Monday, August 3, 2009
Black Welshman To Run Against Fascists Who Don't Think He Exists
by Paul Owen
Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National party, was speaking to Channel 4 News last month when he made a statement that infuriated Vaughan Gething.
"There is no such thing as a black Welshman," the BNP MEP for north-west England said. "You can have a black Briton; you can't have a black Welshman. Welsh is about people who lived in Wales since the end of the last ice age."
Gething, who is hoping to be the first black person elected to the Welsh assembly, says: "On that basis, most white people wouldn't qualify.
"It's quite clear that Nick Griffin just doesn't accept that black British people or black Welsh people are entitled to call themselves proper, full citizens of the country.
"And every time he tries to define what an ethnic Briton is, it's all bollocks. Because the definition he's searching for is really about saying 'white people who speak English'.
"There have been black Welsh people for centuries. Cardiff, in particular, has had centuries worth of the port and people being brought there to work and settling there and being accepted as part of the community. All of my memories are from the UK. This really is my country."
Gething was born in Zambia in 1974 to a black Zambian mother and a white Welsh father, a vet who had moved there to work.
In his speech to the Welsh TUC conference last month, he described his father as "a white Welsh economic migrant".
Brought up in rural Dorset from the age of two, Gething was educated in Aberystwyth and Cardiff, and went on to become a solicitor, the first black president of the Welsh NUS and the first black president of the Welsh TUC.
Now he has been selected as the Labour candidate for the Welsh assembly seat of Cardiff South and Penarth, a mixed constituency in class and ethnic terms that seems fairly safe for Labour, although he will have to wait until 2011 to contest the seat.
Griffin annoys him. "He says he wants to be treated as a legitimate politician in a legitimate party. Well, no other legitimate politician would be able to come up with something so wacky, and so quite obviously bollocks, and be able to get away with it.
"The interviewer would tear him to pieces, or the comment from the media source would say: 'This is all rubbish; he's lost the plot.'
"And yet Nick Griffin's able to say it, and there are very few media outlets that are prepared to say: 'He's saying this and it's rubbish. The man's an idiot.'
He says he believes "not all the media are clear on how they should handle Nick Griffin".
"I'm very clear that you've got to take them [the BNP] on and beat them," he adds. "You can't pretend the arguments aren't there, because they won seats. Lots of people voted for them. You can't beat them by pretending that they're not there."
Gething's first memory of Britain was his father "throwing me on to a tube train because I was convinced that this thing that came along and swallowed all the people up with sliding doors was a monster, and it was eating people".
In Dorset, he and his three brothers and one sister found that being black was a rarity. "There really weren't a lot of black families in Dorset, and there still aren't now, not in west Dorset," he says.
"In primary school we were the only black kids, then at secondary school we were always at least half of the black children in the school."
But the sporty, "quite bright" Gethings did not experience much "direct and overt" racism, and Gething feels they would have been picked on more if they were "different" in other ways. What does he mean by different? "Kids got picked on for all sorts of reasons – if you were ordinary or unusual in ways that weren't praiseworthy then you could get picked on."
He joined the Labour party at the age of 17 to help out with the 1992 election, the result of which – a fourth term for the Conservatives – was "obviously disappointing".
What attracted him to Labour? "I made my mind up fairly quickly that I wasn't going to be a Tory voter, and I was actually impressed by what [the then Labour leader Neil] Kinnock had to say, and in particular the language about social justice and inequality. I believed in what the party was saying, and I made a choice."
Social justice is a theme Gething returns to again and again during the interview, saying at one point: "If you don't believe in that then why be in the Labour party?"
When I ask him about Barack Obama's recent speech to the NAACP, in which the US president, among other things, called on African-American parents to take more responsibility for the welfare of their children, Gething gives an unashamed defence of the activist state.
"In all the solutions for communities facing disadvantage, you can always say the wider community has responsibility, but equally people within those communities still have some responsibility themselves.
"But for people on the centre left, I still think it is about: 'How do you actually expect to enable those people? What is the role for communities? What is the role for the state? And how can you be positively and proactively achieving a situation where that disadvantage disappears?
"For me, that's one of the big differences between us and the right – the right take this view that the state shouldn't be involved and I take the view that it could and should. Not just it could and it should but it's our responsibility to do that."
Recalling his time as the president of the Welsh NUS, he says it was "odd" being a Labour student fighting against the Labour government's decision to introduce student tuition fees. "I wasn't at all convinced that the system that had been introduced was the right thing," he adds.
