Leading British Institutions Gripped By Racism Rows

Britain’s institutions stand accused of fostering a climate of casual racism after a series of race rows yesterday provoked clashes between MPs, academics and leaders of the black and Asian communities.

In the most high-profile case, David Cameron, the Tory party leader, was forced to sack his frontbench spokesman on homeland security, Patrick Mercer, because he suggested that being called a “black bastard” was part and parcel of life in the Army for ethnic minority soldiers.

Shortly afterwards the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced that it was to investigate the brutal assault of a black teenager by a white police officer outside a Sheffield nightclub.

In Manchester, a magistrate who was overheard talking to a colleague about “bloody foreigners” in private after a hearing was reprimanded by the Judicial Appointments Commission but allowed to return to work.

In Oxford, a university professor was forced to defend himself after students protested at his outspoken comments on immigration.

Last night MPs and leaders of Britain’s ethnic minority communities said the incidents, although all unconnected, painted a picture of resurgent racism at the heart of British society which needed to be tackled.

Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: “Racism is sneaking back in to mainstream respectability and this is very dangerous. It is not isolated incidents … it’s been happening for some time. In some aspects, it’s coming through on the back of Islamophobia and in other ways, it is mainstream, old-fashioned racism.”

Michelynn Lafleche, director of the Runnymede Trust, a think-tank on ethnicity and cultural diversity, said that while significant steps had been made in the fight against racism much of the legislation had failed to make a mark on British life. She added: “The fight against terrorism … gives people the excuse to step back 40 years in time and say it is OK to say these things when it is not only morally reprehensible but often illegal. We may have the legislation in place, but it is of great concern because too often we are not seeing that permeate into our everyday lives.”

Many institutions have tried to implement the recommendations of Sir William Macpherson of Cluny who published a landmark report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. But almost 14 years after the black teenager’s murder and eight years after Sir William’s report Britain is still trying to combat racism in society.

Critics seized on Mr Mercer’s comments as evidence that the Tory party is one of many institutions still plagued by such problems.

The Labour MP Shahid Malik said they showed the Tories remained the “nasty party” and had not changed under Mr Cameron’s leadership. “It doesn’t matter what they tell you, they still are the nasty, racist, sexist, homophobic party they have been for many, many, many years,” he said. “It is going to take a long time to weed out the inherent racism that actually exists in that particular party.”

However, the Tories are not the only political party facing accusations of fuelling racial tensions. Earlier this week the Home Secretary John Reid faced criticism after promising to make life difficult for illegal immigrants in Britain. He came under fire after pledging a crackdown on foreigners who “steal our benefits”.

Darcus Howe, the prominent journalist and broadcaster, believes there is a new-found confidence among the right when discussing racial issues in Britain. He described the latest race rows as “very disturbing” saying there was no one to speak up for black and working-class people.

“This is not the same country I came to 50 years ago. I have great sympathy for the whites because everything has been swept away by Mrs Thatcher and now Tony Blair but there is nothing to take its place.”

Some commentators believe the 9/11 attacks led to a dramatic change in race relations in Britain. Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, said: “Respectable figures in British society have begun to speak in a way they never would have spoken in before 11 September. I believe the rise in much of the right-wing discourse we hear from these prominent people, was triggered by the events of 11 September, and fuelled by fear and ignorance. It is becoming much more normal to use racist, Islamophobic discourse.”

Lee Jasper, Secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, said Mr Mercer’s comments followed David Cameron’s own reference to multiculturalism as a “barrier to cohesion” which he said was designed to make headlines. “It is this approach that results in a full-scale Tory attack on the principle of black self-organisation,” said Mr Jasper.

He added: “While we welcome the resignation of Patrick Mercer, we remain deeply sceptical about the Tory party’s commitment to root out racism within the party itself.”