MPs claimed a new requirement that MPs be anti-racist would stop them speaking in the Commons, saying the idea was ‘Orwellian’ and ‘hogwash’.
The Standards Committee recommended in November that a new principle of “respect” be added to the code of conduct for MPs. The change would require MPs to “demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviors through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.
But the committee has received letters from the government, as well as 11 MPs, opposing the addition, which is currently under consultation.
The government suggested the addition would have a “chilling effect on free speech” in its formal written submission to the committee.
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“We would not want to stifle legitimate debate on politically contentious issues that are important to our democracy – as a side-effect of the proposed new requirement of ‘anti-discriminatory attitudes’ or demonstration of ‘inclusion and diversity’ “wrote Commons Leader Mark Spencer. and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Stephen Barclay.
Several MPs claimed that the meaning of anti-racism was not defined or was too politicized.
Tory MP Desmond Swayne said the change was ‘a step towards Orwell’s concept [of] ‘thought crime'” and silence far-right politicians.
“While I find the views of some ‘far right’ political organizations abhorrent, it would in fact be a grave mistake to potentially exclude from Parliament any representative for whom they could secure the election,” he wrote. .
Tory MP Aaron Bell said the new principle “would represent an important flashpoint for both definitional arguments about the meaning of ‘inclusion’, ‘diversity’ and how we can say that the we behave in an anti-racist way”.
Bell added: “These are not undisputed terms and they are loaded with meaning and emotion for marginalized communities.”
Maurice Mcleod, chief executive of anti-racism organization Race on the Agenda, said Bell’s comments were “odd”.
“Is what he’s saying is we don’t want to talk about this stuff, because it pisses off black people and they’re sensitive? It kind of feels like it,” he told openDemocracy.
‘This would make its way to my Wiki page’
Elsewhere in the consultation, Conservative MP Amanda Solloway wrote: “The need to ‘demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behavior’ is particularly dependent on one’s perspective.
Another MP said he feared any breaches of the proposed anti-racism code would end up on his Wikipedia page.
“I have been repeatedly accused of racism by political opponents for having defended the victims of the CSE [child sexual exploitation], although they deliberately did not refer to the ethnic origin of the authors. It could now become a formal complaint, with a headline of ‘MP reported to Standards Commissioner for racism’. This would then make its way to my Wiki page in perpetuity,” Tory MP Lucy Allen wrote.
Mcleod said the responses to the consultation were another example of “dishonest” objections to anti-racism.
“There’s a habit right now of obsessing over terminology, rather than dealing with the real issues at play. So rather than dealing with structural racism, you wonder if structural racism is a thing,” said he declared.
“Instead of being honest and saying, ‘We don’t like this, we feel like this makes us ask questions that we don’t really want to ask. [MPs] spoil the language,” he added.
An unnamed MP who told the committee the proposal was ‘a pile of rubbish’ and that he was ‘just trying to be awake’.
Another, who also did not want to be named, said getting MPs to commit to the fight against racism would amount to “promoting a particular agenda”.
Only one named Labor MP wrote to the committee to oppose the proposal. Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow leader of the House of Commons, said that “the introduction of a formal principle of respect could significantly increase the number of vexatious or inappropriate complaints that are politically or personally motivated”.
But Mcleod said: “The only controversy around anti-racism is whether people want to buy into it or not – whether people actually think ending structural racism is something you want to do or not.
“I don’t think it’s controversial. I don’t think that in the society we claim to live in, but it’s something that’s open to debate. My equality is not a question.
MPs are already bound by the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life, implemented in 1995, which include the requirement that they act “without discrimination or bias”, but make no explicit reference to racism.