Show Hide image

The Beeb under fire, drone strikes and small hope for republicans

“Why WERE they left to shiver in rain for 4 hours?” demanded a Daily Mail headline.

Ah, yes, but a day late. The morning after the Thames jubilee pageant, not a single newspaper expressed the slightest concern at the effects of exposing an 86-year-old woman and a man one week short of his 91st birthday to weather conditions that caused 50 people to be treated for hypothermia.

Only after Prince Philip was taken to hospital with a bladder infection did journalists belatedly express their compassion. Which suggests that they and most of the rest of the population, for all their cringing towards royalty, don’t care a coronation cake crumb about Mrs Windsor and her spouse. They are guilty of what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “a denial of subjectivity”, treating two human beings as things without concern for their feelings and experiences.

Auntie’s blunders

Right-wing newspapers never lose an opportunity to denigrate the BBC, just as they denigrate the NHS and the Church of England, all three being, at least partially, among the few non-market institutions left in Britain. Predictably, they berated the Beeb’s coverage of the Thames pageant. But it was for the wrong reasons, such as the solecism of describing the Queen as Her Royal Highness instead of Her Majesty.

What I found more irritating was that, when the producers weren’t bringing us the non-thoughts of, for example, Fearne Cotton, Matt Baker, Anneka Rice, Sandi Toksvig, Richard E Grant and some boy band I’d never heard of, they had the cameras focused on the Queen and her family. Surely even royalists know what the Queen looks like and can accept that what she is thinking (even about being stranded in the middle of a river during a monsoon) will forever remain a closed book.

As a republican, I watched because I was interested in the spectacle and particularly the ships. I wanted to know more about them, including the role that some played at Dunkirk.

I wanted to know more about the history of the Thames. The BBC offered no more than mere snippets. But perhaps, confronted by royalty, most of the population can do no more than gawp in an incurious stupor.

Droning on

When we hear of civilians being massacred in a faraway country, the cry goes up: Something Must Be Done. After the killing of more than 100 people, half of them thought to be children, in the Syrian town of Houla, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said the situation was “so grave, so serious and so rapidly deteriorating” that no option could be ruled out.

Here is one thing that can be done. The west can itself stop killing children. CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have murdered between 482 and 830 civilians, including 175 children, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Covert US actions in Yemen are responsible for the deaths of between 58 and 138 civilians, including 24 children. True, the US did not walk into children’s homes to shoot them like the Syrian militias. The missiles delivered by the drones can be operated by pressing a button in Nevada. But the children are still dead.

Noble vision

If a eurozone banking union comes about, as now seems possible, it would, as even Angela Merkel acknowledges, entail the final step towards a European federation, in which fiscal policies are run from Brussels just as US fiscal policies are from Washington. Why have so many politicians, Continental as well as British, been in denial about this for so long? It was the goal of the European project from the moment the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the EU, was proposed in 1950.

The then French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, spelled it out. “The pooling of coal and steel production,” he said, “should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe.”

Schuman was not an eloquent man, nor was pooling coal and steel production a romantic idea. But his aim was the noble one of making another European war impossible and the greatest failure of European politicians for the past 60 years is that, with rare exceptions, they have lost sight of his vision and tried to sell the EU as little more than a device for getting richer.

Human traffic

When the local police gave up parking enforcement and the council delayed taking on the responsibility, Aberystwyth was liberated for 12 months from those most hated of public servants, traffic wardens. The predictable result was that people parked wherever they pleased, bringing traffic to a standstill and motorists to blows. Now the wardens are welcomed back like long-lost friends. I wonder if other towns of similar size could be persuaded to try a year without other reviled public servants, such as health and safety officers. How long would it take before employers dispensed with first aid boxes, properly equipped toilets, drinking water, adequate ventilation, tolerable temperatures, handrails on staircases and other requirements of health and safety legislation? The results of this and similar experiments could create a renewed appreciation, perhaps even among Tory MPs, of the public sector’s merits.

Family silver

After the ball was over, after the break of morn, what hope for republicans? Just a glimmer.

According to Brand Finance (which calls itself “the world’s leading brand valuation consultancy”), the monarchy is worth £44.5bn, with physical assets such as the crown jewels and the palaces valued at £18.1bn. If George Osborne continues to make a mess of the economy, we shall have to sell it off, along with a few uninhabited Scottish islands.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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.