The Damage Is Done: Why Politicians Need to Be More Careful When They Talk About Minorities

05/05/2016 12:09 | Updated 05 May 2016

To most Europeans it is utterly astonishing that The Donald will be carrying the Republican flag in November's presidential election.‎ Over the past few months our incredulity has grown as a man seemingly willing to say anything, and apparently holding startlingly offensive views of Mexicans, Muslims, women and others, has inched closer and closer to the highest office in the world. And now we are reduced to crossing our collective fingers and praying for Hillary, all the while telling ourselves that the Trump phenomenon could never happen here.

But that's not really true, is it? In fact in countries right across Europe politicians all too often espouse intemperate and arguably discriminatory views and policies affecting various minority groups. What has changed is that doing so appears increasingly to lead to electoral success, certainly in Eastern Europe but also in northern states such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Demagoguery and demonization of Islam, in particular, are becoming mainstream and are marching hand in hand in Europe just as they are in north America.

And there are elements of it here too, particularly in the current Mayoral tussle. Throughout the campaign there have been plenty of nudges and winks about Sadiq Khan's religious and cultural background, with a not-quite-explicit link being drawn between that and questions about whether he can be trusted with Londoners' security. At the weekend this went a step further, when Zac Goldsmith asked in the Mail On Sunday whether voters wanted to "hand the world's greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?". For added piquancy the article appeared under a picture of the bus destroyed in the terrorist attack on 7/7 - although the Conservatives have since distanced themselves from this "inappropriate" move by the Mail. Nevertheless, the point had been very effectively bludgeoned home.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Zac didn't intend anyone to infer that there is a connection between terrorism and the religion of his opponent: he doesn't seem, personally, to be that kind of guy, as others have said. But he needs to be much, much more careful, as does any politician who links minority groups with negative sentiments, even if done accidentally or implicitly, and even if it happens in the heat of an election campaign. Because no matter what result we wake up to in London tomorrow, or on 9 November in Washington, it is already the case that there is just that little bit less respect for the political process, that little bit more alienation of minorities from the majority, and that little bit greater tolerance of discrimination and intolerance of diversity. In the wise words of the band Foreigner: "it's too late, the damage is done. It's over".