Hurricanes, like marriages, start with all that sucking and blowing and end with you losing your house

A financial journalist who attacked the Today programme as being aimed at "liberals" has immediately been hired by the BBC to "liven up" the business news and, presumably, to extend it. So, out goes discussing politics, the arts, life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and in comes all the excitement of closely examining the Footsie and the Dow Jones.

An exaggerated respect for the activities of businessmen and women dates from the Thatcher revolution, and has been enthusiastically pursued by new Labour. Lawyers are now all thought of as self-interested fat cats, doctors are blundering amateurs who need close control by civil servants, and schoolteachers are depicted as semi-literate folk singers, stuck in the Sixties. But business tycoons form a heroic, almost priestly, class who inhabit that holy ground - now treated with greater reverence than cathedrals, theatres or galleries - the Market Place.

Market places were generally known as shady squares where you got your pocket picked and sold shares in non-existent South American silver-mines, or patent medicines by smooth-talking quacks. This comically devious institution is now thought to provide the tests that rule our lives. The juries are out, but the market-place, it seems, can be relied on to produce just and correct verdicts.

The other news from the BBC is equally depressing. There is, in fact, to be much less news. Budgets for news programmes are to be cut by £15m, teams of journalists are to be merged, and there is even muttering about replacing Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Paxman and John Humphrys provide the remaining voice of sanity in the increasingly dotty world of politics. They shine like good deeds in a naughty world, and I can think of no reason for replacing them, unless, of course, they are suspected of dangerously hidden "liberal" thoughts.

Cuts in BBC budgets are part of the sacrifice of the organisation on the mystic altar of digital television. I don't know anyone who possesses such machines or has much interest in buying one: but "digitopia", as John Birt called it, appears to be the promised land for which present cuts must be made. We must, says Greg Dyke, "have less ambitious remit". It is remarkable that acceptance of the post of director general seems to entail abandoning any close contact with the English language.

I finally made it to Start the Week for the Monday morning discussion at the BBC. Two weeks ago, it was the morning after the hurricane. The avenue outside my house was blocked at each end by fallen lime trees. We managed to drive round through brambles and bushes and escape. Then I was trapped in a three-hour traffic jam near Northolt. No one told us that the underpass at Perivale was flooded, so we sat on patiently while Jeremy Paxman discussed shopping and philosophy for three-quarters of an hour.

In desperation, I rolled down the window and knocked politely on the window of a trapped Toyota. "Please lend me your mobile," I begged the driver. "Mine doesn't work and I ought to be on Start the Week." Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. He handed it over without a word. The week before that, I had been staying in Spain with the Heavenly Twins, Vicky Lord and Jackie Paice, both wives of members of the band Deep Purple. I had left Vicky Lord's mobile number at home. This led the BBC producers to ring Vicky that disastrous morning and ask her where I'd got to. "I really have no idea," she told them. "At this moment, I'm halfway up a mountain near Zermatt."

An American friend told me that hurricanes are very like marriage. "They start with all that sucking and blowing," he said, "and in the end you lose your house."

The Lords clearly had three hours of breathless excitement discussing anal intercourse for the under-21s. Buggery is a subject of almost mystical significance for English lawyers; within my legal lifetime, a man could be sent to prison for having anal intercourse with his consenting wife, and a number of husbands were convicted of this offence.

A doctor peer said that having anal sex shortens your life by 20 years. How does he know? I never thought death certificates gave as the fatal cause "buggered when 19". Lord Selsdon (Conservative) contributed magnificently to a lively debate by saying he had done many fast things in his time. "I've even eaten the private parts of a green monkey - but none of them matched gay sex for danger."

One elderly peeress, I'm told, unsure of what a "bugger" was, sent to the library for a definition and received the answer: "one who plants a listening device".

I remember a case of rape and buggery coming on before the severe Mr Justice X. On circuit, he had his wife, Lady X, wearing a hat with a feather in it, sitting on the bench by his side. The defence was that the buggery was a simple mishit, when the accused had aimed elsewhere. "That's the most ridiculous defence I ever heard," said the judge. "You can't mistake one type of sex for the other. The two sensations are entirely different!" Everyone in court looked at the grey-haired Lady X with wild surmise. In her feathered hat, she nodded her entire approval.

I don't know if the Earl of Onslow, the jewel among hereditary peers, took part in the debate. It was he who once said: "At the turn of the century, the Church of England were pro-fox-hunting and anti-buggery. Now they're pro-buggery and anti-fox-hunting."

In those two sentences is contained the history of our times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer

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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.