Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:06 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 9:06 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I am the 15th speaker and I rise to speak three hours into the debate. As someone said, everything that can be said on this subject has been said but not everyone has said it. However, that does not mean that I shall repeat what has been said in what has obviously been a very good debate.

The peculiar thing about our current problem is not that this country was always tolerant—that is a delusion which I will speak about in a moment—but that intolerance is taking a particularly vicious form in relation to religion. I have lived here for 53 years. In 1964, the year before I arrived, Patrick Gordon Walker lost an election at Smethwick due to his opponent’s slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. We have had a lot of intolerance and prejudice, but the achievement in the first 45 years after I arrived—this was not due to me; I am just giving the dates—was this country, which was not a multiracial culture, becoming a multiracial culture.

That took a lot of hard work and nobody should believe that this country was always tolerant. For most white people, it was—there is no doubt about that—but even within white people there is a lot of prejudice, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said. Roman Catholics suffered a lot of prejudice. Jews feel safe now but that has not been the case for all that long because they too did not feel very comfortable in this country. Therefore, let us not pretend that all was hunky-dory and suddenly Jeremy Corbyn came along and everything turned bad. We have to understand how we became a tolerant, open and multiracial culture and how much hard work it took on the part of the Government, the community, the judicial system and the voluntary organisations.

Housing was difficult when I arrived. People would say, “You may go anywhere but you will not be able to rent”, but I could because I had a middle-class job and a middle-class income. The discrimination was being suffered by people who were poor; there was an element of class as well as race. One must never forget that an element of class is very important in the forms that intolerance and discrimination take. What we had was a class problem where the people who were coming in were poorer—they knew English but their English could not be understood by local people—and there was a variety of discrimination.

I have personally suffered no discrimination, but I did hold a seminar at the London School of Economics when the right honourable Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech. That was the only time I had the National Front threaten me and break into my apartment and scrawl things on it, but that did not bother me. That is part of being a person who wants to struggle to make a society better, but the feeling that the non-white community was alien—that they were not properly here, that they should go back and that there should be a scheme to send them back—was there for a long time. The only time I thought I might leave was in 1978 when Mrs Thatcher, in a television interview, said that this small island was getting rather crowded. That is a dog whistle and I said to my white, English wife and my children that we may just have to leave and go to Australia because it may become very difficult for us to live here. Luckily, that did not come true. We had race riots in the 1980s in Brixton and Toxteth; people may not remember, but I remember.

One of the positive things is that we can overcome intolerance but it takes a lot of effort on the part of everybody—it is not just the Government’s job. It is also the job of social organisations and of volunteers. More than anything else, I plead—as a social scientist and as a man who made his living by teaching—for a serious investigation into the nature of intolerance in this society, which we do not have. There may be lots of studies for all I know, but why did our intolerance change suddenly from racist to anti-religious at the beginning of the 21st century? Was it because of 9/11, or was it something else?

It is remarkable that what we had in the 1960s—the League of Empire Loyalists—was a right-wing nationalist movement. Nationalism then was purely a right-wing phenomenon; the left wing could not be nationalist at all—it was internationalist, or whatever it was. The nationalist view or the right-wing view was, “This is a country of white people and all non-white people should go”. That right wing was partialised—not entirely eliminated as my noble friend Lord Hain reminded us recently—but now we have a situation in which, on the right and on the left, there is a peculiar kind of intolerance.

Of course, the social media exaggerate all of this. What people used to say in private meetings or in the pub is now broadcast all over the world because they can use Twitter. Everyone knows, and of course they can remain anonymous in their abuse, which gives it more power. We need to find out what the social and political roots of intolerance are and why it has moved on from racial prejudice to religious prejudice. This phenomenon is unusual and I agree with speakers who have said that for the first time, many Jewish families are asking whether they feel they can go on living in this country. I have mentioned my own example because I felt like that in 1978, although I had been here for only a short time. We have to take those feelings seriously and make quite sure that we understand the causes of this new phenomenon, not just the statistics. Are the roots in nationalism or some peculiar kind of internationalism? I am sure that a lot of the anti-Semitism on the left is to do with the Palestinian muddle. That is where it comes from and we have to examine the reasons for it. This is not just a problem for the left or for the right. They are different, but they may be addressing the same kind of issue and we have to understand why it happens.

I want to make one anti-religious comment because I am not religious. One of the strangest facts is that the Abrahamic faiths have hated each other for longer than anyone can remember. The roots of anti-Semitism are in the Christian tradition. Everyone now talks about the Judaeo-Christian faith, but we know that they did not do so until after 1945. Today there is a battle between Judaism and Islam. I remember that after the 9/11 crisis Tony Blair said that we are all children of Abraham. I said, “Include me out. I am not a child of Abraham, thank you very much”. There is a tradition of religious hatred within the Abrahamic trinity and we also need to find out why that has been the case for a long time.

Lastly, just to be awkward, my friend the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said some nice and generous things about Hinduism with which I do not necessarily agree. Let me say this, although it is a non-related fact, because he raised it. It is about discrimination. It is not about caste, it is about untouchability. It is about the fact that the Hindu religion may be a great religion—I am sure it is—but Hindu society has lived with excommunicating a part of itself for 2,000 years. There is still a problem today and that problem has come here, and that is what some of us are fighting about. We are not trying to abolish caste, we are trying to abolish discrimination within a caste.

Discrimination can happen within a religion and it can happen across religions. Let none of us be proud of our own religion—instead, let us admit that we are all capable of a lot of hatred. We have only to find out why.