Oh Mercer, Mercy me…

Well, well, well… what are we to make of yet another story of a Tory-in-a-tangle over a race relations matter?

According to Iain Dale, while Cameron was right to sack Patrick Mercer from his, now former, front bench position, there are things to be said in mitigation of his remarks:

He would be the first to admit that his remarks today were naive, insulting and unwise. I say this with a heavy heart because I do not believe Patrick to be racist, but if I had been in David Cameron’s position I would have fired him too.

And, you know, having got around to reading what Mercer actually said I can’t say that I disagree overmuch with Iain’s take on events. Naive and unwise sounds about right, but as for insulting…?

Well, this is what he actually said…

“I had the good fortune to command a battalion that was racially very mixed. Towards the end, I had five company sergeant majors who were all black. They were without exception UK-born, Nottingham-born men who were English – as English as you and me. They prospered inside my regiment, but if you’d said to them: ‘Have you ever been called a nigger,’ they would have said: ‘Yes.’ But equally, a chap with red hair, for example, would also get a hard time – a far harder time than a black man, in fact,” he said.

“But that’s the way it is in the Army. If someone is slow on the assault course, you’d get people shouting: ‘Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard.'”

Mr Mercer added that he knew soldiers from ethnic minority backgrounds who used racism as an excuse for poor performance.

“I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours,” he said.

“I remember one guy from St Anne’s (Nottingham) who was constantly absent and who had a lot of girlfriends. When he came back one day I asked him why, and he would say: ‘I was racially abused.’ And we’d say: ‘No you weren’t, you were off with your girlfriends again.'”

Condemning the announcement of the formation of a new trade union proposed by Marlon Clancy, a serving soldier who was recruited from the Commonwealth in 1999 and complained of several incidents where he was racially abused, the MP for Newark said: “Absolute nonsense. Complete and utter rot.”

He added: “In my experience, when you put on the uniform then all differences disappear. If you are a good soldier, you will do well. If you are a bad soldier, you will leave prematurely. There is a degree of colour-blindness among the vast majority of soldiers.

“I never came across a piece of nastiness inside the battalion that was based exclusively on racism.”

I don’t know about you, but what I see there is much more after the fashion of Colonel Blimp than it is the Ku Klux Klan.

Mercer’s error here amounts to one of indulging in injudicious generalisations – ‘I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours’ – and yet in there, there lies a grain of truth. There are people within ethnic minority communities, in all walks of life, who will throw around claims of racism as nothing more than a means of covering their own arse – the fact that in many cases the racism that people experience is real doesn’t not mean, in itself, that the Ali G defence – ‘is it because I’s Black?’ – is a figment of peoples’ imagination. The difficulty, as ever, is in distinguishing accurately between the two.

The simple fact is that, to some extent, I can see his point here. Certainly, when I was younger (at sixth form college) some of banter than routinely flew back and forth across the common room was far from politically correct, but it took place in amongst people who took it for what it was, a bit of banter amongst people who operated under a mutual understanding that there was no racist intent behind it.  In the case of a couple of guys who were the firmest of friends, every morning stated with pretty much the same ritual greeting:

 ‘Mornin’ Honky Bastard… Morning, you dumb Paki…’

Having said that, had anyone else spoken to either them in the same way then they’d have almost certainly got a battering from both, but that’s one of the reasons why these issues are so complicated. Customs vary, as they say. People naturally develop and establish their own social mores and its can often be the case that what, for some, would be consider a mortal insult would, for others, be no more than a personal in-joke.

If Mercer is generalising to poor effect, then very much the same can be said of the comments of Michelynn Lafleche, chairwoman of the Runnymede Trust:

“That is an entirely inappropriate response,” she said.

“This is entirely the sort of thing that we have laws in place to deal with. Racial discrimination and racial harassment are against the law no matter who you are, and that means the Armed Forces as well.

