From Jamaica to Birmingham to the Lords, Bill Morris has left an indelible mark on modern British life. But he now fears for race relations in this country, as he told Political Editor Jonathan Walker.

Lord Morris is worried. The former trade union leader fears that race relations in Britain are getting worse.

Widespread acceptance of multi-culturalism and diversity in society has been shaken by 9/11 and the rise of extremist parties such as the BNP, according to the former trade union leader.

And politicians who call for more emphasis on British culture and values as a way of bringing people together are unlikely to solve the problem, he says.

It's a gloomy prognosis, but one delivered with typical humour and restraint, when we met in London.

Lord Morris, better known as Bill Morris, lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, after his family emigrated from Jamaica in 1954.

He became general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and one of the most prominent black figures in British public life.

He was also one of the first commissioners of the Commission for Racial Equality, and last week attended its convention in Westminster.

The event, which featured Tony Blair as a guest speaker, was supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Race Relations Act.

But a major row broke out when London Mayor Ken Livingstone announced he was boycotting the event and accused the commission's chairman, Trevor Phillips, of using inflammatory language for the sake of "alarmist headlines".

Mr Phillips has warned that Britain was "sleepwalking to segregation".

He is not alone in being concerned.

"Somehow we have managed to let the ball slip," said Lord Morris. "We have taken our eye off the ball.

"We had reached a sort of settlement within the nation where stability was established, on the basis of multi-culturalism, on the basis of diversity, and on the principle of participation but also respect for each other's culture.

"And I think that what has destroyed the equilibrium was 9/11, the rise of political parties on the fringes, and of course the problems generated outside the borders of the United Kingdom."

Muslims were being targeted, and as a result some were now withdrawing from society, he said

"There is a trait within Britishness that we always need a target. We made targets of the Irish, we made targets of people from the Indian sub-continent, we made targets of people from the Caribbean.

"Our target now, it seems to me, is people from the Muslim community.

"People feel defensive and they withdraw, and the more they withdraw, it becomes a compounding negative rather than something that should be openly debated and discussed."

Immigrant communities needed to fit into British society but should not be expected to give up everything that made them different, he said.

"There are changes, of course, in the social structure, some of our communities have changed, but it needn't be change to the point where we all dress up every single morning like little pseudo-images of somebody's perception of being English or British.

"There must be scope for social cohesion and individual identity at the same time, and we throw that away at our peril."

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and possible future Prime Minister, has called for people to embrace our British identity as a way of bringing society together, for example by flying the Union Flag.

However, Lord Morris argues that the solution is not a stronger British identity, but an acceptance that a person can be British and also have another identity.

"I am a Jamaican, and I am proud to be a Jamaican, but by God I'm very proud to be British. And I feel no contradiction at all, none at all, between those two situations."

He didn't fly flags, he said. "I think I'm a patriotic citizen. I've done my bit in the army for this nation's security and I contribute. But I don't need to make an apology for being Jamaican at all, any more than I apologise in Jamaica for being British.

"What we have to do is say to people that none of that is mutually exclusive and give them the time, the space, the opportunity, the tolerance, and to be accommodating."

But ethnic minorities also had a duty to society as a whole, he added.

"People have to recognise that they do have an obligation if they want to be treated as citizens of the country, enjoy its privileges and its benefits, then they themselves have to make a contribution to that debate. It can't be take take and no give. It's got to be mutual."

Birmingham is apparently set to become one of the first British cities with a majority of residents from "ethnic minorities".

This is not a development Lord Morris welcomes, arguing that it exposes the level of segregation in the UK.

"I like to think we could have a United Kingdom where groups are dispersed.

"I don't wish to see a United Kingdom where there are groupings in massive numbers, because I don't see that that is conducive to the social cohesion and social stability."

But he did not blame ethnic minority communities for congregating together, he said.

"Naturally, people will go where their interests are best served. When I came to Britain, I went to Handsworth because that is the only place I could get a bed for the night.

"So I put my roots down in Handsworth, my kids were born here and so on.

"But if someone had come along and said, look, we want to create a more balanced profile within the context of our great city of Birmingham and we are offering you the opportunity for employment, and the possibility for housing, schools and hospitals, out in the hinterland of Solihull or Warwickshire, I would have jumped at it.

"What I am trying to say is we have a capacity to blame the victims, rather than look at those who are making the social policy.

"For Handsworth and Solihull you can read Birmingham as against other parts of the country.

"I'm not arguing for any sort of a dispersal policy. But what I'm saying is it's not enough to blame the victim.

"Our social policy, our infrastructure development, employment opportunities have coalesce in a way which makes a more coherent dispersal of groups of people difficult."

At the Commission for Racial Equality convention he led a seminar on the business case for equality.

At 68, Lord Morris is still going strong. And he is enjoying his new role as a Labour peer.

He said: "I am enjoying it very much. The learning curve is quite steep. But it is a tremendous place of great historical and constitutional significance.

"The great thing that makes the place in addition to its purpose is the people.

"It is a reservoir of the best knowledge in the country."

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