Two reasons why firing James McGrath was right


5:26 pm - June 23rd 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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Boris Johnson yesterday sacked a senior advisor who said in an interview, responding to the suggestion by writer Darcus Howe that Boris Johnson’s election may trigger an exodus of older African-Caribbean migrants back to the West Indies, he said: “Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.”

Naturally the Tories are up in arms over this.

But there are two reasons why it was the right decision to make in my view.

1) The realpolitik reason. For the Tories to complain about mis-characterisation, mis-representation and saying its “political correctness gone mad” is rich given they’re just put out a document to character assassinate Gordon Brown. They’ve indulged in this for years, and on sensitive issues nuance always goes out of the window. Remember this furore over senior Libdem member Jenny Tonge? They are just to blame for the lack of nuance over political debates.

In that regard, only Fraser Nelson at the Coffeehouse seems to have correctly seen the writing on the wall.

2) Then there is the morally right decision. Telling minority groups to go somewhere else if they don’t like it here has long been part of the racist meme perpetuated by the BNP that says that these people might be born and bred in the UK, but they’ll never be truly British.

There’s an old BNP line: “Just because a dog is born in a stable, it doesn’t grow up to become a horse,” which is used when confronted with someone like me who sees himself quite firmly as a Briton.

As part of that narrative, anytime someone of a minority background questions their country’s policies – they are told to move to another country if they don’t like it. So for example, Melanie Phillips can complain that the country is in moral decay and no one raises an eyebrow but if a British Muslim says it then they’re told to head to the Middle East. You don’t belong here anyway – is the subtext.

Whether James McGrath, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Iain Dale or Tim Montgomerie like it or not – just using the phrase “move to another country if you don’t like it here” has deep associations with BNP language and terminology. For that reason, the phrase and its variations should never be part of acceptable discourse.

Update
From Bleeding Heart Show:

So the entire point behind the interviewer’s questioning was to make McGrath address the fear within minority communities that Mayor Johson has cloth ears when it comes to their concerns and only a half-hearted commitment to diversity, community and equality that his predecessor claimed to strive for. But instead of addressing this issue, McGrath just bulldozed over it with an insensitivity that’s hardly a positive attribute in an advisor to the Mayor of such a diverse city.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


1. Rob Knight

I have to agree with your conclusion, although Darcus Howe surely shares some of the blame for suggesting that ‘home’ for elderly black residents of London is still the Carribean, after having lived the overwhelming majority of their lives in London. If one looks at the positive, intentionally-made statements, his is far closer to the BNP than McGrath’s off-the-cuff response to that proposition. McGrath really only said that if people were really so offended at the notion of Boris as mayor that they felt the need to leave the country in which they have made their home (which, from a distance of 200 miles from London looks like a fairly daft proposition to me) then they should be allowed to exercise their choice and do so. That is not an inherently racist thing to say, insofar as it could apply to anyone who feels the need to leave London as a result of Boris becoming mayor.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this is the right way of looking at it. I mean, if the subject of the speculation had been, say, white Britons who might be speculated to be leaving London due to the election of Boris, would anyone have been offended at McGrath saying ‘let them go?’. If not, why not? McGrath never suggested that they didn’t belong in London – it was Darcus Howe who talked about ‘homelands’, and since London isn’t a prison, it’s perfectly acceptable for those who want to leave to do so, for whatever reason they so choose.

Absolutely right. I’m not a big fan of witch hunts. But that is not what the reaction to those comments by James McGrath has been. The comments were offensive and inexcusable and the sub-text is exactly as you analyse, Sunny. Not good.

It was a completely over-the-top argument from Darcus Howe (which is his stock in trade after all….) I am sure that not one single person has left the UK as a result of Boris Johnson’s election! I mean, Ken Livingstone hasn’t even left City Hall let alone London!

To some extent this puts me in mind of Lenny Henry’s gag about the BNP offering black people £3,000 to go home… he said he’d take the money because, after all, he’s only from Dudley.

Ultimately McGrath’s reaction is just that bit too childish to blow off. Yes, Darcus was being deliberately provocative with his comments – but when isn’t he? – but that’s no excuse for someone who’s supposed to be a ‘Chief Political Advisor’ and who should, presumably, know better than to rise to the bait.

