By TU Senan –
Finding myself face-to-face with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, or at least her large painted likeness, while I waited to interview David Cameron, reminded me of the on-going abhorrence of her legacy.
In April Australian Foreign minister Bob Carr revealed what he called Thatcher’s “unabashedly racist” comments – she warned him against allowing Indian migrants to “take over”. (1)
The Conservative Party’s toxicity on ethnic minority issues persists, largely unrestrained. At its most blatant the memory of British fascist Enoch Powell pushes even wealthy black and Asian voters away from the Tories. The BBC reports that in 2010 the Tories won only 16% of “the ethnic minority vote” and concludes that this is because they are seen as racist (2). David Cameron cannot escape the reputation and unpopularity of his ‘Nasty Party’ – as Tory Theresa May named it (3).
The reasons are manifold but as well as issues such as the mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence murder case and other high profile issues, polls show that two-thirds of voters think “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”.
The Tories compound this – they have a pitiful record of either standing candidates from a minority background or winning in the cities where populations are mixed. A New Statesman article pointed out that of the 124 urban parliamentary seats in cities in the north and Midlands, the Tories hold just 20 – or 16%.
The enormous unpopularity of the current government has already boiled over into inchoate expressions of rage – powerful and organised movements will come. When students attacked Tory HQ and during the 2011 riots a significant number of Black and Asian youth registered their anger against this government.
Therefore since the 2010 general election, which no party won, ethnic minority votes are becoming seen as a significant factor. Cameron knows he needs access to what the establishment parties arrogantly consider ethnic minority ‘vote banks’ for the 2015 election (4) – even to guarantee a dignified defeat!
Cameron, however, is already largely defeated in the battle for the hearts of Tamils in Britain. His decision to take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka angered almost all sections of the Tamil population, including those who supported the Tories in the past. Tamilnet, a leading Tamil news website, supported the call for ‘no Tamil votes and no Tamil money to the Tory party’ (5). The Tamil Solidarity campaign has also promoted this demand.
Faced with the total decimation of Tamils’ support in the future, the Prime Minister’s Office took extraordinary steps in the hope of softening the anger by luring sections of the Tamil media onto their side. On 7 November Cameron wrote an article for the Tamil Guardian on ‘why I am attending Chogm’ (6). In it he argued that “The right thing to do is to engage….if we are not at the table we have no way of encouraging the Commonwealth to take a strong stand on issues that we care about deeply in our country.”
On the same day Foreign Secretary William Hague, also preparing to attend Chogm, gave an interview to the key news programme Newsnight and Cameron gave me a brief but exclusive interview for Tamil station Deepam TV (7).
First I asked him what he has got to say to the outraged Tamils regarding his decision to visit Sri Lanka. He simply repeated that it is important to go to Sri Lanka to fix the ‘shared future’. However, Cameron admitted that he was appalled by the evidence unearthed by the latest Channel 4 No Fire Zone documentary by Callum Macrae. Cameron said to me on camera that he had watched this film. But two days later the PM’s office tweeted “PM: Been watching @NoFireZoneMovie. Chilling documentary on Sri Lanka. Serious questions to put to @PresRajapaksa next week”. Was the PM having a second look? Not sure. But this devastating film, like Callum’s previous documentaries, leaves no doubt that the current Sri Lankan regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war 2009. Cameron pledged to bring the world’s attention to these issues.
In a meeting held with some Tamil activists on the same day he was even forced to say he would ‘consider’ calling for an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. But one participant in that meeting reported how Cameron changed his tune after a staff member passed a note to him. However this represents an incredible u-turn on his behalf – only weeks ago Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow reported that William Hague had co-hosted a drinks party with the same Sri Lankan government.
The Sri Lankan government has so far not paid the slightest heed to any criticism. When pushed on this all Cameron’s solution is taking the British media with him which will bring the world’s attention. When Jon Snow grilled foreign secretary William Hague on Channel 4 news on the same day about the same question Hague also repeated the same mantra that they will ‘shine’ a light on Sri Lanka.
But on Saturday 9 November the Sri Lankan regime answered the Tories’ vague promises by putting a 222-page denunciation of Channel 4 in every press pack.
Hague, while agreeing that ‘engagement is not working’, continues to maintain that the British government can produce results by engagement. The next day the Tamil Guardian answered this in its editorial. It disagreed with the prime mister – rejecting that the “right thing to do is to engage”. In general all the efforts of Cameron to tempt the Tamils came to nought.
After Cameron departed, under the gaze of Thatcher in that study room I remembered Hugo Chavez’s legendary speech at the UN in 2006: “The devil came here… and it smells of sulphur still.”