Howe's England

Television - Andrew Billen on the tribal conundrums of race, class and nation

It's risky reviewing colleagues. In the case of Darcus Howe, whose three-part series, White Tribe, began on Channel 4 on Thursday (9pm), I plead only that, although he is a fellow New Statesman columnist, I have met him only once, when I interviewed him in 1983 for the Observer. We drank quite a bit and I remember walking away from his home in Brixton surer of his hospitality than his wisdom. He had assured me, for instance, that his personal propensity to violence (see New Statesmen passim), sexism and promiscuity were West Indian characteristics. The Voice didn't like this at the time, and I wasn't sure if I did either.

On paper, getting Howe to re-examine the host county he arrived in from Trinidad 40 years ago looks like a no-fail format. In practice, the director, Paul Wilmshurst, and producer, Helen Littleboy, must have asked themselves if Howe would not prove too much of a blunderbuss to catch England in his sights. His weakness for Elizabethan biblical oratory could not have augured particularly well: Howe cannot stop himself saying he is travelling England "for 40 days and 40 nights". Yet, beneath the rhetoric, Howe quickly emerged as a conscientious, open-minded observer of the English wilderness, witty and often moving. Englishness is a well-examined concept right now, but compared to these programmes (I've watched the next two on tape and they are even better than the first) Melanie Phillips' and Jeremy Paxman's contributions to the debate are plods.

Rightly assuming that London's "Gucci and cappuccino crowd" are irrelevant, Howe headed first for Southall, where whites are in reality, rather than merely in their minds, outnumbered. In the midst of an exuberant Sikh festival, he met an indigenous youth called Simon, who moaned that all the English had was Easter - "Buy an Easter egg: it's done." In Newcastle, he discovered a white carnival spirit of sorts, but it celebrated not Englishness but something called "Geooordinezz" and Newcastle United FC. In Stow-on-the-Wold, the middle classes, who always like something exotic - "they liked me when I arrived" - were educating themselves in the arcanum of French wine-growing. Birmingham, he concluded, was a Yankee city of line-dancers and mall-shoppers.

Having so far visited so many Englands in which the Englishness had seeped away, he eventually located its ebb tide in Skegness. In "this place on its last legs", a microcosm of the old England, he came upon the halt and the lame of the Tory party, roused to its fallen arches by Norman Tebbit's anti-European name-calling at the annual Conservative Association dinner. "Clearly you aren't English, you are British," Tebbit explained to Howe.

"Because of my colour?" Howe enquired.

"Not colour, the ethnics of it," Tebbit explained, as if to a moron.

In the second programme Howe heads into "the belly of the beast", meeting the white racists of Eltham, Manchester, Oldham and Dover, a town paranoid about Kosovan immigrants which bears, says he, "the mark of the beast". The final instalment explores the English siege mentality behind the gates of a housing development in Essex and in a sink estate watched by 21 security cameras in Cleveland. His spirits are restored among the faded, fox-hunting nobs of rural Northumberland and in Todmorden, a small Yorkshire mill town without a mill, whose retired workers recall the English he met 40 years ago, brimming with confidence and dignity.

What will keep you watching this series, aside from the sprightly direction that makes light of Howe's lumbering gait, is waiting to hear what conclusions Howe has cumbersomely arrived at. White Tribe benefits from having been made in defiance of the Birtist principle of "first write your script": Howe slowly makes up his mind on what he sees, not what his researchers have told him. His judgementalism compares well with the sniggering-behind-the-lens school of sociological television. It is unnerving to hear this big, eloquent black man say how often he is afraid of white England, but it is inspiring to hear him revise his own prejudices. Talking to Mary Benson, who runs the hunt in Tynedale, he confesses that she is the sort of upper-class white he would not have given a chance in the past. Yet he detects not a whiff of racism about her. But Howe can be duped, too. As he hazily enjoys a glass of wine on his own, Wilmshurst asks the old mill-workers of Todmorden what they dislike about the "new" England. "Multiculture," they reply.

Howe's weakness for nationalism may prove his undoing as much as England's. In Manchester, you'll see him suppress his giggles at Bernard Manning's race-flecked act and lament that his club is about to be bulldozered to make way for a supermarket. Had he stayed any longer in Tynedale, he would have probably joined the baying hunt himself. But his sentimentality assists the programme's lyricism. Howe emerges as the truest Englander of them all, most loyal to the tribe's phlegmatic tolerance. As Benson says, to his evident pleasure: "You are probably just as English - if not more so - than the rest of us."

The only puzzle is that, six years ago, Howe told me: "I'm a West Indian, see?"

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing

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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.