17 JULY 1976, Page 4

Political Commentary

No laughing matter

John Grigg

Enoch Powell can be very witty when the mood takes him, and during the last stages of the Race Relations Bill he used wit as well as intellectual subtlety to demolish a proposal (anyway not accepted by the Government) that firms employing twenty-five or more persons should compile a register of their employees' race, colour, ethnic origins etc. With a wealth of sarcastic, mockserious illustrations he exposed the utter absurdity of the whole concept of race, which he described as a four-letter word convenient to journalists.

Listening to him from the press gallery, which was almost as empty as the House itself, I laughed out loud at this brilliant and delightful performance. But then my eyes strayed to the crowded public gallery and noticed there a group of Sikhs. They were listening as attentively as I was, but not laughing at all.

Was it that they had no sense of humour, or such a poor command of English that they could not understand the speaker's witticisms ? Either explanation is possible. But another seems to me more likely—that to Britain's new racial minorities the concept of race, however absurd, is for the time being no laughing matter.

Since the young Sikh, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was killed at Southall on 4 June, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of reported attacks on Asian premises throughout the country. This may be no more than coincidence, though it would be a very odd coincidence. But in any case it helps to explain why Sikhs, in particular, are not easily amused by Enoch Powell.

Mr Powell is no advocate of violence, but he has done more than anyone to give spurious respectability to fears and prejudices which are capable of breeding racial violence in our community. He maintains, no doubt sincerely, that he is not concerned with colour as such, but only with colour as an indicator of culture. Unfortunately most of his fans are not, like him, notable for their culture, but rather for the absence of it.

To them colour indicates not culture, but race, and they would be mystified by his argument that race is meaningless. His mass support comes from the poor white element in Britain, which is not to be defined in purely material terms. Though many poor whites are relatively poor in the financial sense, many are quite well-off and some are rich. But they all share a poverty of spirit which results largely from a lack of national and cultural self-confidence.

Such people are, naturally enough, opposed to all legislation designed to promote racial equality. Only the belief that they are racially superior compensates them for a nagging awareness of inferiority in other respects. Coloured immigrants are, for them, convenient scapegoats, just as Jews were for Germans suffering from the combined effects of defeat and economic depression.

But not all who oppose race relations Bills are racialists. lain Macleod was an opponent, and there was nobody who hated racialism more than he did. His view was that it was pointless, even harmful, to try to improve human nature by legislation.

The opposite view was stated with typical gusto by Bernard Shaw in his preface to Androcles and the Lion. It used, he said, to be thought that 'you could not make men good by Act of Parliament', but 'we now know that you cannot make them good in any other way'.

The truth lies somewhere between Macleod and Shaw. Legislation can contribute to morality and the refinement of human relations, but only if there is substantial backing for it in the community and no organised body powerful enough to wreck it. (The Industrial Relations Act satisfied the first condition, but not the second.) Most British people accept the need for a law against racial discrimination, and a recent survey conducted by NOP for the Community Relations Commission showed that 52 per cent of those questioned favoured strengthening the law, with only 27 per cent against. Organised racialism is still on a very small scale, though the National Front vote at Rotherham was disturbing.

The new law, which has still to go through the House of Lords, will among other things substitute a single body for the Community Relations Commission and the Race Relations Board. The new body should be at work by the end of the year, but as yet not even a chairman has been found for it. Two politicians and one ex-politician have been approached, but all have turned the job down.

It is certainly most necessary that whoever is appointed should have plenty of political sense and the ability to argue in public. But it is also important that he or she should not be too clearly type-cast. The ideal person might come from a conventional background and not be a 'notorious liberal', while having a direct link, preferably a marriage link, with the coloured immigrant community.

One advantage that such a person would have would be the moral freedom to attack immigrant racialism no less than the homegrown product. If racial prejudice and partiality are to be fought successfully, they must be fought impartially. Meanwhile a salute is due to Mark Bonham Carter, who has spent the last decade pioneering state action against racial discrimination. Not the least of his merits has been a ruthlessly critical attitude towards the linguistic abuses of racialism.

For instance, in a broadcast the other day he gave short shrift to the phrase 'second and third generation immigrants', which had been applied to the children and grandchildren of coloured immigrants by a writer in the Daily Telegraph. And he was quite right to condemn it, because these people— already nearly half of Britain's coloured population—are not immigrants at all, but native British.

Our leading politicians should follow Mr Bonham Carter's example. The phrase 'nonwhite' should be avoided like the plague, and there should be less talk of 'tolerance' on the part of 'the host community'. (Hosts are normally expected to do more than tolerate their guests, and anyway people who have come to settle here are not guests.) Mr Callaghan's record as Home Secretary was rather inglorious, but he has lately gone some way towards atoning for it by telling an Asian delegation that he wished to be Prime Minister of all the people. Margaret Thatcher is understood to be planning a big speech on immigration. Let it be soberly realistic in its analysis of the numbers involved, generous in its recognition of what we owe to coloured immigrants.

Bi-partisanship on the race relations issue leaves the monarchy free to act constructively in support of the politicians. And the exemplary power of the monarchy should never be underrated, more especially in the sphere of social attitudes and behaviour.

Nearly twenty years ago I ventured to suggest that there should be black and brown as well as white faces in the Royal Household. Time has not altered my opinion, anY more than it has altered the pigmentation of the Queen's entourage.

What was desirable in the 1950s chiefly in view of the Queen's position as Head of a multi-racial Commonwealth is now even more desirable in view of the multi-racial character of Britain itself. If there were, say, just one brown equerry and one black lady' in-waiting the symbolism would be most telling—instructive to some and reassuring to others.

Small gestures by the great are remove bered when much else is forgotten. During the recent state visit Madame Giscard d'Estaing was shown on television news being greeted by a black child and respond' ing with a warm embrace. It is not the Queen's style to be over-demonstrative, and her style is a vital part of herself. But there are surely times when it is worth throwing restraint to the winds.

At some happy date in the future British people of all colours, or of varying shades of brown, may laugh at the present 'race relations industry' and its enemies. But for some years to come the matter will have to be treated seriously.