“Other organisations have taken racism very seriously such as the police, as well as the Army and the Navy, in fact. Mr Mercer’s reaction is entirely inappropriate, completely unhelpful, and really quite shocking.

“They are certainly inappropriate for an MP who is meant to be representing a constituency in which, I am sure, ethnic minority residents live.”

Mercer is certainly wrong to dismiss, out of hand, the motives of Marlon Clancy in setting up a ‘union’ to represent Commonwealth soldiers, although judging from his remarks one has to serious wonder quite whether Mercer was given the full context of Clancy’s actions before being asked to comment:

The controversy came after Mr Clancy, who is from Belize, said he was setting up his trade union because the 6,000 serving Commonwealth troops in the UK were being treated as “third class soldiers”.

The union will not have the right to strike under Armed Forces rules, but will be able to confidentially advise ethnic minority servicemen and women in the event of discrimination or other problems, he said.

“Commonwealth soldiers are third class soldiers. First you have British-born white soldiers, then you have the British-born black soldier, then, last, you have the black Commonwealth soldier,” he told the BBC.

“I am hoping this will open up a doorway for the Army to let these people know of their rights and give them what they are entitled to, and the justice they are entitled to as well.”

Mr Clancy said that he had decided to launch the union after his complaints – including an attack by fellow soldiers dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits – were ignored by the Army chain of command.

“As a serving soldier I’ve gone through the chain of command time and time again within the seven-and-a-half years I’ve been in the Army and time and time again the chain of command has failed me,” he said.

That’s something that, probably, only Mercer knows – unless word has reached Iain through his own channels – but it wouldn’t be any great surprise to me if what was put to Mercer was only that the formation of this ‘union’ was taking place, without the additional context of Clancy’s apparent experiences. To my mind, context is vital is fairly and accurately assessing Mercer’s comments – for him to have been so dismissive in the full knowledge of Clancy’s background and complaints would be a very different matter to his being dismissive simply of the formation of such a union without it having been explained to him why that had come about and that, in turn, may have had a considerable influence on his response.

Who knows for sure – not me, certainly, and that’s why I find it impossible to unequivocally condemn Mercer for his remarks, foolish and insensitive as they were, without knowing the full context in which they were made. To borrow a phrase from the Scottish judicial system, it’s case ‘not proven’ on the evidence I have to hand.

Michelynn Lafleche is quite correct in noting that racial discrimination and racial harassment are against the law – but then, for the law to become involved there must first be a complaint from a victim, and that’s where things become rather more complicated because what one is relying on, there, is someone seeing themselves as having been discriminated against, harassed or victimised.

Undoubtedly there are some Black soldiers who would, and do, take a very dim view of being referred to as a ‘Black bastard’… and then there will be others who see their  RSM’s use of the phrase in much the manner that Mercer suggests, as being of no more significance that other ‘comparable’ phrases like ‘Fat Bastard’, ‘Ginger Bastard’ or ‘Scouse Bastard’. Like it or not, the ‘culture’ that exists in the Armed Forces  is very different from that in ‘Civvy Street’, and necessarily so because of the role that the military plays and the context in which it does its job.

Part of military training, certainly when it comes to front-line, especially infantry, troops, is a process of breaking down and rebuilding their character – in psychological terms, soldiers are quite literally ‘programmed’ by the Armed Forces in order for them to be able to do what they do – and that kind of programming comes at a cost both in terms of the impact it has on the individual  – its why many soldiers struggle to adapt to civilian life on leaving the armed forces – and on society. One simply cannot evaluate the prevailing culture of the Armed Forces in quite the same way that one looks at wider society – its social and cultural mores are different, and its that point Mercer seems to be trying to get across, albeit rather badly.

Somewhere in all this, there is a sensible, rational debate to be had but one, sadly, that isn’t going to be happening any time soon because both ‘sides’ are too fond of their of own generalisations and too certain of their own claims to the moral high ground to even concede that the other might just have a point or two worth considering.

