Bush Sr: an Oedipal intervention

How we all wept, once the Republican convention finally got under way in Philadelphia: a blind man recited the Pledge of Allegiance; a black girl sang "The Star-Spangled Banner"; a gay Congressman spoke; lots of black and brown faces of bright-eyed children and mums beamed at us. "The diversity of our nation is reflected in this platform," pronounced the bumph handed out to hacks. There was even Colin Powell, tut-tutting over the party's apparent lack of concern for black people.

And everybody was so damned nice about everyone else, even old rivals. What a heartfelt transformation the Republican Party has undergone, so soon after the ugly spectacle of impeachment and all its hate rhetoric of the past decade; in so short a time, it has truly become the party of inclusiveness and compassion.

Not, as American children like to say. The transformation, in the 1990s, of the Democratic and Labour parties into new Democrats and new Labour was cynical enough, but, for supreme audacity, the 2000 convention - and the attempted transmogrification of the old, divisive party members into cuddly, loving, caring new Republicans - broke new ground in choreographed political fraudulence.

It was children and mums on Monday (31 July), strong defence on Tuesday. Then four war heroes stirred our blood: first Norman Schwarzkopf, the John Wayne-like Gulf war supremo, spoke live via satellite from the deck of the USS New Jersey, conveniently anchored across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Then Bob Dole (badly injured in the Second World War) evoked further notions of personal selflessness, while John McCain (Vietnam POW) overcame his personal hatred of Dubbya to endorse him. Never mind that, while contemporaries were dying in Vietnam, the presidential candidate Dubbya never went near risking ack-ack from the Vietcong, preferring to joyride over the skies of Texas as a pilot in the National Guard; while his running-mate, Dick Cheney, avoided even the most token military service. It's the image that counts, stupid.

Or does it? It will prove an interesting litmus test of the political sophistication of this country to see whether voters fall for all this. I doubted that Americans would be seduced by Clinton's bubba rhetoric in 1992 or that Britons could ever be taken in by Blair in 1997: yet the history of ad campaigns (and this is basically what the Republican convention was) shows that you can rarely underestimate the judgement of consumers.

The Bushies, as I first revealed in the NS, have always planned to employ the same tactics used by Clinton in 1992 to vanquish Bush Sr; and they firmly believe that the outrageously meretricious, feelgood front presented by their platform during convention week will win them the White House in November.

But you have only to look at the composition of the delegates to see the falsity of the message that Dubbya sought to present. Of the 2,066 delegates, only 85 - just over 4.1 per cent - were black; of the remaining whites, the overwhelming majority were middle-aged and male. No fewer than 30 per cent of them were worth more than $1m. There were just 18 declared gays. And so frequent were the comings and goings of corporate bosses in their company jets that Philadelphia airport ran out of landing and take-off slots.

Dubbya left the city with a predictable fillip in the polls. However, on 14 August, it will be the turn of the Democrats to be flavour of the month - and at the end of that week, almost certainly, the two parties will be more or less neck-and-neck. The announcement by Al Gore of his running-mate on 8 August will be crucial (he now favours the glam, rich Vietnam hero Senator John Kerry over the safe, avuncular George Mitchell, but there's still time to change his mind); then it will be even more important for Gore, after Dubbya's performance in Philadelphia, to come over not just as competent and tough, but also as likeable - an altogether more challenging proposition for single-minded, ruthless Al.

The most revealing moments in Philadelphia were the unscripted, positively Oedipal interventions by Boy George's dad. As the NS exclusively revealed months ago, Bill Clinton is to be chief attack-dog in Gore's campaign - and when Dubbya said that Cheney "knows what the meaning of 'is' is" (a snide reference to Clinton's evasive legal testimony on Monica Lewinsky), Clinton immediately lashed out that Boy George is just a daddy's boy.

Dubbya himself is prepared to take all that on the chin, but it was too much for his 76-year-old dad. "If he continues that," raged Bush Sr, "then I'm going to tell the nation what I think of him as a human being and as a person." (Are they different things or was this vintage Bush-speak?)

It was a moment of pure noblesse oblige: an assumption that, if Bush Sr starts weighing in with attacks on Clinton, a stunned nation would heed his word, rather than that of the popular two-term president who so soundly thrashed him in 1992. You could almost hear the Republican apparatchiks groaning, "Get the old men outta here" - and Democrats chortling with glee, because the image of daddy's boy is now Dubbya's most serious Achilles heel. Having his embittered old dad riding to his rescue is the last thing Boy George needs.

However, our Al certainly has his work cut out to overturn the ridiculously faux image that the Republicans presented in Philadelphia.

So on to LA. God Bless America, as countless speakers thundered in Philadelphia - and will in LA, too. May the best PR man win.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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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.