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Tea with Queen Judi, bicycling in Amsterdam and hunting for WMDs with Hans Blix

Jon Snow's diary.

Conduct becoming

Monday, and I find Eriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection still ringing in my ears from a phenomenal performance the night before. In the Georgian splendour of the Grosvenor Chapel, the Voce chamber choir had lifted the roof with this spectacular choral piece of 21st-century sorrow and joy, conducted by Suzi Digby, the Cambridge-based conductor and pianist.

Female conductors are rare; she is the match for any man I’ve ever seen on the conductor’s rostrum. Concise, certain, emotional and yet not extravagant, she has the capacity to get to the top, taking her choir with her. To be honest, when I discovered that the centrepiece of the concert was to be a major choral work by a 36-year-old Latvian composer resident at Trinity College, Cambridge, I feared the worst – something atonal, dark and brooding. Not a bit of it. The music was dramatic, melodic and exceptionally moving.

Gangland style

Midday on Tuesday. To the New Horizon Youth Centre near King’s Cross for our monthly meeting of the management council, which I chair. It’s a day centre for vulne - rable and homeless young people. We talk of finance and gangs – the former remains tough but survivable. As to the latter, “Not many gangs round here,” I venture. I come and go from the centre by bike, oblivious to the tensions in the streets around me.

The youth centre workers correct me. “We have one gang to the north, one to the south, and then there’s the Kilburn Crew out to the west.” Gangs are about identity, family even, for often deeply insecure, isolated youngsters who yearn for community and get it at the blade of a knife or worse.

That afternoon, I cycle over to the Noël Coward Theatre to interview Judi Dench, who is starring in her first post-Skyfall West End play – Peter and Alice. We squash our camera kit into the little rococo withdrawing room at the back of the theatre, all gold, blue and mirrored. Tricky to film without spotting one of the cameras in one of the mirrors. Dame Judi is an extraordinarily jolly yet formidable presence. At once apparently stern and then breaking out into a completely infectious laugh.

We get on like a house on fire as we discuss this real-life fantasy in which the “Alice” of Alice in Wonderland, at 80, meets the man who inspired Peter Pan, who is 30. Dame Judi is the most versatile and eclectic actress, game for any challenge. I suggest that if Danny Boyle were to make a film of his stunning opening of the Olympic Games, and should they need an old queen to chuck out of a helicopter, she’d be up for it. “Oh yes,” she chimes, “you bet!”

Hans’s solo mission

Wednesday. To the Frontline Club straight after the news, to chair a debate about lessons learned ten years after the invasion of Iraq.

I first visited the country in 1980 during the harrowing trench warfare that characterised the Iran/Iraq war in which a million people died. Twenty years later, we transmitted Channel 4 News from Baghdad for a week before the invasion. Even so late in the day, I could not believe anyone could be so stupid as to attempt to destabilise this incredibly complex entity. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a menace but he was an extremely contained one. A decade of RAF-led and UN-authorised no-fly surveillance had kept his regime in check.

No one who visited in those days could have been unaware of the secular fear with which he kept the competing religious factions at bay. My conviction to this day is that almost no one in the US/UK cabal that did this thing knew anything much about the dangerous differences between Sunnis and Shias. I remember, too, the pathetic experience of chasing around after the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. MI6 and the CIA kept calling up with new locations for Saddam’s “WMDs”. We would rush to a farm or a factory and find nothing – only to hear Blix’s large mobile wailing again with another location.

Two wheels better

Friday, and I’m on the 6.35am KLM flight to Amsterdam for a conference, staged by the Dutch state-owned broadcaster NTR, about the future of journalism. I speak optimistically – perceiving the digital multi-platform age as heralding a golden age of journalism. But perhaps I am boosted by Amsterdam itself.

We are located beside one of the city’s great canals, just 200 metres from the house in which Anne Frank hid with her family during the war before she was transported to Auschwitz, to die just a month before liberation. I see that the queue of visitors winds round the back of her house and I am sure the wait will be too long.

But in the break before our conference supper, when the bitter wind-chill factor has peaked at -15°C, I sneak out to the queue, still 80 people deep. Finally, after only 20 minutes, I am in the downstairs warmth of the Anne Frank Museum, neatly structured beneath the attic rooms she and her family hid in. The narrow wooden steps lead up to the very bookcase that disguised the entrance to their bolt-hole.

As I wander through the stark, dark, unfurnished rooms, I think how Anne’s diary moved my daughters as deeply as it had moved me. It is perhaps the strongest literary narrative between us.

Outside, I am overwhelmed by the Dutch brilliance that has conjured Amsterdam’s urban transit system. Tram, car, bike, foot, all wending their separated ways. We in Britain are nowhere, yet bikes are everywhere in ever greater numbers.

As we pine for infrastructure, for jobs and for the groundwork that will provide the foundations for our new tomorrow – why can’t we get to it? Get the private car out of town, let the buses roll, and get the people on to their bikes and on to their feet. We shall live longer, happier, less overweight lives, respecting each other, instead of trying to carve each other up.

Jon Snow is the lead presenter of “Channel 4 News” For details on the New Horizon centre, visit:

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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.