Cameron in trouble? Oh, please. . .

Until someone can show me that the Prime Minister has broken a law, I'm happier not to join in all t

Write about the impact of the current situation on David Cameron, suggested the editor. A friend sent me an email too, a Labour friend, half-teasing but half, I think, seriously. What does it all mean? Are we living through the end of Cameron's term in office?

The second question is a fitting contribution to John Rentoul's wonderful blog at the Independent ("Questions to which the answer is no"). The things we are learning about the practices at News International are disgusting; those involving the Metropolitan Police Service are frightening; and both are rightly the object of a judicial enquiry. But the idea that the Prime Minister is damaged because he once employed someone who may be found guilty, at a future date, of a crime which he previously denied committing to the Prime Minister, strikes me as extraordinary. There are consequences to demanding that we all accept moral culpability for the actions of our friends, ones I find abhorrent. I'll come back to this.

The nadir of political debate last week was on Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that last September the Prime Minister's chief of staff had told John Yates that no, the Prime Minister did not want to be informed about something Yates had learned about his investigations. This was the "tipping point" according to the twitterati - my timeline erupted in a frenzy of "This is serious, Cameron in trouble" wishful thinking. I'm sorry? The Prime Minister should have stuck his nose into an active police investigation? Or at least he should have wanted to be briefed about where it was heading? In order to do what, exactly? My friend Tim Montgomerie is entirely correct about this. The scandal would have erupted had the Prime Minister attempted to interfere in such activities. Police investigations should not be controlled by the occupants of political office.

Ah, you will say, but what of the Prime Minister's "judgement", that he employed Andy Coulson at all.

Let's leave to one side the hypocrisy that the loudest cries on this matter come from a politician who employs Tom Baldwin, formerly of News International and accused of, er, interesting journalistic tactics. Take Keith Vaz at his own self-estimate, that he is a humble tribune of the people, and ignore the serial accusations of corruption which he endured in the last parliament. Pretend we have the memory span of a fruit fly, and forget the previous administration's employment of Alistair Campbell. Don't, whatever you do, remember the death of David Kelly, or wonder at just how genuine is the outrage of these Labour politicians. From tragedy to farce: learn to accept Chris Bryant as a serious political force, and wipe the image of him in his Y-fronts from your mind. Just because the last Labour government was a seething pit of mendacity and smears, just because they employed a man that a civilized society should shun, doesn't mean we can ignore their accusations now.

But what is this "judgement" we are supposed to practice, with regard to our friends? I have had an image in my mind all this week, a picture from the National Gallery, attributed to the workshop of Durer, called "The Madonna With The Iris". It's an example of a hortus conclusus, a Virgin in the Garden. The picture compels me because I find the concept - purity from intact isolation - horrific.

You can remain immune to the actions of your friends - by not having any. You can be pure in this world, you can maximize your degrees of freedom - by living alone. To love and be loved - to live as a social animal - necessarily entails fewer degrees of freedom - but much, much more joy.
If the loss of degrees of freedom, inherent in having friendship, is worth anything at all - and I'm pretty sure that it is - then such friendships are not to be tossed aside at moments of personal difficulty. A friend's value is neither a function of his purity nor his utility. His "value", of course, is his love, albeit a different form of love to that which binds us to our other halves.

To be banal: even if a friend were charged with a venal offence, he would still be welcome to my house for dinner - the great crime of which the Prime Minister stands accused being that he had Coulson for dinner, after he left his employment.

I told you, editor, that I cannot produce prose to match the hysteria we're living through. But until someone can show me that the Prime Minister has broken a law, I'm happier not to join in all the shouting, particularly not when I see the company I would be keeping. I'm not on Keith Vaz's side, or Alistair Campbell's side, on many things. Certainly not in matters of political ethics.

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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.