Calls from the frozen morgue of marketing

Periodically throughout my working day the retro-Bakelite phone in my writing room starts into life with a loud drrring-drrrring! Which is strange: the number is unlisted, the line has a call-blocker on it, hardly any of my friends or even family has the number, and over the years I have done my level best to discourage anyone who does from dialling it.

I've had cause before to remark on the oddity of the phone era, when, between roughly 1960 and 2000, anyone in the country felt a perfect entitlement to start whispering into anyone else's ear unannounced while the other person felt duty-bound to listen. The mobile phone may be a scourge, but thank God it put paid to that mind-bending mandatory intimacy with the masses.

Anyway, the phone rings and because it has no answerphone attached - another of my anti-communication devices - I am forced to answer it, whereupon I hear either the transoceanic witter of a long-distance call from an Asian call centre, or the hesitant click of a machine preprogrammed to say things such as: "Barclays, HSBC and NatWest have all been found guilty of passing excessive charges on to their depositors. If you have an account with any of these banks you may be eligible . . ." and so on. I shan't trouble you with more because the odds are that if you're sentient and domiciled in the UK you, too, have heard this tens of times, along with tapes trying to persuade you to have your will made out for you, presumably by a computer.

Spam a lot

These automated calls hardly deserve the prefix "cold" - they are beyond cold: they are frigid, sub-zero calls, calls stretched out in the great frozen morgue of marketing, so unlikely are they to turn into a sale. They are to proper cold calls what email spam is to a hand-delivered sheet of vellum suggesting you might like to buy a Fabergé Easter egg - and illuminated by Fabergé himself! They are annoying but easy to deal with. You simply replace the bone on the dog and get on with whatever it was you were doing.

The first kind of call is more problematic. Being a child of the Phone Age, I have difficulty when I'm called by a human being in not practising at least basic politeness. That, far from sitting around watching DVDs of EastEnders in order better to mimic mockney (or listening tapes of The Archers so they can do RP), these callers seem to have acquired only the most rudimentary English is, I am afraid, besides the point. There is a pathos in their garbled queries ("Please am I now talking of the owner of this placing?") that never fails to pull me up short. Who am I,
I think to myself, who sits in warmth and comfort and - relatively speaking - indolence, to so cruelly use these poor slaves of the speed-dial and the headset? I listen to the hubbub in the background and picture some crowded steel shed full of starvelings chained to their desks, and then I'm lost.

Glazing over

Yet even if I do begin speaking with a degree of humanity, I've been reduced to a maddened arrogance within seconds by the sheer dreadfulness of the pitch for double-glazing or any of the other thousand things I neither want nor need. Crashing back down the handset, I am gripped by a sense of the futility of all endeavour and the grotesque manner in which global capitalism runs its spiked harrow across the psyches of the seven billion that won't leave me for minutes. I shake with the ague of alienation. I think to myself: I hate it, hate it, hate it - but what must it be like for the elderly who're more in thrall to civility, and who may have had to hobble for some time before learning that it isn't an adored grandchild on the phone but Ponnambalam Ramanathan trying to flog them a hot tub.

I think despairingly of the deranging nexus that all of us are plugged into: a humungous exchange, the purpose of which is only to connect crazed impoverishment with loony entitlement, so that nation may flog unto nation. I don't deny that at least some of my extreme sensitivity to these marketing exercises may be the result of my own six months working in the early 1980s for the computer giant IBM as a cold-caller. True,
I was calling businesses rather than private individuals, but it was still a dirty, intrusive and mind-bogglingly tedious occupation. It's probably not the responsible thing to say, but it was the one time in my life when I've been grateful for being a heroin addict.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.