Frank Hester’s alleged remarks show that casual racism is still rife in Britain - Jayne Dowle

The awful, ugly slur made against veteran MP Diane Abbott reminds us just how corrosive so-called ‘casual’ racism can be – and the damage it causes.

When it emerged that tech/healthcare company boss Frank Hester - who has donated more than £10m to the Conservative party – had, in a 2019 meeting at his company’s Leeds headquarters, reportedly described Ms Abbott in derogatory terms referring to the colour of her skin and shared the delightful observation that she "should be shot", you might have expected the Prime Minister to do the honourable thing.

Return the cash and while he’s about it, recompense the value of a helicopter ride, also gifted by Hester in November for a Prime Ministerial political visit, at a reported cost of £15,000.

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But no, Mr ‘I’m living proof that the UK isn’t racist’ Sunak, has done nothing of the sort, whilst tying himself into yet another knot.

Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. PIC: PAFormer shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. PIC: PA
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. PIC: PA

Condemning Hester’s alleged comments as “wrong” and yes, “racist”, Sunak repeatedly told MPs that the Tory donor had apologised and his “remorse should be accepted”.

With only scant knowledge of the Conservative Party’s funding mechanisms, I can’t imagine in detail how that £10m is going to be used; presumably it will go into the general election fighting fund.

But to be honest, this political tinderbox is not just about the money. It’s about how, in this country, however much Sunak boasts that he presides over the most diverse Cabinet in history, reminding us that as the first British Asian Prime Minister, he is also a personal trailblazer, casual racism is rife.

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When this particularly nasty row has died down, racist slurs will still be amongst us, sowing the seeds of division and chipping away at our communities.

We cannot trust our politicians to sort this out, or lead from the front. If recent events are anything to go by, no senior figure has consistently got it right on ‘race’. Every time one of them opens their mouth, they make things worse.

Remember, we’re living in a country where the party of government has effectively reduced its popular identity to one phrase: “Stop the boats”. Whatever Mr Sunak says about racism, he can’t untangle it from immigration. And sadly, immigration has become the most emotive issue in politics.

Meanwhile, Ms Abbott herself is currently suspended from her own party and sits in the House of Commons as an Independent after an investigation was launched concerning a letter she wrote in April 2023 to a national newspaper referring to Irish, Jewish and Traveller people caused outrage.

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The Labour Party itself still reels from the well-documented anti-semitism that corrupted the Jeremy Corbyn years. And the response to this Hester/Abbott situation has hardly been robust; the entire focus of Labour statements on the matter so far has been on demands that the Conservative Party give Hester his money back, which is surely missing half the point.

It makes me wonder why, at that meeting in Leeds, no-one else around the table apparently called out Hester for his comments.

I can think of more than one occasion when I’ve been in a situation where someone has been shamefully rude to another person on grounds of ethnicity and I’ve been compelled to say something.

This has happened in the supermarket, in community situations and once, memorably, on a train, when an elderly man was so horrifically rude to a young Asian woman struggling to board with a baby in a pushchair he made her cry.

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Sadly, too, this is increasingly coming to the fore with younger people. Their world is highly-visual and snap judgements are made so quickly, with just one glimpse. Judging someone by the colour of their skin, or what they are wearing, is all too easy.

I’m proud to say that my son and daughter, aged 21 and 18, do not make such judgements. They go out of their way to be kind to everyone, because this is the way they have been brought up. When my son worked in a supermarket he would make a point of being extra-helpful to an African family who regularly shopped there, because too many of his less-tolerant co-workers would make derogatory comments and ignore their requests for assistance.

At school my daughter would worry if the African and Asian girls in her class were left out of social events and invite them along, whatever any of her classmates said.

Can we really kill racism with such kindness? Call me idealistic, but I believe we can. However, to make it stick, it needs political will. And sadly, this is in dwindling supply.

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