My brother was an officer in the British Army until recently. He once told me the trick when marching, doing exercises or simply following orders was to be ‘the grey man’, i.e. blending into the background in the hope no one noticed your mistakes. Except if you were brown or black you stood out like a sore thumb and every mistake was remembered the next time. My brother also has a full beard and turban so blending in wasn’t so easy.
The news that Tory front-bencher Patrick Mercer MP was sacked by David Cameron yesterday not long after he made some pretty offensive remarks when talking about racism within the Army. You can read what he said in full from here. I’ll come back to his remarks in a minute, but first the reaction.
Both Daniel Finkelstein and Iain Dale explain why he had to go. Short answer: you cannot afford to annoy ethnic minorities. Unsurprisingly a good proportion of commenters at Iain Dale and Conservative Home called it an over-reaction and say it’s political correctness gone mad (so what’s new?). But to say Mercer was merely being ‘robust’ in his views, or this is an over-reaction, is dishonest.
For a start he said: “I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.” Well isn’t that nice? He might as well have used Ron Atkinson’s famous last words and said ‘they were lazy thick niggers’ because that’s what he is implying. Not only are ethnic minority officers in the Army lazy but they also use their race as cover! The cheek! No racial stereotyping of course.
In addition he’s implying it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to black servicemen as ‘niggers’ or abuse them as ‘black bastards’ just because it happens all the time and because they refer to redtops as ‘ginger bastards’. But what exactly is bad about having red hair? Nothing. But by being black, according to Mercer, means you’re likely to be using your race as a cover for your laziness.
It is a disgusting stereotyping and an insult to any ethnic minorities who join the armed forces. If he wasn’t racist he’d be trying to stop using racially derogatory terms, not perpetuate them further by saying they are acceptable and used regularly. And the idea that the Army is completely colour blind is also rubbish. Patrick Mercer MP is a prime example of why the forces needs an anti-racism trade union.
I would rather the Tories fired racists because they found the comments wrong in themselves not simply because they anticipate a backlash from ethnic minority groups. Doing so for political reasons alone is just dishonest and patronising.
And lastly, the second half of this article sheds more light on why foreign soldiers in the British army wanted to set up an anti-racism trade union. Anyone who doesn’t believe it happens only has to read up on how the Gurkhas have been treated.
Update: cross-posted to comment is free.
Update 2: Benedict White and Garry Smith have contrasting views.
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Filed in: Race politics