Why I remain an Olympics humbug, life on Mars and souvenir tweets

I feel like a grumpy parent who, finding the house clean and tidy after the teenagers’ 18th birthday celebration, still counts the empties and complains the revellers have exceeded official alcohol guidelines.

But I feel bound to point out that none of the arguments used against the London Olympics before they began is invalidated by the success of the Games. True, London’s transport breakdown never happened, nor did the terrorist attacks. True, too, the French, our chief rivals for holding the Olympics, had riots in Amiens as we basked in the afterglow. There is still no evidence, however, that big sporting events, no matter how stylishly organised and how many medals the host nation wins, bring economic benefits or increase mass participation in sport.

The public-sector budget for the Games was £9.3bn. Critics, including the Commons public accounts committee, put the true costs, including policing and security, much higher. Let’s say £12bn. That would buy (very roughly) 60,000 new houses or 1,200 new secondary schools or 24 new hospitals. Or pay the salaries of 60,000 nurses for a decade. Perhaps the success of the Olympics will persuade everyone of the value of public spending and collective endeavour and prompt the corporations that profited to close down their offshore tax havens. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Private doubts

Anyone who thought the private sector, shamed by the failure of G4S to “deliver” Olympic security, had gone away, should note the creation of Pearson College, announced just as the Games ended. Offering BSc degrees (validated by two London University colleges), it will be run by the publishing conglomerate that also owns Penguin and the Financial Times.

Another Pearson property is Edexcel (annual profits: more than £60m), an exam board that lives on fees paid by mostly taxpayer-funded schools and which made extra money (until the practice was recently outlawed) from seminars showing teachers how to maximise pupils’ pass rates. One chief examiner was caught on video telling teachers how ridiculously easy its geography GCSE was. The textbook publisher Heinemann is also part of Pearson’s empire. It has a “partnership” with another exam board, an arrangement that has attracted the attention of Ofqual, the exams regulator.

Perhaps Danny Boyle needs to show schoolteachers and academics bouncing to music in gowns and mortar boards (Glasgow 2014?) if the march of the private sector into the public realm is to be arrested.

Old-fashioned kindling

Newspapers seem to be having particular difficulty coming down from their Olympics euphoria. Two days after the Games ended, the Independent was offering yet another 32-page “souvenir supplement”. If newspaper-reading households keep all the “souvenirs” of the past three weeks, and neglect to recycle them, it will not only deal a blow to the planet’s trees but also create a worrying national fire hazard. In the age of instant news, the papers go overboard for events such as jubilees and Olympics because, on these occasions, they still have a unique selling point. A souvenir tweet, after all, is a contradiction in terms.

To Mars to boldly glow

Dutch entrepreneurs, it was reported in the Guardian, plan to put four astronauts on Mars by 2023. The costs –much reduced because the pioneers will be emigrants with no means of returning home –will be met largely from a reality TV show. Viewers will not only watch live coverage of the Martian settlement’s progress, but also choose the first settlers from 40 volunteers (the others will follow at two-yearly intervals) who will have trained for a decade. Or so we are told.

The website ( looks convincing and lists a Nobel Prize-winning physicist among its supporters. But anybody who saw the early moon landings knows your average astronaut wouldn’t hold a television audience for more than 15 minutes. The organisers invite us to imagine watching a video of Columbus in 1492. But visitors to Mars are unlikely to encounter equivalents of Native Americans, only microscopic bacteria at best. Surely the sensible plan is to imitate the most successful emigrations in history and recruit convicts and religious maniacs who would reliably provide more edgy TV.

Cricket balls

I wonder how the English cricket authorities, who have just dropped Kevin Pietersen from the Test team, would have coped with Sidney Barnes, an Australian batsman some rated second only to Bradman. During a match in Australia, in which (after some sort of sulk) he was 12th man at his own request, a besuited Barnes wandered on to the outfield with mirror, clothes brush and deodorant spray. In front of 9,000 spectators, he delayed play for eight minutes as he spruced up the players and offered cigars. His many pranks also included raiding an icebox to slide heavy blocks down the pavilion roof close to England players at Brisbane in 1946.

Even Pietersen, a dreadful show-off who makes a performance of merely sending a gentle push into the covers, hasn’t achieved such heights of attention-seeking. But I’m sure Barnes, who had a rubber stamp made of his signature so that he could sign autographs faster than his team-mates (he, too, was eventually banished from Tests), would have master ed Twitter and internet videos.


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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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.