Yet again yesterday, we woke to news headlines reporting racist chants at a football ground. This time it is apparently the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur directing ‘monkey noises’ at players of Chelsea in their game on Sunday. Those of us involved in the administration of sport had hoped that this kind of conduct had been relegated to the confines of history, certainly in the United Kingdom. Through the hard work of campaigns like Kick It Out there had been a marked improvement in fan behaviour at football matches and certainly a greater awareness and willingness to call out discriminatory conduct which had been so prevalent in the latter decades of the twentieth century. But now, it appears, there is a resurgence of racism on the terraces.
It is not only in football that discrimination is on the rise, but elsewhere in society as well. Readers may well recall reports of the increase in racially aggravated criminal offences being reported to the police during and following the EU Referendum campaign. Certainly my own experience as a magistrate in central London bears that out even now, three and a half years on. Last Friday, for example, I sent someone to prison for over six months for a slew of offences, many of which were racially aggravated, and for which the defendant offered no apology, no remorse.
During the course of the recent general election, no one could have escaped the very clear allegations of institutionalised Antisemitism and Islamaphobia being laid against our two major political parties. Despite the best efforts of their respective leaderships to obfuscate, it is now undeniable that within Corbyn’s Labour Party and Johnson’s Tories, there are aspects of the membership who, at best, disrespect the Jewish and Muslim communities respectively, and at worst are openly hostile and discriminatory towards them.
Perhaps the newest form of open discrimination in recent years has been the incessant rise in transphobia, predominantly amongst a few loud voices in the mainstream media and a small yet highly vocal group of people on social media platforms like Twitter and Mumsnet. Following the pattern used by right-wing trans haters in the United States, the line often trotted out is that the rights of trans people, especially trans women, to use public services like women’s toilets and changing rooms, should be restricted in order to protect those ‘biologically born female’ from ‘men’ who might self-identify as women in order to abuse ‘legitimate’ users of the facilities. The facts, from those countries where self-identification of gender is the legal position, demonstrate that these purported risks are simply unfounded, and yet journalists including Andrew Gilligan (ex Sunday Times, now Adviser to Boris Johnson), Emily Maitliss (BBC Newsnight), Janice Turner (The Times) and Justin Webb (BBC Radio 4 Today) have been allowed to perpetuate the myths, putting at risk the safety of trans people in the UK who simply want to get on and live their lives.
All of this is set against a background of increasing nationalism and populism in this country and overseas. Donald Trump’s US presidency is built on a base support of individuals and communities for whom his ‘Make America Great Again’ message resonates. In this country, Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ general election campaign included messaging which won the endorsement of nationalists and populists like Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson.
The core theme at the root of all of these issues is dislike of difference – where identities (race, nationality, gender, sexuality or religion) which are outside the white English cis heterosexual patriarchal Christian* hegemony of the United Kingdom are deprecated as less than the norm. This has always existed in our society, but concerted efforts, especially under the Blair-Brown Labour government and that of the Cameron-Clegg Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, saw significant positive change to greater acceptance of diversity and better community cohesion and acceptance. Unfortunately the last few years has seen that situation move into reverse.
It is unclear exactly why this has happened, but it does appear that there has almost been permission granted by some higher authority to be so unkind, to promote hatred against people who are different.
Some of that responsibility must fall on the shoulders of political leaders and their advisers and campaign managers. They know that creating wedge issues which appeal to the core voters for a particular party or outcome, such as Brexit, will help secure their vote. It was clear in the EU Referendum campaign that some parts of the ‘leave’ coalition used immigration to secure the support of voters often in rural or predominantly white working class communities by playing up to their fears of tidal waves of EU migrants, especially if Turkey were to join the Union.
Much of the blame must also be attributed to the media, some of whom (eg The Daily Mail) have long used social issues to appeal to the baser instincts of their right wing readership. Others are comparatively new to promoting division through their journalism. It is disappointing that Britain’s most liberal newspaper, The Guardian, has become a platform for anti-trans campaigners like Julie Bindel, albeit balancing that content with articles from trans allies like Owen Jones. Perhaps most worrying is the growing trend of the UK’s national broadcaster, the BBC, to allow public airwaves to be used by its own journalists to promote their own views or to interview in such an aggressive way that it is clearly designed to influence public opinion for or against a particular party or an issue, including ones relating to diversity.
Moving forward I fear things are liable to get worse. I suspect it is likely that Britain’s new Conservative Government will legislate to reform the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act, diminishing the regulatory framework under which public sector bodies are to have due regard to promoting equality, tackle discrimination and foster good regulations between different communities. Likewise, I predict that the improvements to the Gender Recognition Act, promised by Theresa May, will be shelved as will any hope of legal acceptance for non-binary identities.
At the same time, media regulators have long been loathed to interfere in the editorial freedom of broadcasters and the press, even when their content is clearly prejudicial to minority communities. This is unlikely to change.
So, in the absence of leadership from our government or the media, how are we to rebuild our communities into ones where we respect and embrace difference? The answer has to be from the ground up, working together so we learn from each other – expressing our common bonds and sharing our diverse life experiences as well as our different faiths and beliefs.
It is likely that the coming years will be challenging for all of us. Despite the promises of Boris Johnson and his ministers, Brexit is unlikely to be ‘done’ for a very long time. There will be impacts across the whole of society be it job losses in certain industries or the inability to procure certain drugs or food stuffs in the way we do today. The way we come together to respond to these challenges will demonstrate whether Britain truly is great – a united cohesive society where diversity is welcomed and built upon – or whether we are destined for a future of division.
I desperately don’t want to live in Little England, where hatred has permission to be uttered and spread with impunity. Let us all try to rebuild our trust and understanding in each other in 2020, regardless of our backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicity, faith, gender, nationality, or sexuality. That would truly make us a United Kingdom.
* Whilst many people in the United Kingdom profess to hold the Christian faith, most do not attend Church regularly. Those that do, often hold very liberal and inclusive views, although some people still try to use elements of the Bible to sew division in our society.
Edward Lord OBE JP is a councillor in the City of London where they lead on diversity and inclusion, and a lifelong campaigner for equalities and human rights. Edward is a trustee of LGBT Foundation and a Stonewall Role Model.