Show Hide image

Ken v Saddam, dinner with David Blunkett, and when Julie was queen of the Groucho

Signs of the times

When the Sunday Times Magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, I felt young and cool because I could revel in its glamorous Swinging Sixties past while being part of its future. Now, as the New Statesman’s centenary fast approaches, it’s lovely to be back in these pages. But a couple of decades have passed since I wrote a politics column here, so I guess I’m just a footnote in some dusty archive. How 20th century it all seems now: a time of political sex scandals and sleaze, an enfeebled Conservative prime minister torn apart over Europe . . . Has anything else happened in between?

A line in the sand

Back then, there was also the first Iraq war. I remember tracking down Ken Livingstone, the then MP for Brent East, who was abroad at the time, and persuading him to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Posing as devil’s advocate for a moment, I asked, “Aren’t the borders just some colonial fiction? Why should Iraq respect them?” I feel sure he replied that so many national boundaries were arbitrary that a line had to be drawn in the sand – and Saddam should be sent packing. His recollection, it is fair to say, differs from mine, so I may have imagined the whole episode. Perhaps he was against Saddam’s use of force but equally against doing anything about it. However, I’ll always believe that his original impulse was right – and that he, like many people on the left, was anti-Saddam, before he was nobbled by the anti-American brigade on his return home.

Feeling dodgy

The Gulf war presented an awkward challenge for the left. Sales at the NS were on the up, driven by John Pilger’s fierce tirades against intervention, while a few people, including me, supported the liberation of Kuwait. I’d been influenced by Republic of Fear, a devastating portrait of Saddam’s tyranny by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi who was writing under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. The splits over this –which seemed fairly insignificant at the time – widened irreparably during the second Iraq war.

A few days ago, I had dinner near Westminster with David Blunkett (and his handsome dog, Cosby) and was impressed to find that, ten years on, he was sticking by Labour’s decision to overthrow Saddam. The “dodgy dossier” on weapons of mass destruction, which has achieved such prominence that the story was recently dramatised by BBC Radio 4, had nothing to do with his decision, he told me.

I wasn’t very surprised that no WMDs were found, as Hans Blix and his UN inspectors had been scouring Iraq for them unsuccessfully for months. As Helmut Kohl reputedly said: “Ninety per cent of intelligence comes from journalists and the other 10 per cent is wrong.” Yet the short-term advantage to be gained from spin enabled the myth of the big lie to flourish and Tony Blair and George W Bush have been hounded by it ever since.

Posse riot

Before joining the NS, I worked for the feminist publisher Virago. My salary was pitiful, so when its chairman, Carmen Callil, got together with other publishers to found the Groucho Club (because most clubs, astoundingly, were men-only in the 1980s), I couldn’t afford the 90 quid membership fee. Nor could most of my publishing colleagues, so it soon became the hang-out of journalists such as Julie Burchill, who styled herself “the queen of the Groucho Club” and blew her considerable earnings on drink and drugs for her posse.

Last Saturday, I returned there for a very respectable affair: the leaving do for Anoushka Healy, the former managing editor of the Times and Sunday Times, and Daisy Dunlop, News International’s former communications head, who are off to New York with grand new titles to devise strategy for the new News Corp. On the night, I searched keenly for evidence of misbehaviour but I’m sorry to report there simply wasn’t any. Good luck in NYC, girls . . .

Indian summer

When it splits from the mothership in July, the new News Corp will be the largest publishing company in the world. But, as we know, it is possible for smaller enterprises such as the NS to punch above their weight in the digital world (while the Guardian, despite its seemingly vast tally of online readers, still gets mistaken for the in-house newspaper of LaGuardia Airport in the US).

The Staggers already has a great global advantage: a readership on the Indian subcontinent, which has long admired the mag for its support for Indian independence under Kingsley Martin’s editorship. I discovered this on a visit to South Africa in the 1990s, where my brother-in-law, who is from the Indian community, introduced me to lots of subscribers. These days, you can also pick up hundreds of followers from Pakistan on Twitter if you are lucky enough to get a single retweet from Jemima Khan.

My humble suggestion is that, if the NS ever gets some money for extra editorial staff (is this too much to hope?), it should recruit a few journalists from the Indian subcontinent and become a huge digital player in the region. There’s a tremendous market to be tapped: the Jaipur Literature Festival, for instance, has taken off, helped in part by Tina Brown, who wrote for the NS as an absurdly talented teenager. So why not?

Sarah Baxter is editor of the Sunday Times Magazine and a former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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.