The most thought-provoking discussion about racism I ever heard took place five years ago on Channel 4’s Celebrity Wife Swap. No, it did. On the one side they had the former TV pundit and football manager Ron Atkinson and his wife Maggie, and on the other they had the former Olympic javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson and her husband Densign. Maggie Atkinson was the star. ‘Ron’s not a racist,’ she kept saying, with all the sincerity in the world. ‘He’s not. He’s just not.’
That’s all. Possibly I oversold it. The point was, this was about five years after Ron’s TV work had pretty much dried up, due to the way he had called Chelsea’s Marcel Desailly a ‘lazy nigger’ live on air. And what I wondered at the time, and have been wondering ever since, is how, in her mind, she could square ‘Ron’s not a racist’ with that phrase. Because it’s some trick, that. It’s the key to the whole caboodle.
Ukip, just like Big Ron Atkinson, believes itself not to be racist. Until a few months ago, the party’s official description of itself on its website was a ‘libertarian, non-racist party seeking Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union’. Bit jarring, that ‘non-racist’ bit, not least because it’s presumably not lots of other things too. Marxist, Dadaist, exclusively philatelist, French, exciting in bed, an amateur female-impersonating dance troupe… hell, the list of things that Ukip isn’t must be endless. All it cared about, though, was that people don’t think it is racist. Which was a pretty glaring admission that it knew people might.
And indeed, plenty did, and do, or at least claim they do. Some of them, such as Barbara Roche, the former Labour immigration minister who was saying it this week on the front page of the Guardian, I doubt the party cares about all that much. ‘Smears!’ they probably say. Likewise, all those people who have daubed ‘RACIST!’ and ‘SHAME!’ and (my personal favourite) ‘UPRICK!’ on all these new EU election posters. Easy to dismiss. Quite a lot of them, I suspect, would be calling Ukip racist even if it very definitely wasn’t.
A much bigger problem, though, is racists who think that Ukip is racist. Because there seem to be quite a few of them, too. Take William Henwood, a party candidate in Enfield and the guy who declared that Lenny Henry should ‘emigrate to a black country’ and ‘does not have to live with whites’. That’s a bit racist, right? Or take Andre Lampitt, who featured in its election broadcast last week, and then turned out to think that Muslims were animals and Ed Miliband was Polish. Definitely not un-racist, him. Or take whoever has been unearthed in the time between me writing this and you reading this. There will have been others. Maybe lots.
‘So?’ Ukip might say. ‘Unrepresentative! Nutters! Merely indicative of a poor vetting system!’ And they might be quite right. Only, well, that’s not what the nutters think. These guys aren’t joining the Green party, are they? They look to Ukip and, rightly or wrongly, they see kindred spirits. As indeed did Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front Nationale. ‘In the past, he was rather courteous towards us,’ she said last week, sounding slightly bewildered, after Nigel Farage ruled out an alliance with her party because of its historic anti-Semitism. Look, good on him. A sound call. But personally, if I were him, I’d have a nagging worry about the way she’d been so surprised.
The thing is that, like Ron Atkinson, all of these people probably don’t think that they are racist. They just think things, and do things, and probably believe in them. And when people shout ‘Racist!’ at them, they tell themselves that these people are missing the point. They might not know, though. For racism is only rarely a secret card you put in your wallet. More often, you carry it without even knowing it’s there. Like herpes.
It is the difference, for example, between worrying that Britain cannot cope with a vastly increased population, and portraying this in terms of a weird, babbling horde massing for invasion on the beaches of Europe. It’s the difference between recognising that anti-immigrant sentiment is horrid, damaging and terrifying, and being sanguine about stoking it up for political gain. It is the difference between knowing why there are words you shouldn’t say, and merely knowing that saying them might get you into trouble. Ukip, to me, seems to fall down on the wrong side of all of these divides.
Hell, maybe I’m wrong. If it isn’t a racist party, though, why do so many racists think it is?
A death in the Middle East
Hardly anybody seems to have noticed the Middle East peace process quietly dying this week. Across the world, it seems, more coverage seems to have been devoted to John Kerry using the word ‘apartheid’ (quite reasonably, in the context) than to the general collapse of the only talks to have happened since the last ones.
The world is bored with Israelis and Palestinians. More importantly, I think Israelis and Palestinians are bored with Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s wall works well, at least for Israelis, and you’d rather be a Palestinian than a Syrian.
Meanwhile, West Bank infrastructure grows and grows, to the extent that both sides must be deeply reluctant to risk the chaos that would be unleashed by bombing it. Somehow, a wholly unsustainable situation seems to have been sustained for almost half a century now. Everybody always says that something has to change. Maybe it doesn’t, though. Maybe it won’t.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.