Better anti-Racism, please!
“Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.”
He was subsequently fired City Hall, presumably because this sort of stuff doesn't fit with the Cameron/Johnson "Cuddly Conservatism" (or whatever the hell it's called) branding strategy.
Now obviously it was racist. Notwithstanding his insistence that he's obviously right, Liddle's arguments to the contrary are really pretty weak:
Clearly he meant that people, regardless of their ethnic origin, who had no wish to stay in London while Johnson was mayor could clear off.
This is silly. It would be poltical suicide to suggest that anyone who didn't like Johnson's policies could clear off. Politicians, on being told that their policies might lead to a mass exodus of a certain group, aren't usually in the habit of responding that they don't give a shit, because having policies that cause people to want to leave the place is usually thought of as a bad thing. Most accomplished apparatchiks would thus have come out with a list of reasons for why their policies would actually do good and wonderful things for the elderly Afro-Carribean community, whether or not that was the case, because most politicians try not to alienate any constituency unless they have a good reason.
Look at it another way: if Ken Livingstone had come out with the same response on being told that such and such a proposal would lead to an exodus of the middle classes, the Tories would have, entirely correctly, branded him a class warrior and tried to make political capital out of it.
Incidentaly, it probably didn't take a genius strategist at Tory HQ to realise that this guy was political poison and needed to be got rid of. Would you really want to have the opposition waving the “Well, let them go if they don’t like it here” slogan at you every time you passed a policy that was going to have some sort of adverse effect on minorities? McGrath's statement on the incident, where he claims he's " felt that this suggestion [by Howe] was ridiculous and intended as a slur" shows that the Tories have a pretty good idea of where the flak will be coming from.
Liddle would have to be quite spectacularly naive not to understand this, so it's probably safe to conclude that he's not really playing with a straight bat, and that his outrage over "the stifling of free, plain speaking and, by extension, plain thinking" is really a Trojan Horse for something a bit less enlightened, as Hundal rightly points out.
But from this promising start, he manages to kick what I see as a bit of an own goal, by saying that the problem with Liddle and McGrath is that they're "feeding a racist narrative":
Telling minority groups to go somewhere else if they don’t like it here has long been part of the racist agenda perpetuated by the fascist British National Party (BNP) that says that these people might be born and bred in the UK, but they’ll never be truly British.
That might be part of the problem, but it's not really the problem, or at least it's a very weak way of phrasing it. Government investment in British firms has long been part of the BNP racist agenda, but no-one would reasonably suggest that that's a reason to stop doing it. Liddle has some easy fun on this account:
And here’s the justification for the sacking: one commentator, Sunny Hundal, said that telling black people to clear off “has deep associations with BNP language and terminology”. Another said: “We have heard similar comments from racists.” So in fact nobody suggested that McGrath had been racist – he clearly hadn’t – merely that racists had said the same sort of thing in the past. So now you can be done not for being racist per se, but for saying things that aren’t actually racist but that people who are known to be racist might have said. Bizarre.
Hundal tries to refute all this by pointing out that he was saying something that echoed the BNP and that racist narratives matter, and they do, but this seems to me to miss the important point, which is that McGrath didn't deny the basic premise! I mean come on: Journalist suggests that Johnson will make old black folk leave the country, Mayor's aide says that's fine by him? The way the aide chose to phrase that sentiment is not the big story here. The story is that he's done nothing to deny the suggestion that Johnson's policy agenda is racist. This should have triggered off a round of folk looking to put some meat on the bones, digging up various Johnson policy statements and taking them apart to see whether the dots joined up into some sort of stealth immigration policy, which could then be used to beat him every time he tried to sneak through policies that seemed to work against minorities. The point would be to try and make any covert racism explicit, and racist narratives may be a part of that picture, but they aren't the whole thing. If there's any of that around, I've not been able to find it.
More generally, I think Liddle's on strong ground when he argues that the concern with what people say is coming at the expense of what they do, although I disagree with him in thinking that this is something that hurts socially conservative politics. By focusing on the rhetorical aspects of policy, people who focus on anti-racist narratives can end up working as a fairly effective vetting office for making sure that racist sentiment doesn't slip out. The last line of Marc Wadsworth's original piece about McGrath illustrates the point nicely:
Curtly, [McGrath] added: “I get where you are on the radar, sunshine.” Again, not a politically correct thing to say to a Black person. But, hey, these Tories have not yet been running the show in London for a 100 days. They will have to learn quicker than the London traffic or fall on their sword.
If the plan is just to teach the Tories how to disguise their racist polices better, then anti-racist campaigning in the UK is in a pretty fucked-up state.