This is the backstory. Or one version of it. It’s contested, of course, but as good a place to start as any. It takes us back to the West Midlands town of Smethwick, 1964.
1964 was an election year. The Profumo Scandal having forced Harold MacMillan to resign the year before and his replacement, the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, being divisive at best, Labour expected to win. And win they did. But in the industrial heart of the West Midlands, where high-flying Patrick Gordon Walker had been MP for almost 20 years, a young Tory called Peter Griffiths upset the odds.
How? On the news, it was put down to a “white backlash”. Immigration to Smethwick had risen since the war, but it was the closure of factories and shortage in council housing that had really made the difference. Griffiths, though, centred his campaign almost entirely on stoking the fears of white working-class residents about their new neighbours.
His unofficial, infamous slogan was “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Despite not openly endorsing this line, he had no problem repeating it, refusing to distance himself from it on the basis that, in time-honoured political fashion, it simply reflected the views of “real people”. He sowed the winds of racial hatred and reaped the whirlwind. In other words, as most political commentators would later put it, he played the race card.
Smethwick is often seen as an embarrassing anomaly. It doesn’t fit with the idea most British people have of themselves as essentially open-minded, eccentric, diverse. This latter view is best encapsulated in the almost-universally loved opening ceremony to the London Olympics in 2012.
I remember watching it with friends in Brixton, not too far from Windrush Square. One part stuck out especially. The ceremony was deep into the section celebrating the Industrial Revolution when a parade of gawky, moustachioed guys came on dressed as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, followed by a group of glum-looking black men carrying a fabric-model of the Empire Windrush, the ship that had carried the first Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948.
At the time, I wondered if this bizarre juxtaposition was meant to allude to the more unspeakable parts of Britain’s history, puncturing the otherwise triumphant tone. But then the camera cut to a close-up of Kenneth Branagh stroking his sideburns, leading a procession of top-hatted Victorian men in a strange dance of devotion to an industrial blast furnace.
Hazel Irvine, commentating, called it a “seething tableau”. On twitter, Conservative MP Aidan Burley dismissed it as “leftie multicultural crap”. In a sense, both were right. Danny Boyle’s vision of multicultural Britain was a seething load of crap, which made sure to include the Windrush and steel drums but to leave out the centuries of enslavement and exploitation that had driven so many poor families to leave the Commonwealth and start over again in the UK in the first place.
Where was Smethwick? Why wasn’t there a “seething tableau” of old men complaining about their “dirty” new “West Indian” neighbours? Why wasn’t Mr Bean throwing a brick through the window of an immigrant-owned shop as Hazel Irvine commented that during this period the local Tory council had set about buying vacant homes to let to whites only?
Of course, there was no chance that Britain was going to use the Olympics opening ceremony to acknowledge its role in the Massacre of Amritsar or the Mau Mau Uprising. But what got to me most was the stubborn, underlying sense of moral superiority.
Just this year, a YouGov poll reported that 43 per cent of British people think the Empire was a good thing and 44 per cent are still proud of Britain’s colonial history. Even apparently benign spectacles like these only feed into a fantasy vision of Britain’s colonial past. They allow – even encourage – us to turn a blind eye to ongoing racism. They make Smethwick the exception, not the rule.
Which brings me to this year’s London mayoral election. The two current frontrunners are Zac Goldsmith, a suave, blue-eyed millionaire, and Sadiq Khan, a first-generation son of immigrants.
You’d hope that attitudes to race would have moved on. But last month, the Goldsmith campaign put out a controversial leaflet describing Khan as “radical and divisive”. They didn’t say “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour”, but the Khan campaign saw it for it was and hit back, calling it an example of “dog-whistle” politics at its worst – that is, an attempt to appeal covertly to the most prejudicial fears of the electorate. Goldsmith responded by huffily saying: “I don’t think there is anything more divisive than playing the race card”.
You might have noticed an interesting change. Whereas Griffiths was criticised by other MPs for exploiting racial tensions within a fragile community, today it’s Khan who’s being attacked for calling someone else racist and, implicitly, for using race to his advantage. Whereas it used to be the racist that played the race card, it’s now the person of race.
Consider this: could Zac Goldsmith have played the race card? In his sense of openly referring to race as a way to gain favour with the electorate, obviously not. Race, as this demonstrates, is neither objective nor observable; it’s about power.
What Goldsmith has a problem with is Khan foregrounding his specifically marginalised status as a British-born Pakistani man in order to show up Goldsmith’s relative privilege, being the scion of an affluent, white banking family. In saying that Khan has played the race card, Goldsmith is really taking offence at being exposed for his own lack of race.
London in 2016 is a different place to Smethwick in 1964, but neither politicians nor the mainstream media are any less hostile to immigrants. According to a British Social Attitudes survey in 2013, almost a third of Britons self-identify as “very” or “a little” prejudiced against other races. Of those, 92% think immigration needs to be curbed, while even the 72% who don’t regard themselves as a teeny weeny bit racist think immigration is out of control.
So though you might have heard Goldsmith pay regular lip service to a banal Olympics-style vision of multicultural London, it’s unsurprising that he’d accuse his opponent of “playing the race card”.
The race card claim, in its new invidious form, appears to be descriptive: I’m just saying it like I see it. By this rhetorical sleight of hand, Khan is thus made into someone who has willingly played the card of his own race. The subject is transformed into the object. And whether he likes it or not, his race is now at the forefront of people’s minds. If Khan takes exception to being racialised, Goldsmith can simply respond that he is playing the race card.
But this is the crucial point: the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you. It’s a way of branding the non-white other with the hot iron of race. As in Griffiths’ time, its clear aim is to turn people against each other, to play on the fear that what is different will also be dirty and dangerous. The language of “race” may sound harmlessly descriptive, but it conceals the same dark rhetoric as ever.