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The Conservative Party, racial equality and national identity


27 October 2011

Earlier this year, I was asked to contribute a short piece to a new publication being planned by the Runnymede Trust and the think tank Demos. The publication "Are we there yet? A collection on race and Conservatism" edited by Max Wind-Cowie has now been published. It can be purchased in hard copy for £10.00 or downloaded for free from the Demos website.

The book is a collection of nine independent essays. My piece is on page 37 and is reproduced below. I did not choose the chapter title, but it is a fair one. I am described as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, but the piece was of course written in a personal capacity as were all of the other contributions to the book.

Hard-edged but inclusive

We need to develop a shared vision of British identity, which is sufficiently inclusive that all citizens of Britain can sign up to it. While being inclusive, this vision needs to avoid being mushy so a hard edge is required to enable one to see who is excluded.

Writing about this topic one is inevitably influenced by one’s background, so readers are entitled to know mine. I was born in the Punjab in Pakistan and came to the UK in 1952 aged 1¾; I have lived here ever since. My parents were illiterate and poor but I passed the 11+ exam and from a state grammar school I went to Clare College Cambridge, spending my professional career as a tax adviser culminating with 19 years as a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Given my life history, I have for many years thought of myself as British and find myself using phrases such as ‘We British’ when talking to myself. At the same time I live with some amusing contradictions. For example I can be quite emotional while singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ despite knowing that my ancestors were subjugated colonials of the British Empire, an empire which I regard as ‘a bad thing’, albeit less bad than others such as the Belgian Empire.

The article on ‘race’ in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica shows that academics struggle with the concept and regard it as primarily a social construct. However, at its simplest, any isolated group of human beings will show signs of differentiation after a few generations. The isolation can be geographic or self-imposed when co-located groups do not intermarry, for example for religious reasons. As an illustration, Islam reached northern India around the twelfth century. Before then all Punjabis were Hindus. Since then intermarriage between Hindu Punjabis and Muslim Punjabis has been very limited. After a mere eight centuries of divergence, I can usually distinguish between a Hindu Punjabi and a Muslim Punjabi from a person’s appearance, although I cannot put into words how they look different.

Apart from biological descent, distinctions of race are often linked in practice with language and culture. However it is entirely wrong to blur together race and religion except for those religions which are primarily practised by specific ethnic groups such as Judaism and Sikhism. Despite frequent attempts to conflate Islamophobia with racism, they are entirely distinct phenomena, since Islam is a universal religion, like Christianity.

There is a very natural human inclination to discriminate in favour of people like oneself and against ‘the other’. Accordingly legislation against discrimination is essential. Furthermore the prohibition of discrimination needs to be made effective. For example almost all large employers in the UK monitor the ethnicity of job applicants and employees. Such monitoring means that PricewaterhouseCoopers knows on the basis of solid evidence that it achieves its goal of being an equal opportunity recruiter. Conversely I understand that such ethnic monitoring is prohibited in France; the consequence is that employment discrimination is widespread in France while French employers are free to turn a blind eye to the problem.

Apart from the objections of a few troglodytes, the legal prohibition of discrimination is no longer controversial in Britain. A more difficult question is whether, once one has banned discrimination, anything more needs to be done to promote race equality, and if so what?

While I strongly support ethnic monitoring as a way of identifying potential problem areas, I regard quotas as divisive and ultimately unhelpful. However there is much else that the government can do, either directly or by funding action by voluntary organisations.

For example:

As Conservatives we can be proud of our party’s early pioneering of racial equality by selecting a Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, as our party leader and then prime minister. At the same time we need to be objective and recognise that our party produced Enoch Powell, who I regard as a racist; while Ted Heath sacked him from the shadow cabinet he was never expelled from the party and instead left voluntarily over the European Economic Community. Although I myself have been a Conservative party member since the early 1980s, voting and political party membership patterns have for several decades shown that ethnic minorities have regarded the Labour party as more attuned to their concerns than the Conservative party.

One of David Cameron’s greatest achievements has been to change the Conservative party into one in which ethnic minorities can feel at home. Since he became leader members of parliament or candidates guilty of making racist remarks have been firmly stamped upon. In the 2010 general election there were a significant number of ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats. As a result ethnic minority Conservative members of parliament have now become ‘normal’.

However, much still remains to be done. Page 98 of Michael Ashcroft’s book Minority Verdict analysing the 2010 election results points out that we did less well in constituencies with a higher ethnic minority population. I frequently meet ethnic minority business owners and professionals who would be expected to vote Conservative if they were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants but who actually vote Labour despite their wealth and socially conservative attitudes.

For several years we have been engaged in a debate about what it means to be British. As a preliminary point we are fortunate because Britain is fundamentally a ‘contractual state’ rather than a ‘tribal state’. A contractual state is one where citizens regard themselves as having come together voluntarily for mutual benefit. The best example is the USA, where the essential requirement for being American is supporting the Constitution of the United States and pledging allegiance to the flag. As a result any immigrant can readily become an American and once naturalised is accepted as such by other Americans.

Conversely a tribal state is one to which you belong purely by descent. An example is the way that Germany has always thought about the concept of ‘Germanness’ as essentially requiring descent from the Teutonic tribes. Accordingly, until the relatively recent revision of its nationality law, it was difficult to become a German; one could be a second or third generation descendant of Turkish guest workers without being a German citizen. Even now some German politicians do not quite accept German citizens of Turkish ethnic origin as being real Germans.

While Britain is not exactly the same as the USA, both Britain and France are far closer to the US model than to the German model. Accordingly it should be much easier for us than for Germany to come up with an inclusive concept of Britishness, but it still requires careful thought. For example, Sir John Major (whom I generally admire) once mentioned warm beer as an essential marker of Britain, so by implication those who enjoy warm beer could be considered British. However this automatically excludes Muslim Britons as well as teetotallers!

We need to develop a shared vision of British identity, which is sufficiently inclusive that all citizens of Britain can sign up to it. While being inclusive, this vision needs to avoid being mushy so a hard edge is required to enable one to see who is excluded. As an example, in my view Britishness excludes racism; we cannot legally prevent British citizens from holding racist beliefs, but we can make it clear that such beliefs are ‘beyond the pale’ and un-British.

Mohammed Amin is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum.


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