Show Hide image

Tony Howard: establishment radical

Roy Hattersley remembers a complex man, willing to promote and enjoy the success of others.

An obituary – as Anthony Howard, who has died aged 76, himself would sternly remind me – should be an objective assessment of the subject's life and achievements, not a highly personal description of the author's sense of loss. But, for me, it is impossible to write about Tony's death without acknowledging the debt that I owe to him. For more than 40 years he was the ungrudging source of help and advice – professional, political and personal. And throughout that time his company never failed to delight me. With the exception of sport – at the mention of which he would go into a trance – he had something interesting and informative to say on every subject. It was the breadth of his knowledge, combined with an unassuming, though unquestionable authority, which made him such a compelling broadcaster. It also made him as entertaining a companion as he was a true friend.

The obituaries quite rightly wrote of Tony as a journalist of genius. Had he chosen another trade – he would not allow his vocation to be called a profession – he would have done just as well. Perhaps he would have done even better. Stubborn integrity and an endearing inclination to give gratuitously frank opinions of his superiors were not traits that guaranteed success in what used to be called Fleet Street.

Suez conspiracy

There were occasions when he was reckless in expressing what he saw as the truth. Because I was writing for the paper that weekend, I was present when Howard, then deputy editor of the Observer, made a presentation to the editor, Donald Trelford – theoretically to mark ten years of service. It turned into a not very thinly disguised explanation of why the recipient was not up to the job – illustrated by the gift of a billiard cue that was intended to indicate the paper's increasing triviality. Had Howard waited, the top job at the Observer would have fallen into his lap. As it was, he lost his last chance to lead a national newspaper and a great editor was lost to British journalism.

Tony Howard was a complex man. Indeed, complexity was an important ingredient of his charm. He fitted as snugly into the metropolitan establishment as his background – Westminster School, Christ Church, Oxford, and the Royal Fusiliers, with a slightly irregular allegiance to the Church of England – suggested. But he was also a genuine radical. It was the bullying of Jewish boys at Westminster, 60 years ago, that made him a socialist who believed in the need to create a society free from prejudice and privilege. It was his opposition to the Suez conspiracy and invasion that made him a journalist. Second Lieutenant Howard kept and sent to the New Statesman a diary of the invasion's folly. After its publication, he was spared a court martial because the general staff sensibly assumed that Howard in the witness box would only add to the damage he had done in print. From then on, although he had been called to the Bar and there were two brief flirtations with Labour politics, he was a journalist in his heart and in his head.

At Reynolds News, the long-forgotten Co-operative movement's Sunday paper, he made his name by exposing the fascist connections of Conservative constituency parties. As a result, he was offered a job on the (then Manchester) Guardian, and worked in the northern newsroom with Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson. After a spell in America, he joined the New Statesman as political correspondent; he returned as editor between 1972 and 1978, after an unsuccessful attempt to expose the secrets of Whitehall for the Sunday Times and a joyous stint in Washington as correspondent for the Observer. It was there that I discovered his secret fault – highly selective hero worship. Robert McNamara lived close by. Whenever they met in the street, the usually composed Tony Howard radiated boyish delight. And for years he spoke of Richard Crossman in hushed tones of admiration.

After editing the Listener and his turbulent years at the Observer, Howard was appointed obituaries editor of the Times – a job with which, he announced, he had always wanted to end his career. Sceptics were confounded to discover that, when interviewing the young Peter Stothard 30 years earlier, he had told the future editor of the Times that he hoped that the obits page of the "Thunderer" would be his final destination.

Those of us who knew him understood why. Accuracy, a passion that often took the form of punctuating book reviews with the correction of minor errors, was essential. Good – plain rather than ostentatious – writing fitted the task exactly. The end result was a personalised form of contemporary history that allowed Howard to indulge his interest in obscure bishops and equally obscure politicians. Above all else, the quality of the result was determined by its integrity.

Nurturing talent

In print, Tony Howard was a hard man. In the rest of his life he was gentle, considerate and wonderfully willing to promote and enjoy the success of others.

He took great pride in encouraging young writers. Martin Amis, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, Robert Harris and Jonathan Dimbleby were all Howard protégés. Bel Mooney wrote that she learned most of what she knew about writing from him. His affection for his discoveries endured.

At his 70th birthday party, it was neither Michael Heseltine nor Jeremy Isaacs – friends of 50 years from his Oxford days – who was invited to make the speech, but Harris. The gallery of talent that Tony nurtured remains part of his lasting memorial.

Roy Hattersley's most recent book is "David Lloyd George: the Great Outsider" (Little, Brown, £25).

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.