My ‘absolutely right’ was for Sunny’s comments rather than Rob’s….Rob seems to be having an internal debate over this one but thanks for letting us listen in.

Sunny- did you get my email?

I have no idea whether McGrath is a racist or not never having met him. However, his comments were not by themselves racist and so he shouldn’t have been forced out.

Here’s why. Firstly McGrath didn’t suggest that anyone should would or could leave the country. Darcus Howe did. McGrath just responded to the effect that they should be allowed to do as they please. The fact that this was picked out, twisted and given a misleading headline does not change that facts of the case.

Secondly there is a more important realpolitik issue that should be taken into account, which is the fact that unnecessary sackings like this one does nothing but give ammunition to genuine racists like the BNP. When people lose their jobs for saying things that weren’t actually racist but can be portrayed as such, then it discredits the whole anti-racist cause. It is crying wolf and it is as much a recruiting sergeant for the Right as any Richard Littlejohn column.

Firstly McGrath didn’t suggest that anyone should would or could leave the country.

Do you have some difficulty understanding simple conditional sentences in English?

Do you have some difficulty in responding to an argument?

From your ‘blog’ it seems you have had a little difficulty in creating any.

I have to say I agree with Adam. The first time I read about it I wondered what the fuss was about, so he said that people aren’t being forced to stay here in response to someone saying that Johnson’s election would force people to leave the country. If someone has already suggested people will want to leave then how is it a racist issue to say what he did, especially given it’s clearly flippant manner.

It’s the kind of response we all see, which came across to me more as exasperation
than a malicious slur (subconscious or otherwise). I find it silly that there is only one acceptable answer to the question that was put, in a manner that stinks of desperate self-affirmation and seeking for a pat on the back. If the original question had been put in a less ridiculous way then perhaps they would have got the answer they wished, instead they made a stupid statement and got a stupid answer.

That said, McGrath in such a position should know better than to take such a risk, and we all know these sort of things are more about the perception through the media and the impact that has on the person above them in the command chain than what actually happened, so if only for reason 1) in Sunny’s article, it was an inevitability. It doesn’t make it any less pointless though.

You’re right, Sunny, except:

1) The Jenny Tonge reference. I hope you are saying that if Jenny Tonge got sacked for making a genocidal comment, then McGrath should be sacked for making a racist comment. (Which is right.) I hope you are not saying that Jenny Tonge’s comment was a molehill conjured into a mountain by Tory propaganda (because what she said was heinous, and not “brave” as Lib Dem Voice’s Kerry H idiotically claims)

2) Actually, when Melanie Phillips opens her mouth, all sensible people do a lot more than raise an eyelid, as most of what she says is deeply offensive. However, contrary to what you imply, she does come from a minority. Or are there more Jews in Britain than I thought?

A few responses:

Adam:
However, his comments were not by themselves racist and so he shouldn’t have been forced out.

Unfortunately its not so simple as that. Racism isn’t necessarily about simply saying – pakis smell or black people are all muggers. People can quite easily put themselves into contradictory positions by saying they’re not racist but they find it difficult to live amongst too many non-whites.

Its the legitimisation of a discourse that isn’t overtly racist – but pernicious in having the same effect. The point here is that it politically legitimises the discourse that non-whites have an alternative home.

Its not so different when the BNP and their sympthisers keep saying that blacks are getting all the housing. Then a mainstream politician picks it up and it becomes legitimate discourse…. and suddenly the BNP’s talking points become part of the national conversation without there being evidence. People then say – of courseits not racist because they’re blaming the council people… but the impact is the same.

When people lose their jobs for saying things that weren’t actually racist but can be portrayed as such, then it discredits the whole anti-racist cause.

Yes and no. I don’t know where the dividing line is… though I do know that when Lee Jasper and Ken Livingstone were crying racism because he was being investigated – I didn’t say it was racism.

The legitimisation of such discourse must be opposed at all times. Littlejohn and their ilk will cry wolf anyway – that is their job. If they can’t find stories they’ll make them up. Why should we be afraid of their hysterics? We have to be confident enough on the left of drawing our own line in the sand.

Bob
1) Yes, the first. But the point isn’t that Jenny Tongue was saying she would like to become a suicide bomber. Its more nuanced than that… but I can see how many people would be outraged that it becomes part of the discourse. Same goes here.

