You know you’ve hit a new low when you’re borrowing money off your children

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

It was, in the end, nothing less than a continuous pleasure having the daughter to stay for a fortnight. She’s gone now, and is missed; she’s off to stay for a while in a household in France that is, a generation up, infested with hippies.
These are real hippies – the kind who were at just the right age to inhale the full blowback of flower power in the mid-Sixties. They’re pushing their own sixties now and you can spot them a mile off, which is handy if you want to distance yourself. Remember the television ad for a bank around five or six years ago that featured a woman in a headscarf going on about feng shui? That was her, or close enough to make no difference. I stayed there once myself and gave them a present of some delicious local saucissonand cheese.
“Sorry,” she said as I was putting them in the fridge, “but I’m getting back in touch with my Jewish roots and would rather you didn’t put the meat and the dairy products on the same shelf.”
She is also very partial to wandering around the place completely starkers. This can come as a surprise at first but I suppose it is always well to have a memento mori around the place, like Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte with his skull inscribed with the legend “Et in Arcadia ego”. I, too, was, or am, in paradise. The ambiguity in tense is crucial.
Anyway, my daughter came to stay at just the right time; in other words, at that awkward period at the end of the month when the Lezard economy enters its austerity phase. For those who think I exaggerate when I claim poverty, the last ten days of July were spent working out how to live off £14 and for the first time in my life I started thinking about going to a payday loan company. I find something rather distasteful and dishonest about them, which probably doesn’t come as news to you, and I heard that if you borrow £100 off the best-known one and don’t pay it back for five years, you end up with a debt greater than that of the United States. I haven’t done the maths but I suspect it’s true.
In the end, I kept the ship afloat by borrowing small sums, here and there, off a) the Beloved, who gave me a funny look, and b) my friend Toby, to whom I had turned only because I’d already put the bite on c) my daughter. I think it represents A New Low when you’re reduced to that, no?
Toby always does his best to help me save face when he gives me my payday loans, which he always does at his local: either handing the money to me as discreetly as a drug dealer handing over his wares in a public place, or else, if scrutiny is unavoidable, pretending that it is money he owes me. This is very chivalrous of him but I think it is important not to dissemble in front of one’s own children and so peeled off a 20 then and there to hand to my daughter, who had come with me.
“There,” I said. “Let that be a lesson to you.” In the end, people paid me, and the sun came out, and this month I have resolved not to let things get like that again. Which is why it was probably unwise to treat myself, last sunny Thursday, to a plate of calamari and a carafe of house white at Casa Becci in Marylebone. The problem with austerity is that its relief can lead one into bad habits again. But what is this life if you can’t sit in the sunshine with some fried seafood, a chilled bottle and a copy of this magazine to read at leisure?
It is also well to recall civilised modes of existence. The other day I found that my sometime flatmate, this very magazine’s distinguished and gifted correspondent Laurie Penny, had received a death threat on Twitter. It is all too easy, for men at least, to dismiss these as the tiresome yelps of the mindless savage, but a message giving a specific time at which the firebomb in or near your house is going to go off can be the last straw if you get nothing but abuse every time you write an article.
It then occurred to me that, had this kind of thing been all the rage a year or so ago, Laurie’s house would have been my house, too, and there may well have been children of mine staying in it as well.
It is at this point that contemplation of the kind of scum who get their kicks out of this kind of thing becomes more than academic. I may have gently teased the hippies in the first few paragraphs of this piece, but really, what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding? 
Piggs banks accessible only via hammer. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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.