There has been much debate in recent years about what it means for a party to be “institutionally racist.” In Britain today there is a model example, though you might not recognize it from the coverage of the mainstream press.
From David Cameron to Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party’s political practice has been permeated with racism throughout its decade of government.
There is no need to dredge up Facebook comments from unknown members of the public who happen to support the Tories. The party’s shameful record comes from the top down, and can be tracked along three separate lines: the policies the Conservatives have enacted in government; the election campaigns they have run; and the bigoted views expressed by leading Tory politicians, including the current prime minister.
The electoral decline of the British National Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in recent years sadly does not stem from the eclipse of racist ideas. On the contrary, those ideas have entered the political mainstream, thanks to the open sewer that is the modern Conservative Party.
In judging the Conservatives, the starting point must of course be their record in government over the past decade. What parties do is ultimately more important than what they say or claim to believe.
The centerpiece of Tory policy has been the “hostile environment” inaugurated by David Cameron and Theresa May in 2013. Cameron and May claimed that the only targets of this hostility would be immigrants without the legal right to reside in Britain. Their own party colleague Eric Pickles predicted that it would foment a wider climate of hostility toward “anyone foreign-looking.” The fact that the hostile environment took shape under the Tory–Lib Dem coalition government should remind us that Brexit didn’t create political racism: it simply amplified existing trends.
The Windrush scandal was the predictable result of Theresa May’s xenophobic regime at the Home Office. According to a report commissioned by the Home Office itself, its officials ignored “significant warnings” about what was likely to happen. As one of the victims observed, the treatment of Afro-Caribbean immigrants by the department was “deliberate, nasty, and racist.” The Home Office wrongly deported more than eighty people from the UK, yet May still refused to apologize for the hostile environment she had worked so hard to foster.
This was no more than what we could expect from a politician who presided over systematic abuse of prisoners at Yarl’s Wood detention camp, many of whom came to Britain having suffered rape and torture in their home countries.
No Tory politician suffered any meaningful consequences over Windrush. Amber Rudd took the immediate political fall for May, set off on a six-month holiday, and walked straight back into the Cabinet on her return.
The Tories have also shown us what it means to run an uncompromisingly racist election campaign. In 2016, their candidate Zac Goldsmith tried to discredit his opponent Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race with rancid innuendo about Khan’s supposed links with terrorism. The message put across — not so much a dog whistle as a full-throated howl — was that Muslim politicians had no legitimate place in British public life.
David Cameron was an eager participant in this smear campaign. He used parliamentary privilege to defame a British imam, Suliman Gani, as an ISIS supporter, in the hope of discrediting Khan. In a risible gambit, Cameron put this attempt at character assassination down to a “misunderstanding.” His cabinet colleague Michael Fallon unwisely repeated the claim outside the House of Commons and had to pay Gani substantial damages.
Since then, matters have gone from bad to worse. The politicians who have now captured the leadership of the Conservative Party considered David Cameron and even Theresa May to be soft, soggy liberals. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove exemplify the two faces of Tory racism, one boorish and pseudo-populist, the other refined and cod-intellectual.
Johnson’s record of bigoted comments — from his depiction of Barack Obama as an uppity Kenyan, to his incitement of racist abuse against Muslim women — is as abundant and well-documented as that of his sponsor Donald Trump. Gove, meanwhile, has used half-baked, ill-informed arguments to depict British Muslims as “the enemy within.” The former Conservative chairwoman, Sayeeda Warsi, suggested that Gove had “radicalized” David Cameron and warned that there were “major problems” with “the way he views the world and the way he views certain communities.”
Unite and Fight
There comes a point when it’s no longer enough to simply list off the many examples of Conservative racism. We also need to ask why politicians like Johnson, and the party as a whole, continue to get away with it.
The Tories have concentrated on socially acceptable forms of racism, directed against immigrants and Muslims in particular. The same prejudice can be found gleefully expressed by the greater part of Britain’s print media (and because the BBC allows the press to serve as arbiters of the news cycle, it filters through into broadcast media as well). Much of the Tory electoral base greets reporting of Johnson’s bigotry with indifference, because they share that bigotry, and the papers they read have fed them the lines to deflect any criticism (“Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion”; “it’s not racist to ask questions about immigration,” etc.).
In order to defeat the racism of Johnson and Gove, the Sun and the Mail, it’s necessary to unite all those who oppose it under a common banner. Liberal pundits who claim to see no difference on these questions between the Tories and Labour, or between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, are simply acting as Conservative mudguards (especially when they support a party, the Liberal Democrats, that propped up Cameron and May as they put the hostile environment in place).
There are two parties that can win the upcoming election. One is led by people who have done grave material harm to ethnic minorities in Britain and will continue to do so as long as they are in power. The other has a leadership team with a record of opposition to racism that puts any of its predecessors to shame. Anyone equivocating between them is simply paving the way for the Windrushes of the near future.