2) On Mel – well I don’t take her seriously because 99% of the time I’m opposed to whatever she’s advocating. But I take her seriously in that unless her garbage is countered, then it becomes part of other people’s conversations.

She may be part of a minority but the same standards don’t apply – she can talk about moral decay while other Muslims can’t. She’s seen as a conservative commentator, not a Jewish writer who wants people to convert to a different religion. So she’s not seen as a threat…

But McGrath didn’t say that the country has too many blacks did he? He didn’t even imply it. All he said was that if older afro-Caribbean males felt the need to leave the country because Boris was mayor then thy can go ahead and do so. The most I can see wrong with it is that it is disrespectful to a section of the electorate in the “well they aren’t our supporters so fuck ’em” sense of the word.

Sunny, If he was legitimising any discourse then it was Darcus Howe’s. The suggestion that there would be a ‘mass exodus’ of Carribbean immigrants if Boris came into power was at best laughable and at worst incredibly patronising. Faced with a comment like that I think it is entirely understandable (although obviously extremely unwise) for him to have reacted in the way that he did.

Look I don’t want to defend him too much. For all I know this comment was just the tip of the iceberg, but I can’t see how sacking him has done anything but create more resentment and tension than would have been the case.

You are right of course that Littlejohn et al will bang on about this kind of thing regardless. However it makes it a lot easier to argue against their extreme reactions when you don’t make extreme reactions yourself. I understand all the political and PR reasons why he should have been fired, but I think there is a more important issue here, which is truth. Were his comments racist? I don’t believe that they were.

Because I think there has been some real doublethink in the defence of the Tories decision here. Most people accept that the comments were not by themselves racist but at the same time believe that he should have been sacked because they can be interpreted as such or because they are similar to genuinely racist comments. This to me is very dangerous thinking and not a million miles away from the extremes of McCarthyism. Either the comments were racist or they were not. If they were not but can be interpreted as such, then he should have explained and apologised for any offence. But to sack him is to play into the hands of the very people who genuinely hold those views that, as far as we can tell, McGrath does not.

@ Adam B

“unnecessary sackings like this one do nothing but give ammunition to genuine racists like the BNP. When people lose their jobs for saying things that weren’t actually racist but can be portrayed as such, then it discredits the whole anti-racist cause.”

Good point. It’s this kind of anti-common-sense approach that frustrates a lot of people. Who says this guy is ACTUALLY a racist? And by what definition of ‘racism’?

@ Sunny

“People can quite easily put themselves into contradictory positions by saying they’re not racist but they find it difficult to live [or marry] amongst too many […]whites.” (my edit…)

The sort of crude approach which always singles out white racism to the total exclusion of the racism that exists among BME communities is also in fact feeding the BNP. People are not seeing real even-handedness in the handling of race issues, and it frustrates them.

It is very obvious to most people with a brain that ‘anti racist’ in the campaigning sense is a term which has been hijacked by the left as a shorthand for ‘anti right wing’ (in an attempt to slur the two positions together) and in fact is very openly anti WHITE racism, not anti any other kind of racism.

It is very silly to expect people outside the hard left to buy this ‘anti racist’ line when it looks increasingly one-sided.

Most of the people turning to the BNP are only doing so because of failiure by the big 3 parties to engage with common-sense grievances. Sacking James McGrath hasn’t really advanced genuine racial harmony one bit.

The sort of crude approach which always singles out white racism to the total exclusion of the racism that exists among BME communities is also in fact feeding the BNP. People are not seeing real even-handedness in the handling of race issues, and it frustrates them.

So racism against non white people is equal to racism against white people and between non white people? Nothing about the dynamics of power then or the institutional marginalisation that exists in our society. Nothing either about the legacy of slavery and empire which formed the path toward present racism…?

This is such a ridiculous story. James McGrath gave a blunt response to an incredibly stupid question. On what basis was this idiot saying that all these Afro-Caribbeans are just going to up and leave because Boris is Mayor? That’s the kind of remark I’d expect to hear down the pub, not in a political interview. McGrath’s response was not very smart but it was certainly in-keeping with the apparent tone of the interview.

“Whether James McGrath, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Iain Dale or Tim Montgomerie like it or not – just using the phrase “move to another country if you don’t like it here” has deep associations with BNP language and terminology.”

