Trading insults in high places is a feature of British political life. But sticks and stones can be thrown too far, injuring the very constituents whom our politicians are elected to serve and represent. Whether freedom of speech gives us the limitless right to offend has been debated endlessly in newspaper columns. Wherever that line should be drawn generally, however, differs for our politicians. Theirs is a duty to represent their communities and to strive to do so in a way that respects both the dignity of their office, and their responsibility to society as a whole. Their privileged position in society brings both rights and responsibilities, which should not be lightly discarded or abused. Their words, heavily publicised in this day and age, can and do have ripple effects.
The last week has been poisonous in British politics. Ken Livingstone, clinging desperately, pointlessly, to a faded limelight, made sure of that. Never mind both the fallacy and insult of his suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism, never mind the oil he must have known he was pouring over the damage done - and seeking to be remedied - by Naz Shah, Livingstone should have known that his provocative and unnecessary remarks would have inflamed, hurt and offended many people. Any attempts to pass off criticism as blurring the line between criticism of Israeli government, entirely legitimate, and anti-semitism are self-serving. The boundaries being argued as to whether his actual words were racist misses the point. His comments were obviously offensive, bound to make the Jewish community feel targeted and were both stupid and irresponsible.
Sadiq Khan was right to hold him to account for his words immediately. A London Mayor - past, present or future - is representative of one of the most diverse cities in the world. London isn't so weak that provocative words can bring us tumbling down. But language, descriptions, insinuations, they all matter. They matter to the children in the playground who are taunted or abused for their difference. They matter to communities who already feel disenfranchised, who feel criticised every which way they turn. They matter to the rest of the world who look at us on our island, squabbling about our place in the global pecking order. How do we treat each other? It's not a new-age liberal question, but a genuine reflection on the values we proudly proclaim as British, and the society our equality laws seek to protect. How the majority views the minority, and how the minority considers the majority form an important basis for our confidence and identity as a stable and forward-looking democracy. So, words, descriptions, insinuations matter.
However, amongst other ugliness, what the last week has shown is that they only matter selectively. The present Mayor's comments on President Obama's "part-Kenyan" ancestry last week appear already forgotten, shrugged off again by now as the foibles of a harmless maverick immersed in his ambition for leadership. Yet, how is it possible for someone, anyone, to remain credibly in the race for Prime Minister having made a comment so divisive, so harmful to the aspiration of an equal, modern society. It surprised many at the time. Perhaps it should have stunned even more. What that comment betrayed was an insinuation that only a white person could view history rationally and objectively, the history of Empire no less. That is not a one-off racist "joke", it denigrates whole communities and populations. It suggests a person of mixed race or non-white "ancestry" automatically identifies with that that 'other' part of his or her identity above all else. It suggests he or she is affected above all else by his or her colour, rather than allowing that to be another part of each individual's own complex identity. It is a comment from the present Mayor of London that completely undermines those of us whose ancestors come from different places. And since that would be a great many Brits, it involves at least those of us whose skin colour betrays those different places. It tells us that we don't properly understand. That our viewpoint may be tainted, irrational. It introduces a new point of division. And that division is borne exclusively of race.
It is precisely that division which has sat like an ugly sore on the Conservative campaign for London Mayor. It is the sleight of hand which explores ancestry, religious and racial background and suggests a person may not be fully trusted because of it. It creates links where there are none. It diffuses logic by a plea to the irrational subconscious mind that fears difference. It is a sleight of hand that arises from a culture in which it has become acceptable for even the Prime Minister to call people, suffering people, a "swarm". We might hope we are beyond simplistic and offensive name-calling (although Twitter timelines yesterday showed no evidence of that), but it feels increasingly like we have slid into newer, dangerous territory, one aided and abetted by a selective and hypocritical pursuit of those whose language is abhorred, and those whose words are ignored. This isn't about Ken Livingstone, or Boris Johnson, or party politics, or political correctness gone mad. This is about the language of subtext, used by those within positions of power, rippling outwards and trickling down.
We look across the Atlantic and laugh at the crassness of Trump, and the voters who support him. We look with disdain at race relations in France. But we need to deconstruct the debate that is happening in this country. The more we accept political language that demeans and divides, the more willing we are to accept the deconstruction of the other. We cannot permit the normalisation of denigrating, racialised sub-texts to seep into our communities.
Livingstone may have been the ugly icing on the cake this week, but it was a cake made and enjoyed by many others in political life. Decades of progress in race relations and equality are being damaged by casual and misplaced agendas. It's been a miserable week in British politics. I keep thinking, I keep wishing, surely we can do better than this?Suggest a correction