Intolerant Britain?

McGhee, Derek
Open University Press, Buckingham
0335216749 (pb)

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Cover of book Derek McGhee detects identical language employed by both media and public in defining seemingly diverse phenomena as problematic. The same is true of proposed solutions to these problems. The book links (1) racism with (2) homophobia, (3) islamophobia, and (4) asylophobia. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a foreign reviewer of a book focused on domestic issues. This may explain why the term asylophobia mystified me.

The prefix refers to asylum seekers; a whole people is often hated because of presumed race, sexual preferences, or religion, but how, I wondered, could a set of people be hated because of seeking refuge from persecution? Would they not be viewed as a heroic people deserving of sympathy? Not if they are perceived as a fraudulent gang of pretenders seeking to better themselves economically at the expense of the locals. Chapter three analyses the prejudices displayed towards foreign asylum seekers. The rest of Intolerant Britain is concerned with racism and homophobia. McGhee's data consist largely of public documents: official reports, statements, legislation and newspaper reports. Chapter one is a comparative analysis of Lord Scarman's inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots and the MacPherson inquiry into the 1993 Stephen Lawrence murder. Chapter 1 concentrates on race and policing. McGhee takes the two inquiries as points on a time line, which reflect changes in British tolerance.

The older report focuses on the socioeconomic problems confronting Afro-Caribbean people in Brixton. The problem is located in the minority community. It follows that remedial measures must concentrate on that community with its high rates of poverty and unemployment. There is denial of 'institutional racism' in the Metropolitan Police, although it is conceded that there may be a few bad apples in the lower ranks. The MacPherson inquiry, on the other hand, points to racism as the locus of the problem. Hence racism, not the minority community, constitutes the proper target for social action. It is this radical shift in the temper of the times to which McGhee attributes a change in public perception of who and what is problematic and where corrective measures must take place.

I have placed the term 'institutional racism' in quotes because McGhee appears to be referring to widespread officially tolerated bigotry within the police. My understanding of the term is that it refers not to particular institutions such as a police establishment, but to the broader society in which bigotry is embedded. It is a racism of which we are not always aware and might well deplore in ourselves should it be brought to our attention. This contradicts McGhee's reference to institutional racism 'in the form of a conscious matter of policy originating from senior ranks.' I mention this disparity to prevent confusion among readers.

The second chapter shifts to Pakistani immigrants and to an examination of the construction of defensive barriers between groups. As I finished reading this book, rioting in French suburbs was entering its second week. Intolerant Britain would serve the French authorities well. For example, it is admirable to try to create understanding between dominant and minority communities or a sense of unity among peoples while simultaneously respecting differences. But these 'solutions' to intergroup problems cannot be effective when they ignore such things as unemployment, poverty, inadequate housing, and religious and racial bigotry.

There are parallels among the rioting in English milltowns, French suburbs and such US cities as Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The precipitating incident, whether the assassination of a heroic leader or the death of two teenagers, is a spark which creates the immanent explosion. Both the US and UK have taken slow, painful steps toward correcting injustices that generate the collective destructive behavior of hopeless minority peoples. For example, the barriers to employment and housing have been attacked in the US through affirmative action programs resulting in newly appearing black faces in all areas of the arts, professions and in residential neighborhoods where they were not visible before.

It is when McGhee turns to faith hate, that he may be on his most shaky grounds. He argues that there has been a shifting focus in the UK from racial to religious bigotry. It is no simple matter to sort out racial, ethnic, national, and religious differences. But McGhee is unhappy that racial and ethnic minorities receive considerable protection under British law while religious ones do not. I am inclined to view religion as more a matter of preference than an attributed characteristic such as race or ethnicity. This chosen identity leads almost inevitably to hostility toward those who make different religious choices. In 2005 there is no question but what innocent Muslims in the UK as well as elsewhere in Europe and in the US suffer from an upsurge in what McGhee calls 'faith hate.' The question is, do the haters focus on faith or perhaps on more visible ethnic and national identities? Nevertheless, the argument for equal protection under the law is consistent with McGhee's analysis of homophobia.

The book eventually turns to homophobia and the importance of building trust in its policing. A major contribution is the observation that the public definitions of the 'problem' as well as public responses to it are nearly identical no matter what the nature of the phobia. McGhee provides an analysis of the strategy by which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) communities are being transformed. The movement is from a state of public toleration toward community protection from hateful elements in society.

This analysis begins with a philosophical-political essay on British legislation, which intends to create active local participation with the national government. One key question is: Who can claim legitimacy as spokespersons for those whom officialdom would like to engage--the poor, the elderly, the homeless, the unemployed, various racial, religious, and national communities? This is one instance of what should be a broader concern among those advocating community participation in local decision-making processes. Who are those who step forward and how representative are they?

The final chapter focuses on the distinction between cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. The latter encourages ethnic identity and cultural isolation and insists upon tolerance toward the 'other'. The move toward cosmopolitanism allows no room for tolerance since it encourages a new, shared identity for all parties– a new British citizen. Although McGhee recognizes the dark side of cosmopolitanism, he fails to consider a process, which might evolve into the kind of assimilation from which a new blended citizen would emerge. There is evidence that it takes about three generations for such an assimilation process to complete itself. It requires a high degree of ethnic tolerance as a starting point and it does not succeed with all ethnic groups. The kind of cosmopolitanism McGhee describes is emerging in the US and Canada most notably among teenagers in large heterogeneous urban centers.

Intolerant Britain is an exercise in the sociological imagination. C. Wright Mills would have been delighted by its focus on the limits of treating 'private troubles' such as individuals who hate, in contrast to the more effective focus on 'public issues' such as ethnic communities whose collective identities generate invidious comparisons with other communities. The analysis of public documents provides a model for the illumination of unintended consequences of the best of official intentions. The world would be a better place if students, politicians, and policy makers could come to grasp the message of this thoughtful little book.

Irwin Deutscher
University of Akron, Ohio, USA