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Black UK politicians get the Glenn Beck treatment

Baroness-Scotland-001The Right-wing in Britain doesn’t need to take to the streets waving placards depicting their most hated public figure as Adolf Hitler or the Joker. We have the Daily Mail, Fleet Street’s answer to Glenn Beck, argues Lester Holloway

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free

And just like Beck, Fox News’s mythmaker-in-chief, the Mail has been getting busy setting about Britain’s most senior Black politicians with wild abandon lately. Conservative frontbencher Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and now the Attorney General Baroness Patricia Scotland have both been turned over Obama-style in the past week.

In Lady Scotland’s case, the signs are she simply unwittingly employed a housekeeper having seen papers which indicated the housekeeper was allowed to work legally. If the allegation is that as a minister she should have been more questioning, then so be it, but ask yourself this – if you were lucky enough to employ a housekeeper would you really doubt the all evidence before you (National Insurance number, Loloahi Tapui’s previous job), which showed everything to be tickety-boo?

Should we be inherently suspicious of all foreign workers as illegal immigrants even when they brandish official papers, or should be opt for the saftey-first approach and flat-out refuse to hire them? That sounds like stereotyping of the kind that can only come after being exposed to years of anti-immigration sentiment, and I, for one, am glad that Lady Scotland wasn’t partial to such paranoia when confronted with the Tongan woman.

Set in context of the mitigating circumstances, did this really deserve a full frontal splash yesterday? After all, Lady Scotland did not claim the housekeeper was a constituency secretary in order to squeeze more cash out of the Fees Office, as Caroline Spelman did; a far more grevious offence surely. So what is it about Lady Scotland that justifies such outrage?

My guess is, if Jimmy Carter were in Britain he’d conclude that the ethnicity of Lady Scotland and her illegal housekeeper has certainly added some spice to the story. Indeed one blog even carried echoes of the laughable “birther” issue dogging President Obama, when the question was asked on Guido Fawkes: “Do we know Baroness Scotlands immigration status? Maybe the loophole is an illegal can employ a fellow illegal.”

Mostly, however, such attitudes are either unspoken or implied on these shores, a far cry from the loud protests against Obama. That’s what makes racism harder to identify and root out in Britain. Because we only ever see consequences, not how it happens. But a cursory look at our political system shows the results of untold acts of silent prejudice – that fact that black and Asian people are chronically under-represented in Westminster.

Now don’t get me wrong, I want all public figures – whatever their race or religion – to be held to account, exposed and criticised where wrong has been committed. It’s just when the evidence against the alleged offender is weak or sketchy, and where the blanks are filled in with references to the politicians’ race, religion or anti-racism politics, I question whether the playing field is level.

The roots for my suspicions over differential treatment metted out to Black public figures stems from the fact that virtually every prominent Black leader in the UK has been vilified and character-assassinated by Fleet Street’s finest. From Marcus Garvey to Michael de Freitas (‘Michael X’), Bernie Grant to Linda Bellos, and more lately Lee Jasper – who was cleared of corruption by five seperate investigations –  there is a long history of community leaders feeling the force of establishment disapproval. It seems only Muslim clerics provoke more wrath these days.

In recent years comparatively mainstream figures such as MPs David Lammy and Adam Afriyie have seen members of their families become the subject of irrelevant personal stories. In the latter case the Mail on Sunday was forced to issue an apology after making untrue allegations about Afriyie’s ex-wife’s profession.

Indeed almost every one of the 15 current ethnic minority MPs has endured a bruising in the national press. Can the same be said of all Britain’s 650 honourable members? Clearly not. Before the expenses scandal,  vast swaithes of the backbenches lived largely anonymous lives while happily milking the system.

Of course lots of unfortunate politicians of every race have endured embarassment, much of their own making, over the years. But when being an ethnic minority all but guarantees you wounding negative headlines, you have to ask what’s going on? There is absolutely no reason to believe that black or Asian politicians are more likely to fall short orbreak the rules than white people.

Yet the current state of affairs will no doubt give some young talented people of colour pause for thought before entering politics, knowing they will not only be put under more scrutiny as MPs, but may have their families splashed over the papers as well. To say nothing of the deterrant effect this has on local activists who pick candidates.

So while no politician should escape accountability, we must  not unfairly single out one group of people for more scrutiny than any other. Which brings me to Conservative vice-chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a community-activist from Dewsbury and member of the Kirklees Racial Equality Council who was discovered by the Tories.

She was pasted in the Daily Mail this week for marrying a man who had divorced his first wife. Nothing ususual there, you might say. Except she was “heavily promoted as the multicultural face of the new Tory Party. A high-profile champion of Muslim women’s rights”, the paper informed us. Over at the Telegraph, their readers gave their verdict on Lady Warsi.

“Reprehensible”, “disgrace”, and “professional immigrant whinger” are just some of the acid-infused insults spat out. A level of vitriol that seems over and above that normally directed towards more archetypal politicians who leave their spouses and shack up with an exciting new partner. I was left wondering what Lady Warsi’s most heinous offence was, marrying this man or speaking out on “Muslim women’s rights”?

Her case has parallels with that of Van Jones, Obama’s environmental adviser, who was hounded by Beck of Fox News. They didn’t have a whole lot on him either – some previous sympathies with Communism, questioning whether the US government knew a 9/11 was on the cards – but the one aspect of Jones’ past  that really seemed to rankle Fox the most was his past as a civil rights activist.

How dare Obama bring a black campaigner into the White House, even if his radicalism was now confined to recycling. So they forced his resignation.

It was a similar story with Obama’s supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor when shock-jock Rush Limbaugh led calls that her nomination was “reverse racism” simply on grounds that Obama said her experience as an immigrant gave her a new perspective.

Senior British commentators rarely deploy such crude racial views – that’s the preserve of internet discussions – but nonetheless there is a level of criticism directed at Black politicians here that doesn’t apply to everyone equally. Hence backbencher Diane Abbott is better remembered for sending her boy to a private school than ex-Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly, who did likewise.

The majority of the population fail to recognise such unfairness precisely because of an assumption that there is no race dynamic at play. Therin lies the difference between Britain and the States; the reputations of every black and Asian British parliamentarian could be put through the shredder and we wouldn;t bat an eyelid, while across the Atlantic African-Americans have been asking themselves whether the anti-Obama mood is race-driven.

Isn’t it time we were more aware of the powerful, semi-hidden race question that all too often turns minor difficulties into major stories when it comes to our ethnic minority politicians?

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One Response

  1. Having been tuned in over the past few months to how President Obama is being treated by the right-wing media and its supporters in the US, I can’t buy the comparison.

    There is the double-standard in how Black politicans are held to account, however I’m not sure that either Baroness has been slated in the way the POTUS has.

    The difficulty that Baroness Scotland has is being associated with an immigration law that even has a punishment for “unknowingly” employing people deemed illegal i.e. being duped is not a defence in itself.

    One further question is why Baroness Scotland’s position didn’t / doesn’t warrant more stringent checks of her employees (professional or personal), given its sensitivity? Her role entails having to decide on very serious criminal cases, so surely there should be stronger vetting processes, even if it is a personal appointment.

    As for Baroness Warsi, I don’t know enough about the story, but I have observed that politicians who are perceived to trade on their moral or religious views often get judged by them subsequently.

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