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2018 AGM keynote speech


A lecture given at The Race Equality Centre’s AGM,
24th September 2018

By Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral.




I would begin by affirming that advocacy for race equality necessarily implies racial justice and the continuous fight against racism, in all its manifestations. Furthermore, I would want to link this to contemporary manifestations not just of racism, but also the rise of the far right in political life, both in Europe and the United States, with the attendant populist policies and xenophobia directed against migrants, immigrants and minorities. I will touch upon what I fear may be a form of ‘creeping fascism’, and with Brexit undercurrents. These developments not only facilitate racism, but in fact widen stereotypical attitudes and portrayals that affect and impinge upon many who are black, Asian, Muslim, eastern European or whoever may be the victims of a form of majoritiasm that always seeks to exclude, persecute and even attack those who might be the current hate group.


I want to set some of this within a historical context, and which also has some personal resonances. This may be helpful not only as a historical record, but also with the view that the past can impinge upon the present and affect the future. We should be mindful of the dictum: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.


It was 40 years ago, January 1978 to be precise, that I was part of a movement that became known as Christians Against Racism and Fascism (CARAF). We met in the Friends’ Meeting House on the Euston Road in London to create the movement. The hall was packed with those wanting to support a Christian movement against the rising tide of racism and fascism as represented by increased support and electoral success of the National Front. I was elected to the Executive Committee and became the second chair. The National Front was an avowedly racist party made up of some very unsavoury individuals. There was the fear of increased support. However, in 1978, Mrs Thatcher, the leader of the Opposition, stated on Grenada Television that the country was at risk of being swamped by people of a different culture (note the water metaphor which often appears in anti-immigrant propaganda). Support for the National Front declined, and the Conservative Party, under Mrs Thatcher, won the General Election of May 1979. CARAF’s focus moved from just being anti-National Front to a general campaign against racism and fascism in mainstream society. The movement grew exponentially and employed a development worker to address meetings throughout the country. Pamphlets and books were produced, some at the sharp end of legality and possible action! I detail this bit of history in order to draw attention to the lack of support at the present time for movements campaigning against racism and fascism, not least within the Christian Church. The sense of both concern and urgency are not present, with some notable exceptions such as Hope not Hate, Unite Against Fascism, and suggestions for the revival of the Anti-Nazi League from such as John McDonnell. The sad reality is that very little has changed in forty years: racism is not only prevalent but increasing, as can be witnessed by the number of hate crimes reported, attacks against Muslims, and it is coupled with a fascist ideology represented by the far-right and xenophobia. Populism is a default position which claims legitimacy through grievance, whether real or imagined. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, in his book ‘Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and why it Matters Now’ (Canongate, 2018) suggests that ‘Populism is a denial of complexity’.


In this historical retrospect, I now want to return 80 years, to November 1938. This saw the event that came to be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass in Germany. The SA paramilitary force of the Nazi Third Reich, together with German civilians, went on a violent rampage throughout the country attacking Jewish individuals and buildings, including synagogues. There were at least 91 deaths. The night was a retaliation for an assassination of a Nazi German diplomat by a 17-year-old German born Polish Jew living in Paris. Kristallnacht represented the Nazi anti-Semitic policy that was to result in the final solution and the holocaust. In 2018, in the eastern German town of Chemnitz, right wing mobs ran rampage on several days attacking local migrants, whilst giving the Hitler salute. The cause was the stabbing and killing of a local man, allegedly by a Syrian and an Iraqi person and currently under arrest. The current issue of migration and refugees has given rise to far-right political parties in Hungary, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, has justified his racist policies as protecting Christian civilisation, reprising the Ottoman European invasion of the fifteenth century. In Britain, UKIP and far right sympathisers have used the issue of immigration as a fear induced metaphor that includes overtly racist views and speech to justify Brexit, including the threat of an influx of 70 million Turkish refugees following the imagined admission of \turkey into the EU. The current chair of UKIP, Gerard Batten, is advocating the admission of the far-right racist, Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) into the party as UKIP moves further to the right with an extreme anti-Muslim programme. Even Nigel Farage, a former serial leader of UKIP has expressed concerns about this direction of travel.


