Does God vote Labour or Tory?

Paul Vallelysees difficulties for both William Hague and Tony Blair in their attempts to bring the D

God, as we all know, is an Englishman. Having thus resolved the nationality and gender issues, only one big question remains: is He also a Tory? William Hague would like to think so, as he made evident in his address to the Conservative Christian Fellowship last week. He has a steep hill to climb, though: for years, there were those who supposed God was a socialist; after all, the political economy of first-century Christians is often described as "love communism". Now that syndicalism and collectivism have disappeared, they regard God, a right- thinking chap, as new Labour.

Yet Hague is determined to launch a counter-attack and reclaim the Almighty for the Conservatives - or at least to reconcile his party and the church after the antagonism of the Thatcher years. The Conservative leader's text was full of sections that could have been cut-and-pasted from the word processor of the authors of the dreaded Faith in the City report of the Runcie era - with much talk about "the spiritual and social mission of the church" and the insistence that "the churches have valuable experiences from which politicians can learn".

That is not the only thing that would have given a Thatcherite computer a system failure. There was Hague's admission of "faults and misunderstandings on both sides" in the Thatcher-Runcie stand-off. There was his genuflection towards the church's favourite cause, international debt forgiveness. And there was his warm talk of our "neighbours" in the developing world - where he picked out for special mention Nicaragua, once the icon of seventies radical chic.

If the Conservative leader has seen the light, it illuminates only the road to his electoral Damascus rather than the surrounding countryside: his aim is purely to win church-goers, and the far greater number of passive Christian well-wishers, back to the Tory banner. There are some advantages to this shallow focus - witness the letter last weekend by bishops complaining that Tony Blair's proposed closed list system will rob voters of the ability to make decisions based on individual moral issues such as abortion or the arms trade. But Blair has been altogether more subtle.

Just before his landslide election victory Blair wrote to Cardinal Hume in response to the publication by the Catholic church of a document entitled The Common Good, which was widely interpreted as a "Vote Labour" call by Catholic bishops. The letter, which has never been published, acknowledged the common agenda between his vision for new Labour and the social teaching of the Catholic church as described in the bishops' document.

Students of Catholic social teaching can trace Blair's approach on a whole range of issues - from the rhetoric of stakeholding to policies on devolution, the minimum wage and welfare-to-work - to the explicit doctrines of the church to which the Prime Minister's family belongs and which he attends each Sunday. Indeed, the central question before Catholic social thinkers is the same one that exercises the architects of the Third Way: how the creativity and dynamism of market forces can be kept in balance with both notions of individual freedom and a sense of social justice that protects the vulnerable and creates a sense of common purpose in society. The present Pope, however, as Hague will be pleased to hear, has been at pains to insist that "the church's social doctrine is not a 'third way' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism". In his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II goes on to say: "The church does not propose economic and political systems or programmes."

Despite this disclaimer, Catholic social writings do shed light on the Third Way; as do the writings of the thinker whom the Prime Minister has in the past cited as one of his foundational influences.

John Macmurray is a Christian socialist philosopher so little-known that he merits only a mention in the bibliography of John Passmore's magisterial A Hundred Years of Philosophy. He was not obscure in his day. He was the Grote Professor of Mind and Logic before A J Ayer and a radio broadcaster so celebrated before the second world war that he was attacked in the Tory press as "the red professor of Gower Street". What doomed him to academic oblivion was his refusal to join either the mainstream of British linguistic philosophy (which had rejected metaphysics in favour of formal logic and mind-games) or the continental tradition which had abandoned serious philosophical method in its embrace of existential angst. Yet, according to Blair, Macmurray "confronted what will be the critical political question of the 21st century: the relationship between the individual and society".

Macmurray had a Third Way of his own. He refused to accept the determinism of Marxism but also rejected the social irresponsibility of the individualism of the liberal tradition. His solution was to reject "the tyranny of apparatus" but, simultaneously, to emphasise the importance of the communal. As Blair put it: "He places the individual firmly within a social setting [and says that] we are what we are, in part, because of [each] other".