Actually, the phrase has a lot to do with the Australian immigration system which takes precisely that approach and has done for years. McGrath was just speaking like an Australian.

http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com

@ Leon

“So racism against non white people is equal to racism against white people and between non white people?”

YES! It must be.

“Nothing about the dynamics of power then or the institutional marginalisation that exists in our society. Nothing either about the legacy of slavery and empire which formed the path toward present racism…?”

And here we get very quickly to the heart of the left wing position.

It’s not about REAL racial equality and even-handedness, it’s just window dressing for a Marxist political and economic viewpoint.

That’s fine, as long as you don’t want to re-capture voters who have NO CONNECTION to slavery or empire, and just feel like they are being treated unfairly to satisfy someone else’s ideology.

By denying their grievances mainstream recognition you are abandoning them to extremists.

YES! It must be.

And the date supports this I take it?

By denying their grievances mainstream recognition you are abandoning them to extremists.

I don’t deny them just try to understand the context that’s created our society as it stands. You never heard of the saying ‘Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it’?

“And the date supports this I take it?”

???

It is patently important to put everything in context. Would the blacks in South Africa tell the white among them to move out if Mbeki is playing funny politics?

“And the date supports this I take it?”

???

Data.

“And the data supports this I take it?”

I mean it must be in that it morally ought to be.

I actually can’t believe you have questioned whether ‘”racism against non white people is equal to racism against white people and between non white people?”

This is exactly the sort of counter-intuitive thinking that is alienating voters.

If you are e.g. a white or Asian person who has suffered racist targeting from a black person, are you supposed to just say ‘that’s OK, I understand the context’?????

equality = equality

racism = racism

common sense = common sense

“It is patently important to put everything in context. Would the blacks in South Africa tell the white among them to move out if Mbeki is playing funny politics?”

While we’re putting things in context, McGrath never told anyone to move out of the country if they don’t like Boris.

Sunny has a good piece in CiF about all this, especially liked the way he’s taken the right to task over their ‘outrage’: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/24/boris.race

25. Chris Wyremski

Sunny,

Please listen to Adam and Lee; you are being quite unreasonable. The man was sacked because like Mr. Mercer before him, he was wrongly accused of racism by a small set of intolerant bigots. No doubt, he thought the air of England was too free for such fascistic censoriousness –but he had been thinking of another country and they took away his job. Only a fool who has been educated beyond his own intelligence could argue himself into believing that his punishment was fair and just; a person such as Boris Johnson perhaps or David Cameron for instance.

And both the Mercer and McGrath episodes illustrate a profound problem with our overly intellectualized but badly educated and frivolous country; the concept of virtue has changed. Virtue is no longer the exercise of stoicism, modesty, patriotism, unsung heroism, responsibility or self-sacrifice; it is expression of the correct opinions of the day.

The old virtues were difficult and many people fell short of them, but our society was wholly committed to them. They proved to be just too demanding for the post-war generations and this is why ,for the most part, they were discarded. They can still be found, but only in people who are of little importance. They have practically no relevance in public administration today (Read Peter Oborne’s very illuminating book “The Triumph of the Political Class”)

These days you can be a devious, ruthless, avaricious, careerist, adulterous, drug-addict but if you ‘care’ as noisily as you can on Tibet, on global warming, or on land-mines or AIDS in Africa then it is taken a sign of virtue. This lends rapidly to the notion that the more you care, the better you are and your moral worth can be based on the strength of your opinions.This moral confusion is the reason for why people such as Mr Mercer and Mr McGrath were sacked.

To take Col. Mercer, a man who risked his life for his country along with his black soldiers who both liked and respected him. Whilst he was wearing the Queens uniform, Dave and Boris were posing in their dinner jackets and boozing and vomiting about the streets of Oxford. Yet, strangely, it is Dave who leads the Tory Party and who sacked Mr Mercer for saying something that was politically incorrect but which did not condone racism (nobody actually doubts its truth but this is unimportant).

Today words are the test of virtue. But sanctimonious, politically correct words go very well with ruthless self-interest and political expediency.

