How can I run up some more expenses? Meet your new wine writer!

A visit to the accountant. I like my accountant. She's jolly and good and she finds my extraordinary financial incompetence amusing. I've only set eyes on her three times, and that over a period of three years, and she has since moved to a swankier firm, which, judging by the promotional video they play on a loop in the waiting room, exists only to balance the books of the larger companies, or countries about the size of Belgium. I imagine she keeps me on because I make her laugh and remind her of her roots when she used to look after freelance writers. (Do you remember that episode of Black Books in which Bernard tries to get his customers to break his arms so he isn't liable for tax? He's better at his accounts than I am.)

This time the visit is not quite the usual laff-fest. In the past, they went like this. Me: Shall we do my accounts, then? Her: OK, bring them in. Me: Bring in what? Her: Your accounts. You know, your expenses and your income. Me: Can I just give you the password to my online account? Her (eyes widening in horror): That really is NOT a good idea. Me: But I don't LIKE doing my accounts, it's boring and makes me cry. Is wine a legitimate expense? Her: Are you a wine writer? Me: Not as such. And so on, once a year. Eventually I agree to do some kind of bookkeeping, which means I buy a pen and an envelope from Ryman's and put the receipt in my wallet and feel as though I've turned a corner, and then I lose the receipt. A year later I go back to the accountant and we repeat the process.

This time I have been very good. Comparatively. I have kept all my receipts religiously for a three-month period. The A4 notebook I bought from Ryman's - the receipt for which I have since lost - looks very impressive on the outside but on the inside, apart from the three months where I have been boring and grown-up, and where all footling purchases that are related to my work are duly noted, I may as well have drawn a big smiley face with the smile part of it upside down.

I tell my accountant that it's like this every month, just use those three incredibly well-documented months as an average. She tells me it doesn't quite work like that. There are bent accountants and there are honest accountants, and she falls firmly into the latter category. (The best example of one of the former was the one who told a friend of mine to paint over the rear windows of his car so he could call it a van and therefore claim every drop of petrol and all maintenance as legitimate business expenses. It is a dodge I have contemplated more than once.)

So when she emails me to say she has now done what she can, but I had better come in to discuss it, I get a bad feeling, the kind Douglas Adams and John Lloyd in their book The Meaning of Liff called "an Ely": "the first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong."

I sit in the offices of MegaCo accountants and watch the corporate video tell me several times how they managed to keep Poland on an even keel during the fiscal year 2009-2010. Eventually I am called through. My accountant normally wears distractingly low-cut jumpers, but this time she is covered up demurely in black. She tells me that what with me being an incompetent c*** and everything - not that she uses anything like such language, but the import is clear - I now face a tax bill of around this size, and she points to a sum that I could swear is more than News International and Vodafone combined have to shell out a year.

“Is there any way we could get that lower?" I ask. "Well, you could let me know if there are any more expenses you've forgotten about."

I even forget to ask her if wine is a legitimate expense. But I do ask if they will send me to prison. To pay this kind of sum, I reflect, I will need, basically, to win the Booker.

Monkey business

My accountant looks at the sum thoughtfully. "No," she says after a most disconcertingly long pause, "I think we can rule prison out. They only send you to prison if you submit false accounts." But these are false, I want to say, I've left out loads of expenses and yet somehow all my income is in there.

Anyway, in the interests of self-preservation, this column is now doubling as a wine column. I recommend Chalk Spring Vineyards Shiraz, at £5.49 from Majestic (pre-budget price) an amazing bargain, with deep, rich notes of, er, blackcurrant, toffee, cigar boxes, er, oxtail soup, Benylin and monkey spunk, but in a good way, and indeed the only wine I can afford, so I'll be describing it week after week. Using different words, I hope.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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.