He argues now for some form of graduate tax rather than fees. "Fees with a proper grant structure I can understand and see working, but I do think the real problem is the disincentive for people who don't traditionally go to university and how you ensure they get to university in the first place and then survive through university.
"If you look at access rates, they haven't changed as much as any of us in the Labour party would want."
His work for Thompsons solicitors, where he specialises in employment law, has "reinforced a lot of the values and beliefs I came in with", he says.
As the Welsh TUC president, he worked to improve relations with the Welsh assembly, "to be a bit more professional about it and make sure we overtly got more out of the relationship".
TUC Wales was founded in 1974. Why did it take until last year for it to appoint a black leader? "That wasn't because nobody else was good enough," says Gething. "It's about recognising that things have changed. Our movement has now changed and is now better – though not perfect – at recognising where talent exists."
He takes a similar tack when he talks about the assembly, which currently has one Asian member out of 60, although since the non-white population of Wales is only 2.12%, this is roughly proportional.
"I get really annoyed about the business about whether you're a token or not; it should be about whether you're good enough or not," he says. "The thing that frustrates me is that I think there've been plenty of people that have been good enough in the past but haven't got on ...
"When I go out on the doorstep ... I want them to vote for me because they believe in me as a candidate and because I'll support our party. It shouldn't be about: 'You should feel sorry for me' ... I'm more than capable of doing this job."
By 2007, he had become a partner at Thompsons. Why did he decide to go into politics full-time?
"I'd been saying: 'We need more representatives, better quality representatives, and people like you need to be involved' ... and it gets to a point where after telling other people they should do it you need to think about, well, should I or shouldn't I?
"Also it was about if I want to do this, and I want to do politics properly and represent people, then to be able to commit to it, and to be able to give all of your attention is something I would like to do. To be blunt, I do think I've got something to offer."
Being one of 60 assembly members would give him more of an opportunity to effect change than being one of 646 MPs at Westminster, he argues. Plus, "the more you know about the place where you live, the more keen you are with your political ideas to see them implemented in the place where you live ... I don't want to tart myself round various constituencies saying: 'I want to be an MP; will you have me?' This is my home seat. It's where I've lived for over a decade and it's the constituency I'd like to represent."
He is uncharacteristically succinct when asked for his views on Gordon Brown – "I still think that Gordon is the right person to lead the party and to lead the government ... if you changed prime minister you've got to have another election, and I don't quite understand how that's in the Labour party's interest or the country's interest" – and he spends much more time detailing his criticisms of David Cameron.
"David Cameron will be a proper rightwing prime minister," he says. "He wouldn't be, you know, Mr Cuddly Fluffy. All the talk about the age of austerity, well, you know, there are some big dividing lines between them and us, as there always will be. We're in different parties for very good reasons."
In terms of presentation, the Tory leader is "quite good", Gething adds, but "in terms of what the policy detail is, there isn't an awful lot ... and I think that's a deliberate choice, not to have policy issues to be attacked and shot at".
"Cameron's properly from the right wing of the Conservative party and he would be a rightwing prime minister who I think would want to undo lots of progress that we have made and that we could and should be proud of," he says.
"That's a clear message that we have to get across to voters, as well as to our own core supporters."
Recalling again the run-up to the 1992 election, which the polls wrongly suggested Labour would win, Gething notes: "We're months away from a general election ... Most people vote about how they feel about their economic future, stability, jobs, the economy ... I don't accept that Cameron's sealed the deal with the electorate and they've decided: 'We all definitely want him.'"
But he accepts there are issues the government has to address about "Gordon's performance and the government's performance, to actually try and have a coherent narrative of where we've come from, where we're going, about what the Labour values mean in government, and how we expect to continue to try and make the country a fairer place, as well as a more prosperous place, in the future."
Asked to list his political heroes, Gething mentions Kinnock ("a big part of the reason why I joined the party"), Nelson Mandela ("a role model, not just for black people") and John Smith, Kinnock's successor, who died in 1994.
As for Obama, "you can't deny the significance of the most important and powerful man in the world being a black guy and the fact that he's come in on such a tidal wave of optimism and it isn't just a black thing," he says.
"You saw those crowds in Germany; there weren't 200,000 black Germans cheering him on and busting for a place to see him ...
"To be a figure where you're generally accepted for who and what you are, that's where I'd want to be."
From the UK Guardian