Plastic’s not fantastic

A rustling and puckered moment at a convenience store somewhere in the switchback of streets skirting Edinburgh's Castle Rock: I have placed a hand of bananas, a half-litre bottle of Volvic and three Mars bars on the counter; the man behind it has taken my £10 note and furnished me with change. Now there is an uncomfortable hiatus as we eye each other, until I venture tentatively: "Um, aren't you going to ask if I want a plastic bag?"

“Oh, yeah, sorry," he says, pulling one out from the slick sphincter at his elbow - for him, this must just be a little glitch in his repetitive weal, but I eye him wonderingly because this is the first time in years that I haven't been presented with a plastic bag as a fait accompli, as something integral to the purchase of an item as small as a box of matches or one already itself bagged. Moreover, it's also the first time in years that I've actually wanted a plastic bag.

Brand new bag

Is it just me, or does anyone else find this experience deranging? You walk into a shop, pull a plastic bag from a roll and tear it off, fill it with apples, take this to the counter and, without speaking, the shopkeeper sheathes this bag in a second. It's been a while now since, like Malcolm X refusing pork in the penitentiary, I took the debagging leap of faith. "No, no," I say when they try to bag the bag, "I don't need a bag for this because it's already in a bag." Or I say: "No, I don't need a bag for this because it's really small and I can put it in my pocket." Or I say: "Please,
no bag, because see . . ." - I lift my hand above the level of the counter - "I am already carrying a bag and I can put this thing in it."

Needless to say, these rational appeals to bag-pushers are met, at best, with indifference and, at worst, with the quizzical expressions bestowed on someone eccentric but harmless. If only I could leave it there - but I can't. "Are you not aware," I ask them as I tuck my purchases away, "that plastic bags break down in the sea into innumerable little pellets known as nurdles and that the ocean currents carry these myriad nurdles around
the world until they all come together in a vast patch of pollution in the northern Pacific that's already the size of Texas - and growing by the day? Does it not appal you, the thought of mile upon mile of waves colloidal with non-degraded plastic, beneath which heave the dead links of the entire food chain? You should feel responsible for this and, instead of unthinkingly dispensing these bags that are suffocating Gaia, you should refuse to hand them out, because they are evil."

If I've managed to retain any sympathy during this little rant, the word "evil" usually puts paid to it. No matter how massed they may be, ascribing moral characteristics to objects - unless they happen to be illegal drugs - is self-evidently schizoid thinking.

It wasn't until I began using the "e" word with reference to plastic bags that I realised quite what a behaviourist quagmire psychotics have to wade through every day. For the minute someone looks at you as if you're mad, it automatically calls forth the response: "You think I'm mad, don't you?" And the second these words are out of your mouth, the self-diagnosis will be confirmed by all that hear them.

Inner Spacey

It isn't the environmental argument about plastic bags that I find so compelling; it's more the aesthetic one. There is something insanely ugly about a culture that not only manufactures so much baggage, but has come to regard its provision as integral to the most marginal commerce. Plastic bags are thus, it seems, an appropriate garnish for the endlessly moveable feast of our consumerism.

So who exactly is mad here - the plastic bag refusenik or the capacious bagocracy? In Edinburgh, I needed my plastic bag because I was bagless and wanted to climb Arthur's Seat with some provisions for me and my two younger sons. Forty-five minutes after I left the shop, we were indeed on top of the volcanic plug, swigging the Volvic and looking north to the Firth of Forth across the sun-gilded city. I handed a Mars bar and a banana to each of the boys. The voided bag swelled in the wind and tugged against my fingers.

I dunno, it looked so blue, so beautiful and so clearly longed to go west . . . to America. I released it and watched as it waltzed up into the sky. Sometimes I feel mad but, on good days, I'm just a little bit Kevin Spacey.

Will Self's latest book, "Walking to Hollywood", is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)

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 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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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.