The Michael Clark Company perform a dance piece to the music of David Bowie at the Edinburgh Festival, 2009. Photo: Getty Images
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Will Self: David Bowie’s unionist plea got me thinking – it’s the English who need the Scots

The Starman implored Scotland to “stay with us”.

It would seem that David Jones, late of Brixton, south London – who is better known by his nom de guerre Bowie – has added another persona to his already capacious psychic portfolio. It wasn’t Colonel Tom, or Ziggy Stardust, or the Jean Genie, or the Thin White Duke who turned up to accept this year’s Brit Award for Best Male Artist, but a patriot who ventriloquised through a bizarre little glove puppet known as “Kate Moss”. Speaking in his Moss guise, Bowie essayed a few coolisms before signing off, “Scotland, stay with us,” so becoming the first high-profile English entertainer to wade into the independence debate.

When I first heard the news I assumed this was simply another piece of cosmic attitudinising on the part of the multiple-personality-disordered artist – even more ignobly I imagined that, having taken a gong or two from Missus Windsor, Bowie felt in some way obliged to fly her flag.

A cursory web search ended that: it transpires that Bowie turned down a CBE in 2000, and refused a knighthood a few years later. My estimation of him, which was pretty high already, went roofwards; moreover, when I came to consider what other motive he might have for supporting the Union, I recalled an anecdote told me by a Scots friend.

One summer a few years ago she was working at a small industrial heritage museum in Helensburgh. It was a quiet weekday afternoon and the place was empty, when in walked David Bowie together with a teenage boy who obviously was his son. Bowie was as calm and quiet as the museum – he chatted warmly and unaffectedly to her, then took the boy round the exhibits, talking about them in an informative but not oppressively didactic way. Then, as mysteriously as he’d arrived, he said goodbye and left.

Tales of this sort say a great deal about famous people. Clearly all of Bowie’s personae are just that: masks he puts on at will, and therefore can discard, leaving him free to be himself. Moreover, my friend’s experience suggests a few things about who Bowie really is: he’s an instinctive egalitarian and a good father, and has a keen interest in Scotland’s industrial heritage. OK, I may be stretching for that final inference, but consider this: while by no means in the back of beyond, Helensburgh is hardly on the tourist trail (although there’s a very fine Rennie Mackintosh house in town that he doubtless dropped by as well); most visitors to Glasgow zip straight over the Kincardine Bridge and head for Loch Lomond and the Highlands, where they can indulge their misty visions of Caledonian free-dom! without too many troublesome reminders of contemporary Scottish bondage, such as its people.

Speaking as someone who for the past two decades has visited Scotland at least three or four times a year, and spent a great deal of those visits in and around the former steel town of Motherwell, I cherish few illusions about the country. On the whole, I’ve considered independence to be something of a no-brainer: if ever there was a small, potentially socialistic state that could do with being detached from its deluded imperialist neighbour, it’s Scotland. Many of the Scots’ problems would be familiar to David Bowie, being largely psychological, and involving multiple personalities. The Thin White Duke Scot – puritanical, judgemental and no fun at all – is in constant conflict with the Ziggy Stardust Scot, who is wildly romantic and often wildly inebriated; and usually what escalates this conflict to a frightening pitch of despondency is that they often occupy the same skull. The sense of powerlessness that this gives rise to is evident all over Scotland, and if independence could catalyse the autonomy needed to defeat it, so I say (or at any rate said), bring it on.

None of the other interventions in the independence debate – whether by self-interested Eurocrats, British pols, or oily executives – has had the least impact on my position, but the Bowie démarche has got me thinking. Could it be that Bowie, ever laughingly gnomic, was subtly evoking a potentially savage downside to Scottish detachment? Note the form of his words: “Scotland, stay with us.”

Is this not an appeal to the Scots on behalf of the English? There may be only five million of them, while there are more than 50 million of us, but surely Bowie is right in believing that without this saltire seasoning the conservative English stodge may well become altogether inedible? The more I think about it, far from the Scots needing our crappy sterling and our grudging subsidy, it is we the English who, should they decide to exit the Union pursued by money-market bears, would have the most to lose.

And I’m not talking about tangible assets here, but spiritual capital. Like any big crowd of bullies, the English have always maintained a febrile self-esteem by picking on nearby weaklings – most obviously the Scots, who have been derided as miserly, low and cunning. Yet this was always what psychoanalysts would term “projection”, and without the Scots to denigrate, the English will be forced to confront their own ugly mugs.

On balance, it’s not surprising that Mr Jones should understand what’s happening here. After all, he’s spent a lot of time looking at himself in mirrors.

Next week: Real Meals

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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.