8 thoughts on “Oh Mercer, Mercy me…

  1. If Mercer had headged his remarks around with a lot of caveats, he’d not have been criticised. But the insistence of Political Correctness on caveats of that type merely stifles original, spontaneous, lucid comment. Any fair-minded person can see that Mercer’s remarks had implied caveats; but the PC mob are not fair-minded, and a good, honest man loses his job as a consequence. The effect is to make David Cameron look rather silly.

  2. I think your analysis is right. I disagree with Patrick Mercer on nearly every aspect of policy a government could come up with. Having dealt with him though, I don’t think he is racist.

    He said a dumb thing. He apologised and I believe that he is repentant.

  3. Colin:

    In this case, Cameron seems to be rather a hostage to fortune. That much I’ll happily concede.

    More generally, I do think that the Tory Party does continue to have serious difficulties in dealing with questions of race and ethnicity.

    That’s not to label the party as being racist – there are a minority of racists in the Tory Party, but then I would strongly suspect that true of any party with a broad membership base – but rather that having been very much on the fringes of the broader race relations debate for a considerable time, many of its members lack a sense of the nuances and subtleties of the debate, even many of those who are sincere in their wish to be inclusive.

    That make the party all too prone to these kinds of gaff, I’m afraid.

  4. He can’t be that much of a racist if he picked 5 black guys as CSMs – it’s a seriously important leadership role, and a battalion has 4 of them at a time, so it’s possible his outfit had only black CSMs for a while.

    But he’s obviously not very good at politics. Which is a serious failing if you’re a politician.

  5. Alex – it’s certainly possible act in a racist manner in some instances and not in others (usually followed by the “some of my best friends are XX). But generally I agree, it sounds like the trad. Tory unease about racism and a loose acceptance of it without the hard “racialist” hatred. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether Meacher ever asked the black soldiers how they felt about him calling them black bastards. I doubt he did.

  6. I don’t think it is ever appropriate to use the term ‘black bastard’. Even if someone doesn’t complain, it is an insult of an entirely different order to ‘ginger, fat bastard’. It has connotations and baggage that stem from the most truly awful treatment of people based on race. I think Nirwal Dhaliwell makes the point well here.

  7. Gotta say that I think the use of “black bastard” is entirely different from “ginger bastard” or “fat bastard”, although slightly more like the former than the latter. Not terribly defensible even by comparing it to how friends might greet each other. The person screaming “black bastard” at you in the army, is unlikely to be your friend, more likely to be your superior and thus in a position of power over you. Different conotations abound with that relationship.

  8. Neil/Katherine:

    Re: ‘Black Bastard’

    Ordinarily I’d agree with you, but we are dealing here with the military and that, whether we like it or not, places the question of the use of racial epithets into a somewhat different context than exists in wider society.

    Recruits to the military are subjected not only to physical training but also psychological training – soldiers are, quite literally, ‘broken’ and then reprogrammed by the Armed Forces by methods not all that far removed from those used by religious cults, and the kind of personal abuse to which Mercer refers, somewhat dismissively, is part of that process.

    That’s why Mercer, and others amongst the senior ranks, fail to see a distinction between ‘Black Bastard’ and, say, ‘Ginger Bastard’ or ‘Fat Bastard’. To them such abuse from NCOs is part of the breaking down of a recruit’s individual character in order that they can then be rebuilt into soldiers and as long as that process is completed successfully there isn’t, to their mind, a problem – the military ideal is one that strips away individual differences in order to create a body of men in whom the only distinction that matters is that of rank. All other differences are irrelevant.

    Mercer’s apparent indifference to the use of racial epithets is effectively a conditioned response and that has to be understood in order to place his comments in their proper context. From his point of view, there is no difference between calling one recruit a Black bastard and calling another a Ginger bastard because the purpose and intent of such comments is – or should be – the same in both cases.

    Military culture is different from that of wider society in a number of important respects, and that necessitates a slightly different understanding of the context of such comments from that one would apply were Mercer talking about race/ethnicity in a purely civilian context.

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