In the old Tramshed, Prince Charles proves surprisingly unstuffy. Not good for one's republican principles

Domed out by Lord Falconer as he makes successive appearances on Channel 4 News, showing a combination of straight drives, late cuts, leg glances and a carefully raised bat that allows several deliveries to go straight to the boundary. He's perfectly happy to debate live with the Tory shadow culture secretary, Peter Ainsworth, the next night, only to repeat the performance, adding a few skyers, which get spectacularly dropped somewhere in midfield.

We're into cricket on Channel 4 these days, that and Big Brother. Our own big brothers, the ITN bigwigs, are looking for some rational explanation as to why our viewing figures have gone up by 19 per cent over the past three months . . . "surely not the content!" My editor generously points out that I was away for one of the three months.

To the Tramshed in Shoreditch, EC2. Doreen and Neville Lawrence had asked me, as a trustee of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, if I could think of someone to give the first of a series of annual lectures in Stephen's memory. They founded the trust to try to enable other black students to pursue the career that their son was so cruelly denied - architecture. Given the fantastic start-up opportunities the Prince's Trust and Business in the Community have given so many young black entrepreneurs, and given his well-known "carbuncle" views on modern architecture, what about Prince Charles? So I wrote and asked him, and suddenly here he is, in this old oiling shed, talking of Stephen and giving the architectural Establishment a good kicking in their self-aggrandising skyscrapers. He proves surprisingly unstuffy, well briefed and nicely close to the wind. Perhaps that's why some of the Establishment are so anxious to skip his kingship; he just might prove to be a usefully good king, to their own detriment. Not good for one's republican leanings.

I should mention the music, too, from the sensational London Community Gospel Choir, who rock even HRH's socks off, and a stunning, multi-ethnic scratch string ensemble. They give the first performance of an elegy written in Stephen Lawrence's memory. Philip Herbert, the young organising tutor for music at the Richard Attenborough Centre, Leicester University, and himself African Caribbean, has composed it. He has conjured a haunting, lyrical piece that has the Tramshed awash with tears.

Lunching in judgement over this year's student media awards for the Guardian, I sit betwixt Alan Rusbridger and Piers Morgan. I anticipate grave disagreement between us, but we settle easily on the winner. The otherwise depressing lack of attitude and rebellion on campus is more than made up for by the Mirror man's larger-than-life performance at table. Alas, despite his best efforts and loud bellowing, I tell him that he remains a sheep in wolf's clothing.

The new fountains at Somerset House are at full spout for Hezza's rumble in the jungle to launch his aptly titled book. I spot only two frontbenchers - George Young and Damian Green. Otherwise, it is a gathering of the socially excluded, quaffing champagne. The Tories have split before our very eyes.

To Portsmouth on the 7.22am from Waterloo, to prison. At the adult learning awards of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education in early summer, one group of winners turned out to be serving time in Kingston jail. Given the wholesale destruction of prison education by Conservative and new Labour governments alike, this was more than an achievement. Given that this is the only prison in Europe that houses "lifers" only, the governor was understandably coy about letting any of them out to collect their prize. So, in a rash moment, I had said I would take it to them.

On the way, I muse about leaked accounts of Lord (Harry) Woolf's highly critical internal speech to judges. "When I did my prisons inquiry," he said, "there were 42,000 people in prison, today there are 67,000." The statistics are even worse for women in jail - more than 7,000. Our abject failure to heed Woolf's original report will come back to haunt us. (And by the way, the new Lord Chief Justice is a man to watch - his intellect and humanity have forced the authorities to appoint the man most likely to visit on them the error of their ways.)

South West Trains are spot on time; the prison is classic Victorian stone, housing 200 (presumably) murderers. I meet Chris, Ian, Derek, Andy and many more from the drama group. They'd got the award for a stunning Ayckbourn production. I meet Judith, the tutor, an amazing woman who has inspired these toughies to risk epithets of "Nancy boy" to act on stage. Chris had adamantly refused. He confessed that, when he finally did it, he said and did things that he could never have done "in real life". He seems to have been positively liberated by it. Before the visit is through, I find myself playing the part of a tyrannical Yorkshire prison officer in a reading of a play by Ian. A fabulously well-observed and funny piece from a man who was never taught how to write.

Is this globalisation come to visit us? Oil prices and French resistance, stirred by instant, 24-hour news access, seem to have tutored battered British farmers and road hauliers into collective action.

To add to the global atmosphere, the Chancellor calls from Vienna, and Blair calls for protests to be directed not at him, but at Opec. So we don't like demos against the World Trade Organisation, but when it comes to the berobed titans of oil production, "Go for it, boys and girls"!

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun

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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.