Blair was once a true Christian; now, alas, he has strayed

In and out of the homes of the liberal intelligentsia, you can hear the worried whispers: "He's got God." They are making out that Tony Blair has suddenly transformed himself into a holy-roller, at the helm of legions of white-hooded, barefooted flagellants. Supposedly, he was prompted into his damascene conversion by the movement that has Republicans across the Atlantic allying themselves to Christian fundamentalists in a "compassionate conservativism" (there is little compassionate about these folk, though: last week they allowed the listing of abortionists on the web, which is tantamount to turning doctors into target practice for millions of gun-toting Bible-thumpers). Yet Blair did not need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration to come out as a Christian; he always was one. Listen to this: "The Christian message is that self is best realised through communion with others. It places a duty, an imperative on us to reach our better self and to care about creating a better community to live in. It is not utilitarian . . . it is judgemental. There is right and wrong."

These words of faith were written in 1993, when George Bush Jr was but a recovering alcoholic and compassionate conservativism was just a mouthful. They are from Reclaiming the Ground: Christianity and Socialism, a booklet that included the thoughts of the late John Smith ("politics ought to be a moral activity") and of the present Culture Secretary, Chris Smith ("Christians [believe in] a passionate linking of environmental awareness with action for social justice") - and a foreword from Blair, who was then the shadow home secretary. Blair was a paid-up member of the Christian Socialist movement, a group with which he maintains close ties - and indeed, whom he addressed last week, thus giving rise to media speculation about his "new" religious fervour.

By the time he was elected leader of his party, this man had left a clear paper trail of his religious convictions and the influence they wielded on him. The bien pensants must have been paying no attention - or else they were praying that Blair would have some secular sense beaten into him by his pals Peter and Ali. But while the Hampstead liberals chose to ignore his persuasions, the rest of the country knew about his Christianity - and voted him in for that very reason. This is not because Britons are still a God-fearing nation - less than 8 per cent attend church services regularly - nor is it because they saw Christianity as delivering community on the cheap, and better schooling on the sly. Rather, it is because they still recognise that Christian principles offer the kind of guidance and inspiration of which they approve.

Those principles cannot be summed up, as critics would have it, in "pro-life, anti-gay, anti-Semitic". A far better summation includes equality, freedom, service and charity - the same principles that inspired socialist action for generations, and the very ones that Blair placed at the heart of his agenda in 1997. Voters then believed that he was committed to the radical religion that, for 2,000 years, has lobbied on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, the victim. The electorate was weary of Godless Thatcherism, and there is nothing more socialist than a good Christian.

Today, the voters find evidence all around them that the Prime Minister's actions have not lived up to their expectations. Real Christians are out there waging war against the widening gap between the rich and the poor, championing Jubilee 2000 (the Christian group that campaigns for the cancellation of third-world debt) and clamouring for an ethical foreign policy that is about giving more in aid, rather than selling more guns.

"There is good and bad," Blair wrote in Reclaiming the Ground. "We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language." Woe to the prime minister who cuts his cloth to suit the fashion of the day: he should remember that what is "in" in Hampstead is "out" in Brixton, Leeds, Liverpool . . .

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube

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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.