A marijuana legalisation campaign in June 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

In contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober all the time is the real lunacy

There's plenty of marijuana-smoking and khat-chewing on my doorstep - in the park it's all good fun.

Oh, now that autumn is well and truly here, would that I could summon up the sweet smells of the skunk smokers outside the Surprise! They come across from the college around mid-morning and, plonking themselves down at the pub’s grotty outside tables, beneath the crap loggia, they skin up and fill the air with that peculiar taint: two parts synthetic cat’s piss to one of old-style marijuana. They’re pretty inoffensive, the skunk smokers: they just sit there, cosmically addled in their Puffa jackets and trainers, their jeans at half mast and the waistbands of their stretchy psyches exposed for all the world to see.

The skunk smokers are young and mostly black – the boules bellies who patronise the pétanque area immediately beside them are entirely pasty-white and middle-aged. One of them plaits his grey beard. I’ve never seen the boules bellies exactly drunk but there’s that persistent hoppy aroma and low-level effervescence about them, when they play, indicative of men who are seriously committed to real ale. Elsewhere in the park, there’s more drinking going on: the Portuguese who gather outside the Luna Café favour bottles of Sagres and the Ghanaians who cluster on the low wall along from the pétanque area have a penchant for tinned Guinness but, again, neither group seems to get pissed: this is workaday drinking.

Indeed, during the week, there’s a serviceable vibe to the local alcohol culture that would gladden any erstwhile Blairite: these solitary Polish tradesmen, sitting cross-legged under the trees, canvas grips full of spirit levels and plastering hawks beside them on the grass, a can of Lech or Tyskie wrapped in a brown paper bag in one hand, a black-market fag in the other – surely they are exemplars of the happy, pan-European café society that we all hoped open borders and 24-hour licensing would usher in?

Still, I doubt even the most passionate globaliser would feel as sanguine about the khat chewers. They buy their khat in a café on the Wandsworth Road, where it arrives early each afternoon – presumably direct from Heathrow, since the stuff loses its potency in about 24 hours – and sits quite brazenly, stacked up on the floor, wrapped in newspaper. I tried chewing khat a few times but although the hit was acceptable, an intriguing cross between amphetamine and weed, the means of ingestion was insufferably tedious, necessitating as it does the eating of about half a hedge before you lose your grip on suburbia.

The khat chewers are either solitary on benches, or else make up small colloquies that occupy the tree-fringed mound at the southern end of the park. All are instantly recognisable by their bugged-out red eyes and the bouquet of privet-looking fronds tucked under their arms.

The khat chewers are either Ethiopians or Somalis – and some are presumably Yemenis. They’re inoffensive enough and one can’t help but feel a little protective towards them, dependent as they are on a drug that has to be daily dew-picked a continent-and-a- half away.

I wish I could say the same about our indigenous addicts, who are often shockingly incontinent. Vanessa, who maintains a hefty crack habit about a hundred yards down the road from me, often collars me outside the local chemist’s; and when, in the past, I’ve challenged her on the veracity of her claim to be begging the price of some baby formula, she’s yanked her breast from her blouse and squeezed it in my face to prove that she’s lactating, albeit insufficiently.

But that’s not in the park. In the park, the toxified largely behave themselves and even needle junkies retire decorously to the bushes and then use the dog shit bins for their contaminated sharps. No, it’s in the street that things get wiggy: at night, the demented whippoorwill of the emergency services’ sirens whips this poor Will into a frenzy, as does the garbled gargling of late-night totterers- back from the local pubs.

I need at such times to remind myself: you were once like them – indeed, usually considerably more stoned/drunk/wired than they are and sometimes for several days in a row. No, in contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober 24/7 and 365 days a year is the real lunacy: I am part of a quiet and well-behaved crowd of nutters who, if we are ever remarked upon at all, are only castigated by the effervescent majority for being the most frightful bores.

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 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.