Post-Brexit racism, if you believe the BBC, is rife: xenophobic bigots have been unleashed. But perhaps the most blatant licensing of racial prejudice was the appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary. Despite her elevation to the higher rungs of the establishment, Abbott continues to harbour a seething grudge, and cannot control the urge to express it.
Back in 1996, Abbott caused a furore that is forgotten today, but should be revisited following her reaction to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plan to increase the number of British doctors. The NHS relies on doctors from overseas, but this causes problems with language and cultural understanding: a study involving my faculty at King’s College London showed an inverse correlation between patients’ satisfaction and the proportion of foreign clinicians. Recruiting from abroad bypasses the cost of training (limiting the number of places for British trainees), and also deprives poorer countries of medical talent.
As expected, Abbott and colleagues decried the policy as outright racism. So let’s go back twenty years to a hospital in Hackney, a constituency Abbott has represented since 1987. Struggling with chronic staff shortage, Homerton Hospital managers brought a batch of nurses from Finland. Instead of showing gratitude to these incomers for helping to raise standards at this demoralised hospital, Abbott turned on them. These ‘blond, blue-eyed’ nurses were not wanted in Hackney. They would ‘never have met a black person before, let alone touched them’.
On that basis, the SS Windrush should have been turned away from Tilbury Docks in 1948. And Abbott’s Jamaican mother Julia, who came to London in 1950, would not have been employed by the NHS, which she served until retirement in the 1980s. Julia may have experienced some degree of discrimination over her career, perhaps feeling that she should have reached higher in the ranks. But this would hardly explain the extent of her resentment towards white people.
The young Finnish nurses were understandably upset by the inhospitable comments of someone in a position of power and responsibility. Taija Mykkanen said: ‘What Diane Abbott said is racist against us. It is really stereotyping people. What does it matter if you have blonde or black hair? I’m trained to treat patients, not black or white people.’ Satu Jaaskelainen was incensed: ‘I was furious – that is a ridiculous thing to say. I cannot find the words to express how angry I was. We are all human beings. There is no difference between me, an English nurse and a black English nurse’. Staff nurse Joyce Mejeh supported her new colleagues: ‘I enjoy working with the Finnish girls on my ward. I’m from Nigeria and they are like me, going to another country. It means you have to try and fit in. We all work together as a team, I think it’s good to have a mixture’.
Nursing leader Nancy Hallet protested to Abbott on behalf of `distressed’ staff of all ethnic origins: `Your slight on the professional integrity and racial characteristics of the Finnish staff will do little to encourage this invaluable group to stay with us.’ The Royal College of Nursing condemned the remarks for pitting ‘nurse against nurse’. Ray Harris of Unison regretted the MP’s remarks: `Most patients are not worried whether nurses are black, white or yellow.’ I doubt whether a union representative would dare to openly criticise Abbott today, with Momentum activists ready to pounce.
Having revealed too much of herself, Abbott backtracked, while characteristically refusing to apologise. ‘My argument is not that they shouldn’t employ white nurses, but they should employ local people’. But that is not what she had said. The managers ‘should have taken on Caribbean staff’ was her initial comment: Jamaicans good, Finns bad. In the Hackney Gazette, she claimed that black nurses were leaving due to racism and lack of career development. Five years earlier, when in hospital giving birth to her son, she had asked managers why the night staff was all black. The Finnish incomers were another example, in Abbott’s mind, of the oppression of black people.
For all her grandstanding about Brexit and how it will deprive the NHS of European workers, Abbott has expressed more hostility to outsiders than any other politician. In the eye of the storm, Abbott argued that ‘people should not be recruited from overseas in an area of mass unemployment’. Talking of masses, was Abbott going to oppose New Labour in opening the floodgates? Of course she wouldn’t. Yet the influx from EU and beyond has harmed living conditions for the black British of Hackney, Peckham and other areas where West Indians settled after the Second World War. Schools, health and social services are overwhelmed; demand on housing prices people out of their neighbourhoods; most jobs are taken by undercutting migrants.
Abbott has nothing to offer her constituents on these problems. She sent her son to private school, and hobnobs with the metropolitan media elite, who are too politically correct to see the racist elephant in the studio. But the EU referendum gave ordinary black voters a say. Many have experienced overt racial prejudice from Eastern Europeans (not surprising, given the behaviour of football hooligans in countries of Iron Curtain past).
A prominent figure in British life, Abbott has shown resilience and resolve to ride the rocky road of politics at the highest level. But she has a huge chip on her shoulder, which repeatedly manifests in crass statements about white people, simplistic dichotomies and hypocritical decrees. Cultural sensitivity is vital in healthcare, but Abbott’s absolutism about black nurses for black patients must be confronted. As the Royal College of Nursing stated in 1996, nursing is a multicultural profession, serving a multicultural society. Abbott is not unique in racial profiling: I have heard nursing students suggest that Muslim patients are best matched to a Muslim nurse. Hospitals should be run on humanistic principles, not identity politics. For the end of the road signposted by Abbott is Apartheid.
(Image: Garry Knight)