Two of the founding grandes dames of British multiculturalism got into a cat fight this week. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has been “pandering to the right”, spat Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.
Phillips’s crime was to state that last weekend’s Notting Hill carnival “can hardly be said to represent the everyday culture of most of London’s communities”. A pretty obvious statement to make as most people in London are not black. But Livingstone had a hissy fit and accused Phillips of selling out black people. “He’d had a brief sort of black power fling,” said Livingstone, “dissing” Phillips’s past activism, “and ever since then he’s gone so far over to the other side that I expect soon he’ll be joining the BNP.”
It seems that Trevor ain’t been “keeping it real” enough for Ken (or K Diddy as we call him on the street), so he’s calling new Labour’s No 1 homeboy a coconut. Maybe Trevor should get some gold teeth and grab his crotch more often.
Like in America, Britain’s debate on multiculturalism is becoming an empty-headed bun-fight in which race is a convenient bat to beat your opponents with. The United States has always been fraught with individuals tapping ethnic anxieties to further themselves. The Rev Al Sharpton and his jerry-curled hair became famous throughout the country as he jumped on the flimsiest bandwagons to make hysterical overstatements about race.
Britain’s irony is that the person profiting most from exploiting racial tensions is not a glamorous funky demagogue but a white middle-aged nerd. But K Diddy is savvy to the way race is skilfully employed in America and has imported those techniques here.
It’s easy to disregard Livingstone as just another cheesy lily-white leftie associating himself with ethnic groups to prove his hipness and moral perfection. But there’s a sinister consistency in his approach to minority issues. Two years ago he welcomed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the fundamentalist Islamist, to Britain, praising him as a “powerfully progressive force for change”. He canoodled with him for the cameras and compared him with the Pope, although the sheikh endorses suicide bombings, despises gay people and thinks it is acceptable for men to beat their wives. But Livingstone knows what potential there is in cultivating ethnic and religious support.
As so few people bother to vote in local and regional elections, Livingstone would love to garner the support of the hardcore element of London’s Muslim community. The value of the lumpen ethnic block vote was obvious in George Galloway’s victory at the last general election. The podgy ex-pugilist knew nothing about the people of Bethnal Green & Bow but ousted Oona King, a hardworking, wholly committed MP.
Galloway has rarely voted in parliament since his election and has achieved little of practical value for his constituents. But he exploited the anger over Iraq to get himself elected, although he was never going to remotely alter government policy.
Similarly, Livingstone smartly antagonises the Jewish community. He argues that he’s not an anti-semite, but anti-semites will warm to his snide remarks — particularly those who are hardline Islamists. He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked David and Simon Reuben, the Jewish businessmen, saying they should “go back (to their own country) and see if they can do better”. He would never dare tell black people to go back to Africa and try their luck.
In Livingstone’s calculated hierarchy of bigotries, anti-semitism is a low priority: it won’t lose him votes and might even gain him some. The same applies to homophobia.
K Diddy would never welcome a gay rights campaigner who publicly denounced Islam as an “abominable practice” in the manner that Qaradawi condemns homosexuals.
Phillips annoyed Livingstone when he challenged his declaration that the carnival had been a “triumph of multiculturalism”. As great as the event is, Phillips argued that combining diverse peoples into a cohesive society is a painstaking process that requires more than a day out in the sun shaking your booty. He touched a raw nerve when he undermined Livingstone’s attempt at congratulating himself for his cool exotic tastes, saying: “We wouldn’t, frankly, think of participation in a day’s morris dancing or caber tossing as a valuable exercise in building a modern multicultural society.” Let’s face it: the carnival is as outdated and irrelevant to a lot of black people as cheese and pineapple on sticks are to most whites. Hats off to Phillips for having the guts to say it.
Livingstone clings to the myth that he is Britain’s Mr. Multicultural. In his view even black people can’t be less than euphoric about the carnival. He makes glib associations between Phillips and the far right, while snuggling up to dark-skinned fascists himself. The mayor pats himself on the back for an occasional street party while sneakily exploiting ethnic divisions.
I hope London voters will forget their differences at the next mayoral election and join forces to show this clown the door. Now that would be a real “triumph of multiculturalism.”
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