Community, he argued in Conditions of Freedom (1950), was prior to politics because "a democratic polity is possible only for a human community which has established a common way of life upon a basis of mutual trust". Real community has the same dynamics as friendship, which was "the supreme value in life, and the source of all other values".

There is nothing from the political philosophy of Burke or Disraeli or, more recently, Macleod or Butler, with its emphasis on individual freedom, to comfort William Hague in this. Macmurray's thinking is rooted in the philosophy of personalism which was developed by the French thinker Emmanuel Mounier in the 1930s. Macmurray was one of his interlocutors and is regarded as the leading British exponent of the tradition.

Personalism was a philosophy that rejected the split between mind and body which had dominated western thinking since Descartes; instead it celebrated the unity of the individual based on the notion that it is through creative action that human beings realise their potential. "The basic impulse in a world of persons is not the isolated perception of self . . . but the communication of consciousness," argued Mounier. "The adult only finds himself in his relationship to others." Human freedom and fulfilment do not consist in escaping from other human beings or in withdrawing from social obligations but in communicating, mutuality and sharing in a common life.

There is one other personalist philosopher with significant purchase upon modern thinking. A young philosophy teacher at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow began to take an interest in Mounier and the German personalist Max Scheler. In 1969 Karol Wojtyla published, in Polish, a new account of personalism, called The Acting Person. A decade later he became Pope John Paul II. Personalism has imbued his teaching ever since.

For Macmurray and John Paul II the Third Way is philosophical or anthropological rather than political or economic. Science, art and religion constitute three complementary ways of viewing the world; mechanistic and organic models of thinking are therefore incomplete without one that understands the world in terms of personality. "Persons not purposes are absolute," says Macmurray; "People before profit," says the Pope.

Blair takes care not to make links publicly with Catholic doctrine, for there are parts of it which might prove too demanding. John Paul II's personalism has brought to Catholic social teaching the insistence that work - in the broad sense of "creative human action" - is the quintessential human activity. Gordon Brown's signing of this week's European economic policy on job creation would go some way to pleasing the Pope.

But Catholic social teaching condemns as unethical Brown's continued use of unemployment as a tool to control inflation, with the benefit for the many falling as a disproportionate burden on the shoulders of an unfortunate few. Unemployment can never be, as Norman Lamont put it, "a price worth paying" because human beings cannot be used as mere instruments. A policy of full employment may suit Catholic social teaching, but it does not suit Labour or the Tories at present.

This is the risk that Hague takes when he tries to use religion to persuade the voters of Middle England to return to the Tory fold. He is wielding a double-edged sword. In an age in which capitalists will do almost anything to make money, scientists will acknowledge no limits on where they may push the bounds of technological achievement and democrats drift into a relativism in which morality is simply a way of expressing preferences, religion stands as a kind of nostalgic pennant for a time of mythic moral certainty. It is no surprise that the leaders of political parties want to appropriate something of that. As Macmurray suggested, the decline of religion and the growth of the state may be interlinked.

But to do it Hague will have to come up with more than a few general statements about how Judaeo-Christian ideas concerning the freedom and dignity of individual human beings chime in with Tory traditions about the importance of freedom and the need to protect it from the encroachments of the state. He will need more than a single-sentence reference to the "doctrines of creation and incarnation". And he will have to do better than a few half-baked suggestions about how the church might take over the running of children's homes. To make sense of it he will have to come to terms with the philosophical anthropology which undergirds religion in the way that Blair has attempted. And in the end he will probably find, as Blair has, that the demands it makes may be as wide-ranging as the quick-fix solutions it offers.

"The New Politics: Catholic social teaching for the 21st century" edited by Paul Vallely is published this month by SCM Press (£14.95)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile