TOPICS: Blair has left UK more fearful and divided

Just a few days before Labour swept to power in 1997, Tony Blair was visiting a health centre in Brentford when a Sikh man approached him and asked: “What about us Asians?” Had Blair stopped to listen, as my colleague Jonathan Freedland did, he would have learned that the man was concerned about a possible EU directive that would have stopped him from wearing his turban under his motorbike helmet. If ever there was an ideal opportunity to triangulate, this was it. So long as the turban did not violate British safety laws, why should the EU interfere? With racial sensitivity he nods to the left, with a well-placed jab at Europe he nods to the right. But Blair had an entirely different audience in mind. “You’re part of Britain,” he snapped. “We’ll treat you the same as everyone else.”

Racial and ethnic diversity has always been less of a problem for most of Britain than it has for Blair. What most of us long regarded as a source of cultural strength, the New Labour leadership has always deemed an electoral weakness. Driven by crude majoritarian impulses, this government has not only refused to lead a more hopeful, progressive national conversation about race, it has refused to even follow the one that was available.

The polarising effects of terrorism and war accelerated the regression to atavistic notions of Britishness and race. But they didn’t start it. As Blair leaves office he has the curious distinction of having realigned the level of public racial discourse with his own — by lowering it. This was no accident. The pressure came not from voters but within New Labour, which for all its bravado was always an essentially defensive project. Emerging from 18 years of electoral defeat, it identified itself not by what it could be but by what it would no longer be — namely old Labour. Race and immigration were regarded as Achille’s heels of the old.

The potential existed for New Labour to play midwife to a confident, inclusive, hybrid sense of Britishness. Instead, it sought to strangle it at birth. Less than a month before polling day, Labour’s Peter Mandelson unleashed Fitz the bulldog on to a party political broadcast. “The Labour party is the patriotic party,” he explained. “[The bulldog] is an animal with a strong sense of history and tradition. The bulldog is a metaphor for Britain.” For a party seeking to present itself as a modernising force, this was a curious choice of metaphor. The bulldog signified the land of John Bull and empire.

None of this denies the daunting challenges this government has faced. Immigration has escalated massively and there are finite public resources. The trouble is that New Labour contributed in no small part to these developments. It backed EU expansion, but without adequate preparation. The neoliberal policies it has supported at home and abroad created a vulnerable low-paid workforce that feels threatened by those seeking asylum from poverty and war. Race and immigration thus are now key issues facing the nation. The society is more fearful and divided. — The Guardian