2017 was the year the West’s racist chickens came home to roost.
In British politics, much of the year was about dealing with the Brexit earthquake the year before.
At the start of the year, Theresa May had been PM for just 6 months and was well and truly in her honeymoon period. Britain’s second female PM was racking up approval ratings its first (Thatcher) would have envied. Eager to cement her place as the woman to lead the UK to a safe and successful Brexit, May was one of the first foreign leaders to visit the newly inaugurated Donald Trump. She also got some of her first serious criticism as PM for holding his hand at the White House and promising a state visit, even while he was desperately trying to ban as many Muslims from entering the US as he could.
May’s eagerness to push Britain to the front of the queue when it came to carving out a trade deal with the US, left her looking little desperate and light on principles. These frailties would come back to bite her later.
One man who could never be called light on principles or desperate to make friends was the legendary Darcus Howe. Howe, who passed away in April, spent more than 50 years arguing and campaigning for black self-determination in the UK, the US and the Caribbean. In 1970 he moved to Britain from Trinidad on a ‘civilising mission’ to teach Brits how to live harmoniously in a diverse society.
He led the defence of the Mangrove 9 in a case which helped show that black Britons could no longer be pushed around by the authorities without any comeback. The acquittal of the Mangrove 9, along with the judge’s acknowledgement of ‘racial hatred’ in the police force and authorities, was a watershed moment in British race relations. Whoever comes after him, and whatever battles they win, we’ll never see anyone quite like the Devil’s Advocate.
May surprised the whole nation when she called a snap general election on 18 April. With little warning, and after repeatedly saying she would let Parliament run its full course, May gave the country just 7 weeks to decide who would lead it through some of the most vital negotiations in our modern history.
She had expected the campaign to be a short procession to her coronation, but she massively overestimated her own popularity and underestimated her opponent – and the public’s desire for change in Britain.
At the start of the campaign, it looked like she was destined for a landslide to rival Blair or Thatcher, but with each passing day, it became clear that her party was offering nothing new. The real fresh ideas were coming from the Labour party and its ‘unelectable’ leader Jeremy Corbyn.
When the manifestos were launched, Labour promised to scrap tuition fees, build council homes, fund the NHS and protect workers’ rights while the Tories promised to take money from people’s pensions.
Up until the last minute, the political pundits and media commentators showed they’d learned nothing by their misjudgment of the previous year’s Brexit vote and swore blind Labour was set for a hiding.
The exit polls suggested it and Marsha De Cordova’s stunning victory in Battersea proved it; the election was little short of a disaster for Theresa May and the Conservatives. Instead of securing a landslide, May had lost her majority. Young people and minorities had voted in large numbers and while Corbyn’s Labour party didn’t win enough seats to form a government, the Tories’ victory was pyrrhic and the PM was left scrabbling around for allies to shore up her premiership. As she limps from disaster to disaster, it now seems all but certain that Corbyn’s Labour party, with its most ethnically diverse shadow cabinet in British history, will take its place in Downing Street sooner rather than later. The people have spoken, and the people want change.
Politics is all about timing, and even before Theresa May had managed to form a government, it became clear just how tough her task of winning back the hearts of the nation would be when a 24-storey tower block caught fire, killing 71 residents.
At the start of the year, May had talked about ending the ‘burning injustice’ of economic and racial disparity in Britain. When Grenfell turned into a towering inferno in the middle of one the nation’s richest boroughs, it was clear that her words were just words. The PM was reluctant to visit the victims of the fire (many of whom were black or brown) and when she did she was met with boos and jeers. The residents of Grenfell had warned about fire safety in the building, which had no sprinklers but had been wrapped in flammable cladding to hide its ugliness from wealthy neighbours. They were ignored and the deaths are an indictment on today’s Britain with its stark divides and twisted priorities.
Grenfell forced Britain to take a look at itself. Social housing has been deliberately depleted and the people that live in these homes had been conveniently ignored. It should come as no surprise that the majority of children living above the fourth floor in Britain are black or Asian.
As, the political year rumbled on, inspired in part by the downfall of US film producer Harvey Weinstein and others, British politics seemed mired in sleaze.
Like powerful men everywhere, British politicians of all hues had to explain their inappropriate behaviour. Eventually, Theresa May had to fire her closest political friend Damian Green after he lied about thousands of pornographic images on his work computer and about his predatory behaviour with a female journalist. May had done everything in her power to keep Green in his job, but eventually, he was forced to quit to save her further embarrassment.
Earlier in the year, when it was revealed that international development secretary Priti Patel bizarrely held a string of unsanctioned meetings with senior Israeli politicians, including PM Benjamin Netanyahu, while on holiday, there was no such reticence to get rid of her. Political correspondents watched her flight path as she flew back from a planned trip to Uganda to be sacked after meeting the PM for just six minutes.
There must be nothing lonelier than being a black or brown Tory in trouble. You often have to ditch your community to get ahead, so when you stumble, you have no hinterland to fall back on. Just like Derek Laud and Lord Taylor of Warwick before her, Priti found herself blowing in the wind when the chips were down and her new white friends dropped her quicker than a hot bhaji.
Of course, her actions were reckless, but her treatment still seemed hash when compared to that doled out on everyone’s favourite buffoon Boris Johnson. Johnson undermined efforts to free British mum Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held in Iran on charges of seeking to undermine the Iranian state. He inexplicably claimed Nazanin had been ‘training journalists’ in Iran when she had simply been on holiday. His words risked adding another five years to her sentence, but a muddled apology and a trip to Iran was all he needed to dodge getting sacked.
Johnson has too strong a following within the Tory party to be fired, and May knows that keeping him inside her rickety tent is safer than having him running amok on the backbenches.
If Johnson escapes his fair share of criticism, it’s pretty clear who gets his portion (and everyone else’s). This year saw Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott come in for a torrent of abuse. Research by Amnesty International found that the Hackney MP received almost than half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs this year. Being disrespectful to Diane became a popular pastime for TV presenters, commentators and the public after a small slip up on a radio show gave them free rein to mock her mercilessly.
It was heart-warming to hear her receive a rapturous standing ovation on her birthday at this year’s Labour conference, when Corbyn called the abuse misogynist and racist. It might be small consolation for what she has to put up with, but unlike Priti, Diane knows her community has her back.
So goodbye 2017, you were another mixed bag, but at least you have left us with hope that 2018 may well be a brighter year.
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Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He is also vice chair of campaign group Race on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics. He tweets as @mowords
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