One black permanent secretary? Wait till the year 2050

Early one morning a few days ago, a major- general in the British military telephoned me. My first reaction was that I was being hoaxed. After all, I had committed no treasonable act and had no prospect, given my age, of enlisting in the services.

The general at once allayed my fears. He had read an article I had written in the Sunday Express, castigating the military for an absence of black faces in the Household Guards as they paraded before the Queen on her birthday.

I described this state of affairs as a public embarrassment. Should a Martian land in the grounds of the palace that day, he or she could easily have drawn the conclusion that blacks weren't there because some genetic imbalance made them incapable of marching, sloping and presenting arms.

The general assured me that there were actually several blacks in the Household Guards. He had pictures to show and invited me to Horse Guards Parade for a chat in Wellington's former office. I will be going there in the next couple of weeks or so.

All of this was a prelude to a conference held in Covent Garden on the issue of racial equality. It was the result of a conference held a year earlier by the Asian Business Network. I was invited to chair a plenary which included Sir Paul Condon, the head of the Metropolitan Police, Michael Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry and David Yelland, the editor of the Sun. But there were no asylum- seekers present. They would have been seriously disruptive. Because of them, a parliamentary bill requires us blacks to prove at every turn that we have been in this country for more than six months. I went to change a cheque the other day at one of those foreign-currency high-street shops and I was asked for such proof.

There were close to 1,000 delegates at the conference - mostly professional people, and an even mix between whites, blacks and Asians. The groundswell for racial equality was on a scale I have never known before. Doreen and Neville Lawrence have worked miracles in a society that seemed determined to exclude blacks from major centres of power.

The movers and shakers behind this huge effort were Asian businessmen. I suspect that they have exhausted their communities as a market and have accumulated capital huge enough to have an impact on the mainstream.

There were moments of revelation, too. A senior black police officer at the training facility in Hendon told us that even a hint of racism among the recruits means that a career ends before it begins, that there exists a ruthlessness within the police to rid it of racially prejudiced officers.

The senior black officer wanted to be described as black and corrected Sir Paul Condon in this regard. He insisted that, upon joining the force, black officers were adding a new dimension, a new and enriching experience; they were not simply replicating what was already there.

Even the editor of the Sun, a tabloid that seems rigidly nationalistic and xenophobic, declared that this society dares not any longer perpetuate racism. His was almost a declaration of war. He sounded quite convincing, having previously been an editor in New York. He told us that race was the major issue on the agenda there. Let's hope we reap the best from his North American experience.

Only Michael Scholar demurred. He was trying his best at the DTI. He even had an organisation of blacks within his ministry to advise him, but it will be a long and slow process, he warned. Cuts in public spending mean that ministers are not taking on any new staff. So slow did this Fabian approach seem to the audience that one imagined that it will be 2050 before there is a possibility of a black permanent secretary.

The audience made no bones about it. Michael Scholar and his colleagues had better put on their dancing shoes and get cracking. It was that kind of conference.