It is also no accident that there was little challenge to the then Home Secretary’s policy of vans driving around areas with significant immigrant populations advising possible illegals to go home prior to arrest, and a hostile environment policy towards supposed immigrants that directly impacted upon the Windrush generation and the horrendous consequences for so many people. In last Friday’s Guardian (21st September), Gary Younge wrote of the Windrush scandal, ‘today’s “scandal” was yesterday’s official policy’, and that Britain ‘has not reconciled itself to the racism in its immigration laws and practices that made this scandal possible’. The recently published 140-page from the Migration Advisory Committee details the lack of evidence for often peddled negative views concerning immigration, and rather paints a positive picture concerning the advantage of immigration to the life and economy of society. Myths and untruths are propagated to serve a right-wing and xenophobic political agenda, much of which resulted in the referendum vote to leave the EU.


It is my contention that these historical events have a relevance and impact upon the present situation, although, of course, the situations are not entirely analogous. Lessons, however, could be learnt. The correlation with the contemporary situation and the fascism of Italy and Germany in the 1930s is bitterly contested. The renowned and much respected historian Ian Kershaw, writer of such seminal works as the two-volume biography of Hitler (‘Hubris’, Allen Lane, 1998, and ‘Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000), ‘To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949’ (Allen Lane, 2015), and the recent ‘Roller Coaster: Europe 1950-2017’ (Allen Lane, 2018), together with advising the BBC on its programme ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’ (BBC, 1997), believes any comparison to be inaccurate. His argument is that we live in a continent of democracies where democratic roots have been quite firmly placed, we live in civilian societies and not military ones, and we have learned to collaborate and co-operate with each other in ways that were not the case in the 1930s.


However, Kershaw warns that if there were another economic crash things could turn really unpleasant. Many economists are arguing that another crash could easily happen given that our financial institutions are not as stable and robust as they ought to be following the 2008 crash, and that there is an unpresented level of consumer and personal debt. This is to say nothing of the economic fallout predicted following Brexit. I would argue that the populist and far right ideology would begin to have easy traction in such a scenario, that our social collaboration and co-operation are not as stable as Kershaw suggests, and that far right ideology is contagious. This is what often happens, in that mainstream political parties often adopt the policies and programmes of extremists in the wake of electoral challenge. The Conservative victory of 1979 is an example, as is the right-wing insurgency in the current Conservative Party threatened by the successes of UKIP.


Furthermore, as is evidenced in other parts of the European continent, the first to suffer both economically and socially, with the attendant threat and possibility of violence, are minority communities. White supremacists in the United States feel empowered by the position of the Trump regime to the point that the president even suggested an equivalence between such, including the Klu Klux Klan, and anti-racists and anti-fascists, in the demonstration and killing in Charlottesville, ostensibly over the removal of a statue of General Jackson, the confederate general who sought to preserve the privileges of slave owning states in the American Civil War. In an article in last week’s New Statesman magazine entitled ‘The Dark European Stain’, Thomas Meaney suggest that whilst liberals proclaim the return of fascism, other disturbing historical echoes go unnoticed. For example, the rise of populism, including the expansion of the market into every domain, combined with shrewdly targeted redistribution and social programmes, all wrapped in an appeal to racial solidarity and the demonization of outsiders, presents a real threat to minority communities.


Other developments include the white supremist, Steve Bannon, a former advisor to President Trump and now declared supporter of Boris Johnson, touting himself around Europe seeking to unite far-right parties and movements. Amongst Bannon’s supporters is Nigel Farage, and Bannon has openly supported Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League. It is too easy and perhaps too tempting to dismiss these movements and developments within both the United Kingdom and Europe as minor irritants, but the possible consequences are quite threatening. We can already witness the willingness of European countries to allow fleeing migrants and refugees to drown in the Mediterranean Sea rather than safely land after a perilous journey to seek both sanctuary and a better life. The significant number of such people fuels the fire of latent hostility to immigrants with all the clichés of threats to European and Christian civilisation, linked often to a fear of increased terrorism. Far-right populists prey on and foment these fears in order to secure a return to the certainties of fascist ideology and practice, exhibited in the desire for the charismatic and strong leader. This development represents a continuous plight for any form of racial equality and a cohesive society and nation. We should be aware of the danger and the threat.


