Published: 22/08/2002, Volume II2, No. 5819 Page 19

So what should sensible politicians make of the resignation of Pat Bottrill as chair of the Royal College of Nursing's 29strong governing council? As you must have heard, unless you were on holiday on Lundy Island, she went after making a careless reference to Agatha Christie's 1939 thriller where everyone disappears, much as they seemed to be doing during an RCN committee meeting she was chairing.

I haven't read the book since my teens when it was, I think, still known as Ten Little Niggers.That may have a generational bearing on the case, according to several MPs I consulted on the controversy.Mrs Bottrill is 60.

'She was right to apologise, but shouldn't have resigned, ' says Alice Mahon, Labour leftwinger and Grade A troublemaker over Iraq.

'But at her age, it just reflects the habits of a lifetime.'

The Halifax MP, 65 next month and an ex-Nupe/Unison nursing activist, might have added that Mrs Bottrill lives and works in the North East, in Newcastle's hospitals. I think I am right in saying the city has many Asian residents and far fewer Afro-Caribbeans. Wearing my Cornish hat, I am always reminding colleagues in multi-racial London how very mono-racial much of Britain still is. People are sensitised to others most effectively by proximity.

I confess I didn't ring any Tory MPs, on the grounds they would all say the resignation was a mistake, with some endangering their blood pressure by blaming it all on political correctness, the race relations 'industry' and what the Daily Mail likes to call 'petty complainers' about symbols on cap badges. They are not petty at all if you are a Muslim or a Belfast Catholic.

Dr Evan Harris, the hyper-energetic Liberal Democrat health spokesman who began his political career campaigning against racism within the NHS, called the resignation 'counter-productive and unfair. In some ways, It is more discriminatory against older people who have language traits which mean no offence. Mens rea is crucial on this'. By which Latin tag he means: what was in the speaker's mind at the time?

Taking a different view is Fiona MacTaggart, Labour MP for Slough and as robustly independent in her way as Ms Mahon. 'Good on her for resigning. She was saying: 'I didn't mean it in the way some people might think, but it was a bad moment'.'Ms MacTaggart, an ex-teacher and lecturer, raises another important point.

In as much as the Mail and others have implied that this row reflects badly on the RCN's American general secretary Dr Beverley Malone, she says it underlines the problems that dog 'successful black professional women'. In other words Dr Malone's new broom style, much needed at the RCN say MPs, rubs folk up the wrong way.

Her pay package and the fast-track treatment her mum seems to have got on the NHS gave them a chance to fight back against the outsider ('Was Mrs Bottrill involved?' asks one MP), as did her appearance, as an ex-Bill Clinton aide, at a Labour fundraiser. Hence the abortive no confidence campaign in June.

I do not know Dr Malone, but it is true that US public culture can be far dafter than we are on matters of racial sensitivities.What I do know is that the NHS struggles to remove glass ceilings and other perceived biases against minorities, staff and patients alike. David Lammy, the new (black) junior health minister, recently wrote a think tank paper in which he warned against the top down approach and said he is 'unashamedly optimistic' about the future.

1That seems sensible enough to me. US and European friends often tell me we get race relations better in Britain than they do. And on a weekend when the BNP staged its 'summer fair', I was delighted to hear a white academic and a black novelist on Radio 4 agreeing that these issues should be discussed openly, not allowed to fester.Mrs B shouldn't have resigned either, they agreed.

But the novelist did say that 'black' carries too many negative connotations in our linguistic culture: what about 'in the black' (bank statement)? 'White elephant' (useless), the academic countered. He wasn't having it. But I was glad elsewhere this week to see Elvis fans angrily rescuing the late King from charges of racism. The debate continues.

REFERENCE 1Leading Together: a new vision for political leadership on race. IPPR, 2002