainstream party reaches out to such extremes: it ends up effectively including them, acting on their behalf.

The hubbub over a mispromoted but sober and careful radio programme about Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech reminds us that 50 years ago, the Leader of the Opposition did not hesitate, as a matter of principle, to act decisively upon obvious race-baiting in his party. Ted Heath sacked Powell from his shadow cabinet immediately; he left the general public, and in particular that part of it menaced by Powell’s words, in no doubt where he stood. Hundreds of London dockers struck and marched in protest to support Powell, angrily denying they were "racialists" all the while. Heath stood firm.

This is what liberalism is. This is what it means. It is not some wishy-washy centre ground that true political heroes will spurn in favour of boldness. It means understanding, regardless of your political orientation, the importance of liberal ideas in what is rightly known as a liberal democracy.

This week, the newspapers’ front pages have been divided between the Windrush scandal, and a parliamentary debate on anti-Semitism in which the present Leader of the Opposition was castigated from both sides of the house for failing to do what Heath did half a century ago: to act decisively upon obvious race-baiting in his party (a party from which Ken "Hitler was a Zionist" Livingstone and Jackie "Jews were behind the slave trade" Walker have not been expelled), and thus to leave the general public, and in particular that part of it menaced by this race-baiting, in no doubt he stands against it. As it is, and despite the indignant protestations of both himself and his supporters, his actions give no reason at all to believe he does.

Those are the two biggest stories in politics, eclipsing even action on Syria: each of our two mainstream parties in the dock for pandering to the extremes, for bringing them from the fringes to the forefront. Embracing illiberal ideas in mainstream politics has serious consequences. Parties which pander to racist fears will, when they attain power, cause harm to the targets of these fears. The Windrush persecutions show it. People of colour have more reason to fear the Tories now than they ever have. Many Jews fear Labour in the same way. The three million EU citizens currently living in the UK must be deeply alarmed, no matter who is in power.

It is inescapable to note that many who are rightly outraged about the first issue or third issues have been contemptuously dismissive of the second; some even compound the original slanders against Jews by calling it a plot to undermine their Absolute Boy – that being, of course, as classic an example of anti-Semitic thinking as one can conjure; the sinister, conspiring Jews, banding together against all that is good and just. It should be added here that among those who have stood up to defend Jews, there are some who deploy it as a pretext to promote anti-Muslim rhetoric of the type that uses Islam as a proxy for brown people; much in the way Left anti-Semites and their apologists use Israel as a proxy for Jews, and reactionaries in general have long used their purported desire for a "debate about immigration" to express rancour against the Foreigns.

All these devices serve as fig-leaves for the self-professed virtue of those who invoke them: a kind of "Actually it’s about ethics in gaming journalism" for unself-aware bigots. This is very much part of the problem; once you pick and choose which forms of racism you will oppose, or set different standards for how you oppose them, you are no longer opposed to racism at all. The piety-cum-disclaimer about "...and all forms of racism" becomes a get-out clause, substituting mealy-mouthed words for recognition of and action on specific episodes. A principle for which one will not risk disapproval from one’s own Community of the Good is no principle at all.

This is where we are now: between the devil and the deep blue sea. This, apparently, is who we are now. Since the war, the leaderships of mainstream parties have - for the most part, and with some glaring exceptions (Section 28, for example) - taken it upon themselves to be more liberal in action than the general public is at that moment in sentiment. That is a hugely important part of their job; one that, in a liberal democracy, is central to the very idea of leadership. Leading means just that: being ahead of the public. When they relinquish that responsibility... well, you can see the results. God only knows what will follow.

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