UK Politics


In 1956, Trinidadian calypso star “Lord Beginner” had a hit with “Mix Up Matrimony, in which he sang:

“It doesn’t take no glass to see how it come to pass, coloured Britons are rising fast”

Identity politics are characterised by spats over the terminology of ethnicity. Terms fall out of fashion, are repudiated, and are then spectacularly “reclaimed”. The fate of the word “coloured” is a case in point. In 1909, when a civil rights organisation named itself the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the term was unproblematic. By the 1970s, it wasn’t merely the use of that word as a term of legal art – and therefore a basis for formal discrimination – in apartheid South Africa which had rendered that word grossly offensive. Nowadays, most of us would be embarrassed to hear a person described as “coloured”. But it is fair to say that there is no clear consensus on which of the many possible descriptive alternatives is the most appropriate. Ligali – the “African British Equality Authority” – for example, recommends the term African, and deplores the use of both “coloured” and indeed the music industry invented euphemism, “urban”:

Don’t make us laugh. Eg. Tim Westwood is an offensive urban wannabe

At the Tory Party Conference last week, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips posed the following question:

“Is it really offensive to call someone ‘coloured’?”

The answer to that question, as Trevor Phillips made very clear in an article the next day in the Guardian, was “yes”:

Most black or Asian people who venture out of the comfort zone of urban Britain will at some point hear someone refer to people like us as “coloured”. Like most people of my generation, I regard this as a relic of a less enlightened age. Occasionally it masks an uncompromisingly racist viewpoint, but let me be clear: even when the intention isn’t malign, its use offends me personally and every black person I know.

Phillips asked the assembled Tories a series of other, parallel, questions including: “should we put off that important meeting because it’s Yom Kippur, even though only one of the people attending is Jewish?”, “should councils print all their important documents in several languages to encourage participation, or is this encouraging separatism?”, and “are there any circumstances in which we sacrifice freedom of expression to protect the minority from ridicule?”. The conclusion of his speech was as follows:

We need to find ways of reaching a national agreement on some of these issues. We need to update our highway code of conduct to meet the needs of our multi-ethnic society…But government cannot just decree those rules. We all need to debate and agree those rules. They have to work in our everyday lives.

In other words, Phillips was not advocating a particular answer to the questions he set the Tories. Rather, he was stressing the need to reach a public consensus on the practical business of living in a society which is not a monoculture, and the limits of the ability of the state to legislate that compact.

Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone’s director of policing and equalities responds angrily to Trevor Phillips’ speech in today’s Guardian:

It is the job of the chair of the CRE to provide leadership and develop clear strategies to reduce the impact of discrimination….Instead, his credibility is becoming strained in black communities….Any CRE chair who does not know if councils should print documents in more than one language, or whether “coloured” is an appropriate term, or whether holy days should be respected wherever possible, should seriously consider whether he is in the right job.

Lee Jasper is right in a small way. It is the job of the CRE Chair to provide leadership to his own organisation. But it is certainly not his role to provide leadership in the national debate: a task for which no Government official is suited. Neither do government bodies generally have anything useful to say about the appropriate use of terminology. Forgive me for repeating myself, by identity is ideological quicksand. The manner in which people identify themselves changes, not only within groups, but over time, and within different contexts. State appointed officials need to treat cautiously when they engage with identity politics. It is far better, therefore, to resist the temptation to make broad ranging policy statements. The task of enforcing anti-discrimination legislation – most of which is set at a European level – may be boring, and won’t get you into the headlines, but it is nevertheless a valuable and more appropriate use of a public official’s time.

In fairness to Trevor Phillips, the question about the use of the term “coloured” was asked in the context of a speech, the conclusion of which was as follows:

And, just as nothing in our highway code should undermine the fundamental laws of the road, our updated handbook must preserve our fundamental values – we all obey the same laws; we all respect each other’s rights; we all sign up to the equality of women, and to equal rights for people whatever their sexual orientation. And we accept responsibility for participating in and preserving the integrity of our community.

And this gets to the heart of the nature of this particular squabble. Today’s Comment piece by Lee Jasper revisits the themes of “multiculturalism” versus “integration” or – as Lee Jasper puts its – “assimilationism”. And what really gets Lee Jasper’s goat is the prospect that the separate commissions which address gender and ethnicity based discrimination will be combined, and that a unified approach to anti-discrimination will be developed:

The government is proposing to wind up the CRE and merge it with a broader equalities commission. The “volte-face” speeches are diverting us from the very real issue of the CRE’s entire future.

A single equalities commission is in many ways a very good idea. Anti discrimination is based upon a single principle: that citizens have a right to the equal concern and respect of the state: as individuals, not as members of groups. That would suggest that the role of the state is not to promote or oppose “assimilationism“: or even to take a position on the issue. If that is so, what is the objection to amalgamating the Equal Opportunities Commission and the CRE?

There is, of course, a discussion to be had about the creation of an overarching equalities commission, focussing on citizenship rights, rather than identity. Perhaps the history and nature of gender, sexuality, religious, and ethnicity based discrimination are so different that they do indeed require a series of separate commissions. But it is absurd for such a discussion to include a display of faux fury that Trevor Phillips discussed the use of the word “coloured”.

As for the future of integration: given that 50% of the population, and 71% of black people, indicate that they would have no problem marrying or having a relationship “with somebody of another race“, I hope you’ll forgive me for giving the last word to Lord Beginner, rather than either Lee Jasper or Trevor Phillips:

“Any color is a color, any race is a race, life is short so they mean to embrace”.

PS: If you’re looking for a quick introduction to Trinidadian calypso, the two “London Is The Place For Me” compilations are a good place to start