No, a speech from 1988 doesn't prove that Diane Abbott "dislikes Britain"

Is James Cleverly motivated by partisanship, or simply ignorance?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper,” Mad Men’s Bert Cooper said of his deceased secretary, “She's an astronaut.”

Diane Abbott is, likewise, an astronaut. She was born in Notting Hill, 12 years before the words “race relations” first made their way onto the statute books, and when the area was a byword not for metropolitan Conservatism but for poverty and racial tension. She became an MP in 1987, one of just three non-white faces in Parliament and the only non-white woman.

Now she is the closest ally of the leader of the Labour party. Two of the most favoured candidates to replace him – Chuka Umunna on the centre-left and Clive Lewis on the left – are black. On the other side of the aisle, some of the most talented Conservative politicians are also from ethnic minorities: Sam Gyimah, Rishi Sunak and Suella Fernandes to name but three.

Now Abbott is under attack by another Conservative politician from an ethnic minority background with a big future: James Cleverly, the Conservative candidate for Braintree, has lambasted her for historical quotes saying that the Home Office was a “fundamentally racist” organisation when she worked there in 1975 and that that Britain was a “one of the most racist” nations in 1988.

“Many people feel that Corbyn’s core team, including Diane Abbott, don’t really like Britain and British people,” Cleverly tells the Sun, “These quotes prove it.”

Do they?

It’s worth taking the time to appreciate some of the momentous events that have happened between 1975 – closer to the end of the Second World War than the present – and today. The wrongful imprisonment of six Irish men for the bombing of two pubs in Birmingham. The escape from justice of the killers of Stephen Lawrence due to avoidable errors and prejudice within the Metropolitan Police. The unlawful killing of 96 people at Hillsborough stadium.  A complete transformation of both the law and the process of trying people accused of rape.

It feels like an act borne out of either extreme political partisanship or historical ignorance of a scale so deep as to believe that Jesus Christ was born in Hampstead in 1984 to suggest that the 1970s Home Office wasn’t riddled with racism, sexism, class snobbery, regional prejudice, homophobia and any other hatred you might care to name.  

And again, although 1988 is comparatively closer to the present day than 1975, the idea that describing the Britain of 29 years ago as a “racist country” means you “don’t really like Britain” again, can only come out of partisanship or ignorance. We’re talking about a period five years after Colin Roach, 21-year-old black man, died of a gunshot wound in the police station in Abbott’s Hackney North constituency and the coroner recorded an unlikely verdict of suicide. We’re talking about a period three years after Oliver Letwin, then a senior adviser to the sitting Prime Minister, said that any money given to unemployed black men would only end up fuelling the “disco and drug trade”. The past, as they say, is a foreign country, and Britain in 1988 was a very different place to where we are now.

It’s not some accident of genetics or history or our commitment to democracy that Britain is the only major European nation where the main centre-right party hasn’t included a burqa ban in its manifesto – one reason why you can’t fairly claim that the Britain of 2017 is among "the most" racist of nations or anything like it.That’s the result of campaigners, of improvements in the condition of Britain, and of politicians of the right and left – including Diane Abbott.

The question for the likes of Cleverly is this. If there wasn’t any truth at all in Abbott’s remarks about the 1975 Home Office, why did Theresa May have to reform the way stop-and-search powers were used in 2014? When she stood on the steps of Downing Street and said last year that “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white” did she hate Britain?

James Cleverly should be commended. As the polls have narrowed there are plenty of Conservative candidates willing to say that their leader doesn’t understand the country and has the wrong priorities. He, however, seems to be the first to say so publicly. Or perhaps he was just shooting his mouth off, it’s hard to say. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.