Let me just say a few words about Brexit. I am a convinced remainder and believe that the Brexit vote in 2016 represents a disaster for our nation and the well being of UK residents, and especially those who are most vulnerable and from what are called minority communities. There are, of course, many reasons given for the vote to leave the European Union and these have been articulated perhaps ad nauseum. Much has been either untrue (and we know the examples) and much has been misunderstood. Taking back control is a myth. We have control of borders, and the real threats beyond our collective concern reside in the international monetary systems based in New York, Frankfurt, Shanghai or wherever financiers can destroy an economy and possible political order at a whim. Brussels does not represent a democratic deficit. Many European rules, all of which are agreed by member nations in the European parliament, have emanated in London, including the single market, and preserve much that we have come to value and enjoy. It is the immigration issue that many point to as a primary driver at the referendum. Much negative comments concerning immigration came from areas where there is little immigration as such.


There was confusion, which was never disavowed by ardent Brexiters, as to whom immigration refers. Those who are citizens within the EU have an entitlement to live and work wherever in the EU (this is free movement); immigrants from outside the EU are subject to immigration controls; those who are refugees or asylum seekers are entitled to protection and settlement under international law. It is my contention that there was much confusion between these different groups and that many voters thought support to leave the EU would restrict all immigration. Furthermore, there were possibly many who thought Brexit would address the presence of black, Asian and Muslim people, the majority of whom were not only legally settled over generations, but were settled legally as British citizens, irrespective of membership of the EU. It would be foolish not to recognise this dimension which would perhaps explain significant support for Brexit from within those areas where there had been little to no influx from other countries within the EU, the majority of whom would be white, and possibly Christian. The referendum of 2016 tapped into the latent and sometimes demonstrable racism that has always been a part of elements within white British society. Furthermore, there resides the possibility that any failure to address this reality could lead to increased and further support for the politics and rhetoric of the far-right.


Let me try to summarise and bring some of these thoughts together:


1. I take for granted the continued existence of racism in our society, and would link such to the rise of populism, xenophobia and far-right politics;


2. I would argue that such has never gone away and wold urge the need for continued vigilance and action;


3. Contrary to some contemporary thinkers, I believe there is the risk of the rise of fascism both within Europe and the United States, with the Russian State also being a possible example;


4. The need to understand the lessons of recent history and to learn the lessons therefrom (for example, in Germany, the Nazis polled less than 3% in the federal elections of 1928 taking 12 of 491 parliamentary seats; in 1930 18.25% with 107 seats of 577; in 1932 37.27% with 230 seats of 608. In 1933 Adolf Hitler was invited to be chancellor by a Conservative administration;


5. The reality of the continuous plight in respect of racism is evidenced by the Windrush scandal and the consequences of the 2016 referendum and Brexit;


6. As an example of costly resistance, I would return to an example from history and the Church. The Nazi regime in the 1930s attempted to unite the protestant churches into a pro-Nazi Protestant Reich Church. A number of clergy sought to resist this. In 1934 the Barmen Declaration was agreed, written in the main by the German theologian, Karl Barth, which denied Nazi ideology and led to the formation of the Confessing Church under the leadership of Pastor Martin Niemoller and included the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler and executed just before the end of the war in 1945. Niemoller, imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1937, wrote:

First, they came for the communists and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Other categories could now be added to Niemoller’s speech reflecting current examples. Bonhoeffer also wrote these words:

Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act

Words from history, but words which focus our continuous plight for racial equality and point to necessary action in our own times.