Cook's `tikka masala' race remarks provoke furious debate

 

Mr Robin Cook triggered a furious pre-election race row in Britain yesterday when he challenged Conservative leader Mr William Hague to "lead by example" and back a more "positive message" on immigration. The Foreign Secretary insisted he was not branding the whole Conservative Party as "racist" in a speech dismissing as "fantasy" the idea of an ethnically "pure" British race.

But Mr Cook was immediately accused by Conservative Shadow Cabinet Office spokesman, Mr Andrew Lansley, of a "grotesque misrepresentation" of Tory policy and of stirring the anxieties of ethnic minority communities in Britain.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr Simon Hughes, joined the controversy, agreeing that Mr Hague's recent controversial Harrogate speech had given "a green light to more racist attitudes" inside the Conservative Party. However Mr Hughes added that Labour "were not guiltless" on the immigration and asylum questions.

And Mr Cook's claim that "chicken tikka masala is now Britain's true national dish" prompted writer and cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar to write: "The popularity of this made-in-Britain dish arose from the willingness of Indian restaurants to be open all hours, and to serve the drunken dregs as they left the pubs. The notion of a multi-cultural Britain is as fake as chicken tikka masala itself." The chicken tikka row played out against a backdrop of denials by police and community leaders that Asian youths are creating "no-go areas" for whites in Oldham, and as the Campaign for Racial Equality (CRE) confirmed that a former Conservative minister, a serving opposition whip and a retiring Tory MP had refused to sign its compact not to exploit the race issue during the election.

And Labour stepped up the row last night, demanding that Mr Hague sack the whip, Mr James Cran MP, from his frontbench team. In his speech to the Centre for the Open Society in London he declared "legitimate immigration" the "necessary and unavoidable result of economic success" which generated a demand for labour faster than could be met by the birth rate of a modern developed country.

But the Conservative Party chairman, Mr Michael Ancram, reacted furiously to advance publicity for Mr Cook's speech suggesting that Mr Hague's depiction of Britain as a "foreign land" after a second Labour term had given succour to those with racist views.

Mr Cook told the BBC: "I welcome the fact that the Conservative Party has instructed candidates to avoid racist remarks. I regret they found it necessary." And in his speech he openly challenged the Tory leader: "If William Hague really wants to stamp out racism in his party, he should lead by example. He should tell his activists that standing up for Britain means standing up for traditional British values of tolerance and optimism."

Mr Ancram described Mr Cook's remarks as disgraceful and ridiculous: "Robin Cook was by innuendo accusing us of playing the race card."