Rod Liddle says that Blair’s great U-turn on immigration has placed the Labour party to the right of Ray Honeyford — the man once vilified as a racist

Do you have a core of Britishness within you? Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, is anxious for us all to have one, even if we are not quite sure what it is. Trevor reckons he has one, at any rate. Perhaps it was implanted along with his OBE back in 1999.

His attachment to this notional thing, a core of Britishness, is nonetheless excellent news — and also a little surprising. Because Trevor’s enormous quango, the Commission for Racial Equality, has spent the last 30 years arguing that there is no such thing at all. The CRE was never hugely keen on the idea that we might all of us, white and black and brown, share a common set of values and beliefs; it smacked of — what was the phrase? — cultural imperialism. The ruthless imposition by the colonial white hegemony of alien norms and values upon a subject people powerless to resist. Core of Britishness? Sounds a bit racist to me, a bit Lord Tebbit.

So it’s a U-turn which beats, hands down, any so far executed even by Trevor’s friend and mentor Tony Blair. It is a quite astonishing volte-face, when you think about it. Trevor, chairman of the CRE, is effectively telling us that multiculturalism is finished, dead and buried. A discredited idea from two discredited decades. The rest of us might have suspected that multiculturalism was officially dead on 12 September 2001; but to hear multiculturalism disavowed, in public, by an organisation hitherto dedicated to its propagation is something else entirely.

Perhaps, before the CRE cheerfully moves on, a few apologies are in order to those people who, ahead of their time, stuck their heads above the parapet to complain about the iniquities of multiculturalism and, frankly, copped it as a result. There has been no greater insult these last 20 or so years than the barked deprecation ‘racist’, even though, when thus barked, it rarely meant ‘racist’, as one would correctly define the term, at all.

It was barked a few thousand times, for example, at the Bradford comprehensive school headmaster Ray Honeyford back in the middle of the 1980s. Honeyford ran a school which in 1980 had a 50 per cent complement of ethnic minority (mainly Bangladeshi) pupils; by 1986 this had risen to 94 per cent. But Honeyford pursued a policy which might be described as inculcating a ‘core of Britishness’.

‘These children knew they were Asian,’ he says now, ‘and they knew they were Muslim. But they didn’t know that they were British.’ So he taught them stuff, low-level stuff, about Britain and Britain’s history. And he did other things, like insist that Asian girls should learn to swim — despite the objections, on religious grounds, of their Muslim parents. The local education authority hated him for it and tried to have him removed from his school, and matters came to a head when he wrote about his problems in the right-wing Salisbury Review. After that, he got a good kicking in the press and had a mob of lefties howling ‘Racist!’ outside the school gates every day. The local education authority sent a psychiatrist to see him, implying that he was deranged — and, even worse, the Department for Education dispatched Helena Kennedy QC to grill him about his appalling, untenable views. Inspectors and consultants hounded him; in the end he left, retiring at the age of 52. He is now 70 years old, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and he hasn’t been employed for 18 years. And yet what Honeyford suggested back then was far less radical than the kind of views you hear today from Trevor Phillips or Ann Cryer or David Blunkett. ‘All I wanted was for Asian kids to have the same education as their white counterparts, and the overwhelming majority of Asian parents agreed,’ he says. But such a view put him beyond the pale, back then — way, way out on the ‘racist’ Right.

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And that’s how far the argument has travelled: a man who was once a fellow traveller of the Salisbury Review and the Monday Club now finds himself outflanked on the Right by the Commission for Racial Equality and a Labour government. All too bizarre. Asked how he feels about it today, Honeyford — a mild-mannered man and as far from being racist as it’s possible to get — suddenly finds his venom. ‘It makes me feel sick,’ he told me. I bet it does. I think, Ray, it’s what we call a paradigm shift.

The rest of us, though, can be a little happier. Honeyford’s simple, liberal outlook is now de rigueur. And it is no longer assumed as a matter of fact that our ethnic minorities constitute an angry, homogenous lump, bonded together under the political heading ‘Black’ and possessed of identical political views, life experiences and aspirations, most of which are hostile to the prevailing status quo. It is now recognised, for example, that in terms of educational aspiration and achievement in our inner-city comprehensive schools, African-Caribbean boys and white boys mingle happily together at the bottom of the class while Asian girls and white girls mingle happily at the top. It ain’t no race thing any more. Not sure it ever was.

