Britain is winning the fight against racism. Photo: Getty
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Britain is becoming less racist

Demographic change is defeating racism, and racial prejudice is particularly rare among university graduates.

“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” So said a slogan used by the Conservative party candidate Peter Griffiths 50 years ago.

And it worked, too. In the 1964 general election, there was a three per cent swing to Labour. In Smethwick in the West Midlands – the seat which Griffiths contested – there was a seven per cent swing recorded in favour of the Conservatives.

Such an appeal to racism could only have worked if the electorate had racist tendencies. At the time, Smethwick had the highest concentration of recent immigrants of any county borough in England. Most people did not like it. As Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the 1960s White Heat notes, in Smethwick “Most pubs excluded black drinkers from their lounge bars, and some barbers even refused to cut their hair.”

Britain has come a long way since. But there are concerns that economic uncertainty is leading to a hardening of racial attitudes.

That was the backdrop for this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey. It found a small upturn in self-reported racial prejudice, from 26 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent in 2013. The results were published a week after Ukip’s victory in the European elections; predictably, the two were linked together as evidence of a rise in British racism.

It is not a narrative that stands up to scrutiny: 38 per cent of respondents to the BSA Survey in 2011 reported to feeling racial prejudice so the figure in both the last two years has shown a significant drop. An analysis of attitudes to racial intermarriage by Rob Ford, published this week, also reveals a far more positive picture. While almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. Opposition to marriage between white people and Muslims has fallen from 66 per cent to 28 per cent among the different age groups.

It suggests a country that has become far less racist. And it is a trend that demographics may be accelerating. Only 25 per cent of those born after 1980 admit to harbouring racial prejudice, a lower percentage than all older generations.

Racial prejudice is particularly rare among the better educated. Just 19 per cent of graduates admitted to racial prejudice, compared with 38 per cent of those without qualifications; one legacy of the fabled target of sending 50 per cent of school leavers to university is to make racism less pronounced – or, at the very least, less acceptable. Unsurprisingly, graduates are also significantly more likely to hold favourable attitudes to immigration than everyone else.

None of this is to deny that fundamental racial inequalities remain in Britain today. Ethnic minorities make up 12.9 per cent of the UK population but just 4.2 per cent of MPs. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to vote than white Britons. But even in these areas, progress is being made: groups like Operation Black Vote and TickIT are working to increase voter registration. There have never been more ethnic minority MPs.

At a time when America’s racial problems are flaring up once more, Britain’s progress, though not complete, should be a cause for celebration. After all, 2014 saw the BNP lose their representation in the European Parliament.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue