I suppose I have two public figures to thank for inspiring me to put pen to paper for this column. Incongruously, that duo is Trevor Phillips, the Chairman for the Commission for Racial Equality and the former football manager and TV pundit Ron Atkinson.
Thanks are due to both of these gentlemen for helping to raise the profile of race relations during recent weeks. I must confess I have always thought it slightly curious that, in an age when everyone is always told how important it is to express openly one’s views and feelings, race relations appears to be one of the last great taboos in political discussion. In the aftermath of any tragedy we are always assured by the authorities that counselling is available to anyone who might be affected by what has happened. Although, to be frank, I reckon things have gone far too far in this "touchy feely" direction, equally the conventional wisdom that "it is good to talk" seems strangely absent from any attempt to debate race relations in this country. Indeed speaking to representatives from the BBC and other broadcasting organisations I know that they have agonised as to whether to impose a news blackout on the antics of the British National Party in the run up to the European election this June on the basis that "it would be wrong to give the BNP the oxygen of publicity that it desires".
Yet I know from my own small experience before the last General Election just how easy it is for one’s views on these matters to be misrepresented. A couple of weeks before the election I was contacted by a Chinese "community" website based in Liverpool who asked me my views on education and language teaching. I expressed what I thought was an innocent enough view that it was important to ensure that anyone coming to this country from abroad who did not speak the English language should be given the opportunity to become proficient in the language at the earliest opportunity. I also put forward what I regarded then (and still do) as the relatively uncontroversial opinion that for any community to thrive it requires a set of commonly held values and attitudes and that in coming to any new country a migrant (or visitor, for that matter) should only do so on the basis that he or she is willing to abide by the laws, rules and conventions. I also accepted that this set of common values is constantly evolving with every new wave of immigration. However, as soon as my interview was published, I found myself being promptly accused of racism, although I suspect the accusers also had left wing political sympathies.
Although this instance did not serve to silence me on the issue of race, I was perhaps understandably reluctant to broadcast my views on this matter again, even though my mother herself was a refugee twice by the age of fifteen and was indeed ethnically cleansed from central Europe at the end of World War II as a very young girl.
It was interesting in the aftermath of the September 2001 atrocities how government ministers have taken the view that perhaps the idea of a "multicultural society" is not quite so attractive as they had previously thought. Even the Home Secretary (with rather less criticism than I had received) expressed the opinion that learning the English language should be a basic requirement for anyone hoping to settle in this country. It was felt that for perhaps too long a blind eye had been turned to groups in society who have little regard for the rule of law, religious tolerance, the desire to integrate and women’s rights.
Imagine my surprise, however, when Trevor Phillips at the Commission for Racial Equality at the beginning of April announced that he too opposed the notion of multi culturalism and stated his opinion that any community in order to survive requires integration, respect and understanding. My view is that the notion of a "multi cultural society" has always been a bit of a contradiction in terms. For a society and community to operate effectively requires a set of common values. Not in a stifling or strict way but in a manner that both tolerates and rejoices in diversity. For example, here in central London, we appreciate that we live in a multi ethnic and indeed a multi racial society, but that to live happily side by side we must integrate and this requires a set of commonly held cultural values. I believe this is precisely what Trevor Phillips had in mind and I believe he has shown great courage in standing up to his critics by saying that we need to instil in all young people of whatever skin colour and background a sense of "Britishness".
The furore over Ron Atkinson’s comments also interested me. He used a term to describe a black footballer, which I do not believe was intrinsically meant in an unkind way, but which virtually all young people and particularly those of us living in a multi-ethnic city like London would regard as totally unacceptable. I am sure that as I was growing up I heard people use disrespectful terms for coloured immigrants being in the playground, in general conversation and even, on occasion, on the TV and in the media. Yet, when Ron Atkinson uttered the word "nigger" many newspapers refused to publish the word in full. Instead they used asterisks in the same way as they would for the rudest of expletives.
The word is a deeply hurtful one with painful historic connotations. There are words which can carry similar spite towards people of other races. Most have religious, racial or sexual orientation connotations, often handed down from a different era. Today their public use is unacceptable and our society is the better for being purged of them. I believe that the reaction to Ron Atkinson’s behaviour will have served as a reminder, particularly amongst the older generation, that what is regarded as acceptable in this country is now very different.
I am pleased that there seems to be a new consensus towards these values. I hope that we will no longer see the anti-race card being played by politicians and self appointed community leaders keen to scupper any discussion of these matters. At its best ours is an open, tolerant self-respecting society which values the rule of law. Part of the deal is that we all sign up to seeing the common values to which I have referred evolve over time. Two of the reasons that so many immigrants continue to want to come to this country are that it remains a safe haven alongside Britain’s reliance on the traditional values associated with the respect and freedom of the individual and the rule of law. Long may it be so.