The British government has yet to set a date for an election (expected in June), but the shrill sounds of the campaign are already all too audible, as a row flares over one of the most sensitive topics facing the country: race and immigration.
It involves everything from politics to national identity to the food Britons eat.
At the center of the storm is a pledge agreement drawn up by a publicly funded antiracism group, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Candidates who sign agree not to use racially inflammatory language during the election campaign.
While the leaders of all of Britain's main parties signed on, opposition Conservatives came under fire last week, after several individual politicians, including finance spokesman Michael Portillo - tipped as a possible successor to party leader William Hague - refused.
Mr. Portillo, the son of Spanish immigrants, objected to the implication that a failure to sign implied racist views. "I don't think we should be drawn into committing ourselves to sign up to every apparently well-intentioned declaration," he said.
The refusal sparked anger and consternation. "We think it's quite outrageous that politicians aren't able to sign up to a document that is a very basic pledge," says Ashok Viswanathan of Operation Black Vote, a group that campaigns for ethnic minorities.
Another Conservative who refused to sign, John Townend, had already made his attitude clear. Immigrants were "seriously undermining Britain's Anglo-Saxon society," the Yorkshire member of Parliament (MP) said last month.
The ruling Labour Party is using the spat to try to score electoral points, suggesting Mr. Hague has no grip on his party.
The present row may have more to do with political positioning than anything else. Whatever happens in the campaign, Labour is expected to win heavily. Hague's future is in doubt if Conservatives lose.
But the argument highlights a rift over the nature of modern Britain. Race has been a controversial issue here since the 1960s, when right-wing Conservative (and some Labour) politicians began campaigning against immigration from former imperial possessions. About 6.5 percent of Britain's population has a minority ethnic background, with the largest groups drawn from South Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa.
But the issue has shifted in recent years, as new arrivals from around the world - especially from the Balkans - have claimed political asylum. There were a record 76,040 individual applications for asylum in Britain last year, and illegal immigration has become a hot-button issue, especially around Britain's Channel ports.
The spat is also connected to a deeper unease about national identity, stoked by the country's growing integration into the European Union, globalization, and the devolution of power from London to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Hague tried to use this in a speech last month that warned Labour would turn Britain into a "foreign land," a phrase the Labour Party used to depict him and his party as extremists.
For its part, Labour is trying to promote a view of national identity that is more inclusive, even as it seeks to address Conservatives' criticism that it is "soft" on immigration. Home Secretary Jack Straw, Britain's interior minister, is expected to announce new measures today aimed at blocking bogus asylum claims. They include creating a list of "safe" countries, whose nationals could not claim asylum in Britain.
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook used a speech last week to argue in favor of immigration. "The British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races and communities, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands," he said.
To highlight that fluid identity, he used the example of the country's changing culinary tastes. "Chicken Tikka Massala (a curry dish) is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences," he said. "Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy."
Leading figures from Britain's ethnic minorities have criticized Conservatives for their stance, but there is considerable cynicism about Labour as well. "We want there to be more debate on racial equality and racial discrimination in Britain," says CRE spokesman Chris Myant, not "mudslinging." Gurbux Singh, the chairman of the CRE, last weekend accused the main parties of "squabbling with each other to establish who is more or less racist."
But Mr. Viswanathan sees the row as a turning point. "We're able to have a debate about race and the role of politicians in a modern democracy," he says. "In the end, this has been very positive."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor