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Gary Younge
At ease with our diversity

It is a nation honest enough about its past to be confident about its present, because its historical self-image is underpinned not by the mythology of might and conquer but by the morality of right and wrong. It is a place where people are not demonised collectively because of who they are but judged individually by what they have done. A land, like any other, where the poison of racism will always be present but where the antidote of anti-racism will always be available for those who wish to use it.

Just over a year since the former Tory party leader, William Hague, made his infamous speech taking us on his own imaginary journey, it is time for us to embark on another. Given all the indications at present - the rise of the extreme right on the continent and in Britain and a home secretary who has reverted to talk of "swamping" - the scenario of Britain at ease with itself racially seems fanciful.

And yet research conducted by Mori for the Commission for Racial Equality and obtained exclusively by the Guardian suggests that, while there is cause for concern, given a little vision and a lot of leadership there is an even stronger case for optimism. Conducted through the month of April - during Le Pen's first-round victory in France but before the local elections in Britain - the national survey, complemented by smaller focus groups, reveals two camps.

The first is a stubborn rump of around 10% of white British people who are hostile to racial equality and antagonistic to the very existence of non-white people in this country. Given a percentage point either way, this is the consistent figure for those who believe that to be truly British you have to be white, who do not believe that it is important to respect the rights of minority groups and who strongly disagree with the statement: "We should do more to learn about the systems and culture of the ethnic groups in this country."

The second is a huge majority who not only understand that Britain is and always will be a multicultural society but who value it as such. The majority of British people do not connote Britishness and whiteness (86%), believe it is right to respect the rights of minorities (78%), and think British people should do more to learn about other cultures in this country (57%). Key among this group are the young, who on almost every indicator are more likely to have a liberal outlook on race than their elders.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the minority. Lest we forget, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National was able to break the mould of French politics with only 17% of the vote. Moreover, the elderly, who are most likely to vote, are massively overrepresented among them.

None the less, the overriding message of the report is clear. Despite September 11 and last year's disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, there is an overwhelming constituency in this country who would like to see the bourgeoning traditions of multiculturalism and aspirations for racial equality upheld.

As ever with race, such conclusions must be tempered by complexities and contradictions. Progress towards racial harmony is always uneven, often confused and always hampered by a lack of information. Attitudes towards immigration provide an example. Almost half of ethnic minorities and a third of whites think there are too many immigrants in Britain. When you see how many immigrants they think live in this country it is clear why. The mean estimation of the proportion of immigrants in Britain is 23%; the actual figure is around 4%.

Moreover the research showed a strong assimilationist streak among all races. More than a half of ethnic minorities and 80% of whites believe that non-white people should demonstrate a real commitment to Britain before they can be considered British and a third of whites believe those who settle here should not maintain the culture and lifestyle they had at home.
It is a view echoed by the Europe minister, Peter Hain, who in today's paper criticises Muslims for their "isolationist behaviour". "We need an honest dialogue about the minority of isolationists, fundamentalists and fanatics who open the door to exploitation and who provide fertile ground for al-Qaida extremists."

We also need an honest debate about the fact that that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who comprise the bulk of the Muslim community, are the ethnic groups most likely to be racially attacked, the least likely to be employed and the least likely to vote. What they would like immigrants to abandon is clear, but what they would like them to replace it with is not. When asked to come up with things they associated with Britain, respondents spoke of the royal family, countryside, fish and chips, drinking culture and people being reserved. "There is no consistent and homogenous sense of Britishness," concluded Mori. "People find [it] difficult to define."

But for all the inconsistencies, the big picture illustrates a nation that is not just ready but willing to accept a multi-racial future. For a government with crude, majoritarian instincts such as this, one would have thought it would have seized the opportunity. Instead it has grossly underestimated both the sophistication and the potential of the electorate.

What we need is leadership, to take us on a journey to a higher level. But not only has it not raised the level of racial understanding in this country, it has not even met it. Instead it continues to stoop to the lowest common denominator. For the past 12 to 18 months it has allowed the racial discourse to be defined by the minority who refuse to acknowledge change rather than the majority who wish to embrace it. No wonder half of white people think there will be more racial prejudice in 10 years' time than there is now.

There is at present a blank piece of paper entitled "British identity". But instead of writing anti-racism and equality all over it it has scrawled crime, immigration and asylum seekers. Not that these issues are unimportant. In fact, as the survey shows, ethnic minorities attach more importance to them than whites. Similarly, language tests and citizenship classes for new immigrants are supported by people of all races. But none constitutes a meaningful response either to rioting or racism.

When Blair and Blunkett say that to combat the extreme right we must make tough decisions they are right. It is their understanding of what those issues are which is mistaken. Lyndon B Johnson enacting civil rights legislation in the 60s was a tough decision. Blair including Sinn Fein in peace talks before the IRA had decommissioned was a tough decision. Facing down prejudice in your core constituency is a tough decision; playing up to it is not.

Over the past year Blair has shown a penchant for foreign journeys. If he cannot lead the nation on this one, he should at least follow it to a far, far better place.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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