Inn it for the money

"We're, like, regulars, aren't we?" I said to the attractively goofy young fellow who takes the role of maître d' in the new gastropub across the road from our house. He surveyed us slackly and replied: "Well, we want the place to be for locals, too."

There was not a soupçon of irony in his tone: he meant it. He meant that our local corner pub . . . should be for locals. Actually, we weren't the only locals in - our next-door neighbours were there, too - but there's no escaping that, since its refurb and the arrival of a much-feted Australian chef, the Canton Arms's clientele is no longer representative of the local population. Not a black or a brown face in the gaff - to put it bluntly - and instead of cockney glottals stopping at the bar, there's the wicker and whinny of Sloaney ponies and their financial servicers.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not about to launch into an elegy for the decline of the Great British Pub; I've never been any more pubbable than I am clubbable. Back in the days when I drank, I also liked to smoke dope - and without becoming a habitué of a local on the Herengracht, there's no way I could satisfy this joint taste. When I think about it, I was always in the avant-garde of pubbing (as I am with so much else) because, if I went at all, it was with a view to food.

The King's Arms in Oxford - which, during my time, had a vast array of real ales and a fully functioning Trotskyite groupuscule, headed up by Terry Eagleton - was, for me, little more than a licensed canteen. I don't recall the food being outrageously good or bad, just the usual "hearty fare": cottage pies with a thatch of flaky pastry, battered plaice rigid enough to batter someone with, sheaves of chips, a grapeshot of peas. In a way, pub food benefits from its bibulous context: if it's good, it seems exceptionally so by virtue of having been cultured in this yeasty realm, and if it's bad, well, anaesthetic is close by.

Gastro entryists

There are these advantages, and there's also the enduring myth of ye olde English coaching inne, a mythic hostelry that lurks in the psyche of every Mondeo Man as he pulls off the motorway and into the turning circuit of a Harvester. Ye olde inne allows for an atavistic presumption of largesse and the blurring of social boundaries that makes it possible for the grimmest little pisshole in the grottiest little town to still importune customers brazenly with its own hearty fare.

By the same token, it's the great cultural hinterland of the pub - both imagined and real - that has made it such an attractive target for this, the latest putsch in the permanent bourgeois revolution. Gastropubs first made their appearance in the early 1990s. They had pseudo-earthy names like "The Cow" or "The Sow" and were run by Wykehamists with cod-demotic names such as Tom or Bill. They offered nouvelle British cuisine, heavy on the puy lentils and smoked eel. Indeed, I once went into one of these establishments and ordered a pint of puy lentils, and it duly arrived on the bar with a smoked eel for a swizzle stick.

Grubby business

Gastropubs enable the most febrile BBC hack to feel as a horny-handed son of the soil. They are only a logical extension of the manifest inauthenticity first picked up on by Richard Eyre's and Ian McEwan's Ploughman's Lunch in 1983, wherein the cynical adman explains to the uppity BBC hack that said pub grub is in fact a neologism, rather than a rarebit from time out of mind. After all, if the ploughman's lunch was
a marketing concept, what can we say about foie gras sandwiches, just one of the bar snacks available at my local?

But to be fair to the Canton Arms, it's by no means the most chichi gastropub I've been in. That accolade belongs to Ford's Filling Station, a self-styled "American gastropub" on Culver Boulevard in Los Angeles, whose "executive chef" is none other than Ben Ford, Harrison's son from his first marriage. Say what you will about the Cows, the Eagles and the Oxen, but none of them would risk the drivel on Ford's menu that sets out his "culinary philosophy".

Which brings us back, full circle, to the Canton Arms, where - or so it used to be said - it was possible to buy a strap (local argot for a handgun) over your pork scratchings. It's a curious fact that not one of the shots fired here, at the epicentre of London's black-on-black gun crime, has ever been heard of around the world - but the gastropub has, oh yes.

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.

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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.