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One was a natural conservative with a deep respect for English traditions – the other was Mrs T

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Last week, more than 2,000 people gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the life of a natural conservative. The service was steeped in the deepest traditions of faith, flag and family. Each reading and every hymn, all the tributes from friends: everything was stamped with the restrained Anglicanism, emotional understatement and lyrical reverence for the English landscape that had sustained the life we came to celebrate. It was, of course, the memorial service for Christopher Martin-Jenkins, cricket writer and, above all, commentator for the BBC’s Test Match Special.

The following day St Paul’s marked the life and achievements of Baroness Thatcher. The two occasions provided an unmistakable metaphor for two different and often contradictory strands of British conservatism: gentlemanly restraint versus animal spirits; the educational establishment versus entrepreneurial vigour; institutional wisdom versus personal liberty; the village green versus the free market. Over two consecutive days in spring, the same cathedral witnessed an accidental debate about the soul and identity of British conservatism.

Martin-Jenkins’s career had nothing to do with the promotion of the free market. It could be argued that he was the beneficiary of it, at least as a print journalist. But in his opinions and advocacy, he never sided with entrepreneurs against the establishment.

Twice in modern history, cricket has experienced commercially driven revolutions that might loosely be termed “Thatcherite”. In the 1970s, the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer saw a commercial opportunity in the low morale and poor pay of international cricketers. He used his deep pockets and taste for conflict to entice the game’s stars to play in a start-up league, World Series Cricket. Packer’s rallying cry was simple: “Come on, we’re all whores, name your price!”

A schism followed, with Packer’s players expelled from the traditional game. It was a horrible, fractious era in cricketing history. But Packer’s legacy today looks very different: the commercially successful features of modern cricket (floodlights, coloured clothing) can be traced to his innovations. Whatever his motives, a case could be made that Packer saved cricket.

Today, the free market provides an even more ruthless attack on cricket’s traditions. The Indian Premier League (IPL) pays higher wages for a few weeks than cricketers once dreamed of making over a whole career. Some top players have given up playing for their countries; they travel the world as mercenaries, revelling in the riches and celebrity of Twenty20, which has undoubtedly inspired new, younger audiences.

Martin-Jenkins vigorously opposed both arriviste entrepreneurial interjections. First, he led the establishment attack on Packer and his “circus”. “It’s every man for himself,” he wrote, “and the devil take the hindmost”. He despised the idea that cricketers had been lining up an alternative career, while simultaneously playing for their country. Three decades later, he sounded the alarm about the IPL, arguing it had pushed his beloved Test cricket off centre stage.

What would Baroness Thatcher have made of the causes that Martin-Jenkins fought to protect and preserve? County cricket was his deepest love. He had an instinctive feel for the rhythms and history of a competition that has roots deep in the 18th century.

But county cricket has been losing money for decades and relies substantially on handouts from the England and Wales Cricket Board. Not much imagination is required to know how Thatcher would have advised county chairmen who face declining gate receipts alongside demands for pay increases from South African overseas players. “It’s quite simple, dear, you can’t spend money you don’t have. If you want to sign new players, you’ll have to sack old ones.” And how would she have responded to the county chairman’s rejoinder that the fans would grumble at the loss of popular players? With an icy stare and a call to arms.

The whole mood of county cricket would have made Thatcher uncomfortable: shaky business models, burgeoning debts, well-intentioned men in blazers avoiding difficult decisions, club ties, hazy lines of accountability, problems with discerning the bottom line let alone resolving it. I asked one of her former cabinet ministers what she would have made of county cricket. There was a long pause and a slight smile. “More of an IPL person, I think,” he replied.

The two ceremonies at St Paul’s demonstrated that some conservative lives are spent mostly fighting the establishment, others mainly serving it. Thatcher saw belonging to the Conservative Party as the best means to fight what she saw as a sclerotic and ineffectual status quo. Martin-Jenkins’s career in cricket, in contrast, was an attempt to apply the brakes; not to reject change entirely but to manage its pace and steer its direction – always towards civility, history and dignity and, just as important, away from vulgarity and the profit motive.

Their styles were as different as their visions. Baroness Thatcher thrived on conflict; for Martin-Jenkins, it was a last resort. He attracted few enemies, even among those whom he opposed ideologically. Margaret Thatcher’s downfall followed from her own teammates.

All of this leads to the uncomfortable question: can two people, so different in character, motives and opinions, belong to the same political movement? What is “conservative” about the free market, with its “creative waves of destruction”? How does saving post offices and village greens, or preserving the green belt, fit alongside economic necessities and social aspiration? For over 30 years that fault line within British conservatism has been left unresolved.

“Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury) is out in paperback this month

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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.