And another thing, the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ is a stupid one because PC is a stern, purposeful movement that sets out deliberately to stop people from saying and thinking unorthodox things. Some of it is a simple plea for good manners, and it succeeds largely because of this. It claims that it is the only force that can stop people being rude or dismissive towards racial minorities, women or homosexuals. But it’s objective is at least partly to force conservatives into situations which can be deliberately misconstrued and misrepresented. Mr McGrath is its latest victim.

The sort of crude approach which always singles out white racism to the total exclusion of the racism that exists among BME communities is also in fact feeding the BNP. People are not seeing real even-handedness in the handling of race issues, and it frustrates them.

I’m not sure any even handedness exists anyway.

Most of the stories made up about Muslims or ethnic minorities in the media are made up – you only have to read the blogs of Obsolete or 5 Chinese Crackers to see how. And yet where do you hear the outrage from minority groups when they’re mis-represented? You don’t because they’re not allowed to express that outrage through the papers who make up those silly stories anyway.

I take the point about how this feeds their grievance… but I’m not obsessed by that because I monitor the press and I know that they’ll find something else to feed their grievance. That is in their nature.

On the other hand, I do like the fact that a precedent has been set whereby someone in a political position is severely remanded if they talk about telling people to go home if they don’t like it here.

I don’t expect this to be a popular position because this is one of those situations that fall in the middle – on one side you have stuff like MArtin Amis considering that Muslims could be locked up enmasse…. and on the other side you have Lee Jasper’s pathetic defence.

My gut feeling is that as it stands, that phrase should not be part of acceptable discourse. I’m not obsessing too much about giving the BNP ammunition or LittleJohn ammunition over this. I do that when for example a Muslim person is let off lightly for being punished for a crime when “their culture allows it” or something like that.

“and on the other side you have Lee Jasper’s pathetic defence.”

…not to forget Naomi Campbell, wearing the race card even thinner as she assaulted the police…

I agree. I have no sympathy for that kind of race-card playing….

but I do balk at any suggestion that “go back to where you came from” or any variation of that could become accepted discourse in any way.

Look I don’t want to defend him too much. For all I know this comment was just the tip of the iceberg, but I can’t see how sacking him has done anything but create more resentment and tension than would have been the case.

Adam, I know where you’re coming from and this is my view in most cases too. But does the right ever censor itself when it wants to get outraged over something because the left might get annoyed over it? No they don’t.

So I ask myself – should I be more worried about annoying right-whingers like Littlejohn, or should I be more willing to take a stand at this sort of language going unremarked? In this case, I take the latter.

If he had have said ‘go back to where you came from’ then i would absolutely support him being sacked, but he didn’t. Wadsworth and Howe came much closer to saying that than McGrath did but it is McGrath that has suffered. Wadsworth also deliberately stitched his interviewee up by misreporting the story and by putting a false quote into the headline. This was totally unacceptable just as it was totally unacceptable when the Evening Standard did the same during the mayoral election campaign.

And this is what it comes down to.Truth is vastly more important to me than any other consideration here. Just think of all the ways that Obama and his wife’s comments have been twisted to make them sound like they are un-American. For many Americans being un-American is just as bad as racism. Should Obama stand down because he is perceived as unpatriotic? Doesn’t somebody’s true beliefs and somebody’s actual words matter at all in this?

As for annoying Littlejohn, I would happily do that all day long. However, I’m not willing to do it in a way which is counterproductive to fighting racism.

Ultimately though McGrath was sacked for purely political reasons to avoid any mud sticking to Boris. The truth of what he actually said and what actually happened didn’t matter to Cameron and the Tories anywhere near as much as the political strategy. Hey, I know that’s politics and I wouldn’t expect anything else. I just don’t think that we should be applauding people for sacking a man for something he didn’t actually do.

Yes, he had to be sacked. Exactly why he answered the question, which carried so many negative assumptions, I don’t know… more thoughts about this on my blog…

31. scott pollard

I attended high school with James in Australia, to accuse him of racism is ridiculous. James is an extremely passionate person and (rather stupidly) lashed out after some invictive questioning. These comments were made off the cuff and out of frustration. It’s not the politicians (or advisors) that are the problem in regards to race relation in your country, it’s the one-dimensional tirades promoted as journalism.

James McGrath is a man of high integrity and sound moral value, who hopefully doesn’t pay too high a price for one slight error in judgement.


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