The revolution according to Mary Berry

Democratic control over quantitative easing would be a welcome first step to my kind of revolution, writes Stewart Cowley.

Hitler lived out his final days in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes pottering around his plantation in a gardening smock with Eva Braun. The Japanese are a quirky set of sexless robots too busy upgrading their manga subscriptions to care about producing the next generation. A new study of the Zapruder Film shows that, if you look carefully, it is actually the driver of the Dallas limousine who turns around and shoots JFK. And, finally, an actor/comedian/pop star says it would be nice if everybody had a nice life all of the time. You would have thought the world had a pleasing regular rhythm to it the way these stories rise and fall like dead fish from the bottom of the ocean.

These days, economics can only dream of this kind of regularity and rhythm. The rules of supply demand have all but disappeared from our lives. For instance, there was a day when, if the economy wasn’t so great and unemployment was high, prices would fall as both buyers and sellers of goods and services reacted rationally and adjusted their behavior accordingly. I distinctly remember haggling with a salesperson in Dixons during the recession of the early 1990s for a ten percent discount on the sticker value of sound system. And I got it.

But now none of this works. People in the UK are working harder than ever before but their real wages are increasing at a crawling pace of about one percent a year.  The gap that is opening up is like nothing we have seen before and symptomatic of something very strange; economics has stopped working.

To fill the gap we have policies like Quantitative Easing, which pump-primes the economy with made up money, and schemes like Help To Buy, which attempts to reignite the problem that got us into this state in the first place. And it’s not like these policies are unique to the UK. The US, Europe, China and – above all – Japan are all doing the same. The result is a twisted and distorted system where the old rules of free market economics have simply broken down. If you were a physicist you would be wondering whether the speed of light really was constant.

Even attempts to revert to confrontational tribalism have stopped working. Russell Brand’s editorship of the New Statesman set me on edge waiting for Mary Berry to hold a press conference from the Claridges tearoom to call for the immediate redistribution of profits from the Great British Bake Off. But the social media response to Brand’s 4,500 word thesis was as incoherent as the original. There was much talk of the coming revolution but nobody on the left (defined only as those people who don’t see themselves ‘on the right’) could agree what it looked like. They had been led to the top of the mountain but there wasn’t anything there when they arrived – a basic error of leadership. The episode had the whiff of the scene in Citizen Smith when Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie was asked when the Tooting Popular Front’s revolution was starting – “About six, maybe half past depending on when everybody can get there.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the undefined Utopia proclaimed from West End hotel rooms by multi-millionaire anarcho-syndicalists, the Unite Union had to climb down from the rejection of the INEOS rescue deal to save Grangemouth petrochemical plant faster than any shop steward has ever shouted “Everyone out!!!”.  In the face of private capital, labour does not have an argument, least of all from union leaders who think the rhetoric of the 1970’s applies to the financial realities of today. The traditional negotiating voice of workers has dwindled to a whisper.

We now have a twisted system of inadequate political and social responses to the financial crisis which says that we have learned nothing whatsoever from it – all we have done is to seek to dampen its effects so that we can avoid confronting it. At the same time, increasing calls for the post-crisis props to be extended and institutionalised is creating a democratic deficit – people now do not have a say in the things that really control their lives; there is no democratic control over QE for instance. By taking away the forces that would have, in previous times, allowed the recalibration of society we are brewing up a longer-term problem that leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion. If there was ever a time when free market forces should be allowed to let rip in a society it is now.

Mary Berry - revolutionary? Not likely. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty Images
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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.