Dacre’s triumph, Searle’s survival and poems about microwaves

The Daily Mail was right. Not a sentence you read very often in this column, and I hope its regular captain will forgive me for spending a moment in praise of "Ayatollah" Dacre.

But in February 1997, the Stephen Lawrence case seemed hopelessly stalled: a half-hearted investigation into his killing four years earlier had been stymied by what the Macpherson report later described as "institutional racism" in the Metropolitan Police. Then the Mail did something unprecedented: it named five suspects as "murderers" on the front page, adding, "If we are wrong, let them sue us."

The decision met with unlikely praise from the left. The late campaigning journalist Paul Foot said: "I don't normally think it's right for people to be witch-hunted in this way, but in this case the legal process had run its course and the case against these men was overwhelming." Peter Preston, the then editor of the Guardian, believed it was "a valid way of expressing the extreme anger at the state this case has been left in". It also kicked off a Mail campaign of "justice for Stephen", which culminated on 3 January with the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for his murder.

Now that the law on double jeopardy has been changed - allowing suspects to be retried for the same crime if compelling new evidence comes to light - it is unlikely that the Mail's bold gesture will, or indeed should, be repeated. But the simple fact remains that Stephen was 18 years, seven months and nine days old when he died. It took 18 years, eight months and 12 days for two men to be convicted of stabbing him to death for no other reason than the colour of his skin. No wonder the "Murderers" splash is the only front page Paul Dacre has hanging in his office.

Hurrah for Searle

“If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that are not revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being." That was the Australian author Russell Braddon's verdict on the cartoonist Ronald Searle, who has died aged 91. The two men were among the few survivors of the Japanese POW camp at Changi in the Second World War. Searle is best known for his later work with Molesworth and St Trinian's, but I hope he will be remembered for the 300 spare, poignant drawings from the camp, which he kept safe from the sadistic guards by hiding them under the beds of cholera patients.

Glamour and Louise

I disagree with Louise Mensch on many things, starting with the Tory party being the best and continuing right down to Count Cosimo Parigi being an acceptable name for the hero of a novel (from The Devil You Know, available at all bad bookshops). But I'm with her on this - female politicians can't win. They are inevitably judged on their looks: they're dowdy frumps (or "unf***able lard-arse[s]", to quote Silvio Berlusconi's charming verdict on Angela Merkel) or kittenish sexpots. And they can't complain about it because then they're whingeing girls who can't play at the big boys' table.
This month, Mensch has been interviewed for GQ magazine. Inevitably, the subject of her looks came up - triggered in part, I'm sure, by the Guardian's decision last year to ask whether she'd had a facelift - and she said it was sexist to "trivialise a woman politician based on her appearance". She also posed wearing a knee-length skirt and a crisp white blouse.

Cue sneering. The Mail said, "Tory MP Louise Mensch has condemned the 'trivialisation' of women politicians who are judged on the basis of their appearance. However, the attack will raise eyebrows given that it came in a magazine interview accompanied by high-glamour photographs of the outspoken backbencher and chick-lit novelist." Just in case you didn't know what a "high-glamour photograph" was, it provided one - one larger than the accompanying text. The Telegraph accompanied a quarter-page photo of Mensch with an epic 93 words.

The media endlessly regurgitate stories about Mensch's appearance, then ask her about them, then get upset that she answers. They then illustrate those stories with whopping great pictures of an attractive woman because editors know that it sells papers. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

Phone of the Baskervilles

On YouTube, there's a video called "No Signal", showcasing the number of times that the phrase is trotted out by film protagonists staring disconsolately at a mobile phone, in order that the plot of a horror movie can proceed untroubled by the question: "Why not just call 999 rather than going into the spooky farmhouse with the goat corpse on the porch?"

I've worried for a while that modern technology means poetry is perpetually stuck in the 19th century - try to imagine a truly moving poem featuring a microwave - and thought it was probably ruining drama, too. Then along comes the BBC's wonderful Sherlock, which not only manages to make a believable detective series in a world where Sir Charles Baskerville could have snapped the hound on his iPhone camera, but makes Watson's blog a proper part of the plot. Now, if only someone would write that "Ode to the Defrost Setting (of My Heart)".

Mitts are off

Mitt Romney seems like the cod liver oil of the Republican Party: they don't want him, but at some point they are going to have to take him for their own good. Now the GOP has alighted on another not-Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (previously known only for having his Google results hijacked to return an obscenity), who trailed him in the Iowa caucus by just eight votes. Poor unloved Mitt.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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.