But what was the motor for this extraordinary transformation? Partly it is simply — as Betjeman put it — the painful seeming accident of time. Partly too the resilience of our ethnic minorities, first in combating indigenous racism and then in rejecting attempts by white liberals to portray them all as an undifferentiated morass. These two factors alone might have brought us, in time, to our current position. But not quite so quickly, nor against a backdrop of such blind panic.

The leader of France’s Front Nationale has recently graced these shores with his presence, accompanied — as one would expect — by a cacophony of protest. Writing in the Guardian, the journalist Joseph Harker asked why it was that Le Pen was allowed into the country but the American boss of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, was still barred. Harker argued his corner well — and, indeed, it is difficult to argue that, on past records alone, Le Pen is less divisive or disruptive to national cohesion than Farrakhan. But Harker came to the conclusion that it was because Farrakhan was black and Le Pen was white — and this, I think, is missing the point.

Farrakhan is a radical Muslim, and it is for that reason, and not the colour of his skin, that David Blunkett fought long and hard to keep him out. As far as the government is concerned, Farrakhan is an enemy of the state and Le Pen is not. And it is this bald reclassification of what constitutes an enemy of the state that has led to the moderate Left shedding, once and for all, its adherence to the concept of multiculturalism. You cannot be a multiculturalist if you are waging war against an entire culture; nor if you believe that the said culture is determined to wage war against you.

Indeed, buoyed by the presence since 9/11 of a new and tenacious ‘enemy’ without and within, the government has become increasingly authoritarian in prosecuting those it deems to be antithetical to the notions of Western, liberal, Judaeo-Christian democracy. Witness, for example, Mr Blunkett’s strenuous and embarrassing attempts to have the hook-handed Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, chucked out of the country, despite a profound lack of evidence that the man has actually broken the law. It is enough for the government (and, of course, for the tabloid newspapers) that Abu Hamza is an incendiary preacher and wishes to see the green flag of Islam flying over St Stephen’s Tower.

And Blair and Blunkett are supported in their persecution of Abu Hamza and the like by what are known as ‘mainstream’
; Muslim leaders, who, understandably enough, are worried that the climate has turned distinctly chilly of late. One chap, a Muslim community leader from Luton speaking on Jeremy Vine’s radio show, argued that Hamza should be deported immediately because he had offended ‘proper’ Muslims. Well, perhaps he has, but we don’t deport people for stuff like that, otherwise we’d all be queuing up at Heathrow. And at the root of the problem is what actually constitutes a ‘proper’ Muslim?

This week the Prime Minister used a speech to the CBI to address a problem which Labour strategists believe might lose them the next election: race and immigration. There is no panic, he told his audience, but he accepted that there were abuses of the immigration system — and, of course, it was radical Muslims who did most of the abusing. ‘There are high-profile examples of the absurd — not many in number but very damaging in terms of impact — like radical clerics coming here to preach religious hate; people staying here to peddle support for terrorism,’ he said.

There would, as a result, he added, be tighter rules — a ‘top-to-bottom’ review of the immigration system. I don’t know how those tighter rules are going to work, though. Is the Prime Minister suggesting that potential immigrants should be quizzed about their political beliefs and affiliations before being let through the door at Dover? If so, this is the final, 180-degree retreat from multiculturalism — a retreat several degrees too far even for me. Journalists listening to the speech understood it as a wish on the part of the government to ‘whiten-up’ the influx of immigrants: more Poles, fewer Bangladeshis, please. And no mad mullahs at all, thank you, hook-handed or otherwise. It’s certainly what it sounds like.

And soon we will all succumb to the government’s plans for a national identity card, much as it may stick in the craw. Be in no doubt that the speed with which the government has pressed ahead with the proposed ID card is a direct consequence of 9/11 and the perception of a new enemy. It will be an imposition upon all of us and — please forgive the liberal whining for a second — an infringement of our rights.

Having argued for decades that immigrant communities be allowed to retain every aspect of their indigenous culture, the Left now believes that this was a mistake and that there are many aspects of those indigenous cultures which are simply not on. It is not just the shadow of 9/11; the soft Left knows that Islam is a socially conservative (if economically leftish) belief system opposed to almost everything it stands for in terms of education, the family, sexual promiscuity and so on. Islam, even ‘proper’ Islam, demands a distinctly illiberal social regimen — the very thing, in fact, that so exercised Ray Honeyford 18 years ago when he insisted that Muslim girls learn to swim — and for which he was denounced as a racist by, er, the Left.

But now the Left has recognised, belatedly, that race and culture are two entirely separate entities — and the haste with which it has embraced this new philosophy has led it to a state of mind which is as undemocratic in principle as the old multiculturalism which it now disavows.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated