The similarities between 2009 and 1979 are ominous. The Conservative Party prepares again to return to power as the nation shudders in the grip of an economic crisis. The far right is on the rise - then the National Front, today the British National Party - and party leaders engage in wild rhetoric on immigration - then Margaret Thatcher complained of the UK being "swamped", today Gordon Brown refers to "British jobs for British workers".
So has all the progress that this country has made on racial equality over the past three decades been in vain? I recently sat in a radio studio debating with a caller who turned out to be a BNP supporter. "Michael" claimed that I could never be "true British", though I was born here, because I was of "Asian origin" and Britain belonged only to its "indigenous" population. "Where are you from?" I asked Michael. "I'm Norse," he replied. How do you reason with a man who claims descent from the Vikings? Did I have to point out to him that they, too, were immigrants?
The point about people like "Michael" is that they cannot be reasoned with. It is not immigration that drives them; it is racism. Like paedophilia, racism is morally wrong; it is evil. It requires no further debate or discussion, no tolerance or engagement. For too long, liberals on the left have pandered to conservatives on this issue, indulging racist and reactionary views in the name of free speech.
New Labour's failure
Take New Labour, which contributed to the rise of the BNP not, as some have argued, through an imagined policy of "mass immigration", but by attempting - and failing - to appease the bigots in our society. It was David Blunkett, for example, who described British schools as being "swamped" by refugees, and Phil Woolas who said that Muslim women who wear face veils provoke "fear and resentment". It was Brown who, this summer, was promoting a policy of "local homes for local people", fuelling the myth that migrants have easier access to housing. It was left to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to point out that fewer than 2 per cent of social tenants were immigrants who had moved to the UK in the past five years, compared to 88 per cent who were born in the UK.
One cabinet minister to whom I spoke acknowledged that the government had failed to make the argument on this issue. The media are little better. In their eagerness to "provoke" debate and garner headlines, facts can become irrelevant. Consider three television programmes that aired in recent days.
There was Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC Question Time, watched by eight million viewers. The BNP leader was given a platform on which he described the "indigenous" British as being like "the Aborigines or Native Americans", refused to clarify his views on the Holocaust and defended the Ku Klux Klan.
Then there was the launch of Channel 4's season Race: Science's Last Taboo. It began with a documentary on race and intelligence fronted, perhaps conveniently, by the Somali-born reporter Rageh Omaar, which aimed to encourage a "heated debate" on race. But the truth is that science has no taboos here: as the leading geneticist Steve Jones has pointed out, any supposed link between skin colour and brain power was long ago disproved by scientists.
Why, Jones asked in a newspaper article, did the channel feel the need to dredge up "elderly exponents of racial difference" and give them another opportunity to push "hoary, dubious and predictable" claims? The superannuated "experts" who were offered a platform by the programme included the psychologists J Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn, both of whom sit on the board of the New York-based Pioneer Fund, described by civil rights campaigners in the US as a "hate group". In February, according to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, Rushton attended a white nationalist conference in Maryland, entitled "Preserving Western Civilisation", at which he argued that "Islam was not just a cultural, but a genetic problem". Do we want this man leading a "heated debate" on race?
Eight weeks of racist gibes
Back on the BBC, on Panorama, a pair of Asian reporters used hidden cameras and microphones to record more than 50 separate incidents of racial abuse and violence over eight weeks, while living undercover on a predominantly white estate in Bristol. They were spat at, stoned, punched, and called "Paki", "raghead" and "Taliban" by local youths, some as young as 11.
Like "Michael" from the radio, the odious youths on the Bristol estate were driven by racist views, not economic circumstances. Capping the number of immigrants or denying asylum-seekers benefits will do little or nothing to alter the hate-filled, antisocial and prejudiced mindset that leads to people like them persecuting minority communities with such glee. It does, however, enable our political and media elites to avoid having to acknowledge the horrible racism that continues to blight so many areas of liberal 21st-century Britain. Only the Independent on Sunday, for example, bothered to report figures showing that racist incidents are on the rise.
Oddly, commentators on the right often resort to left-wing-sounding arguments, focusing on socioeconomic factors such as the lack of employment or housing in so-called white working-class communities, to explain or even justify the kind of racism exposed on Panorama. But, to borrow a phrase from John Major, on the issue of race and the rise of the far right, it is time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.