If Iain Duncan Smith, my lookalike, wins, I may have to leave the country, or use the Wella hair-dye I bought

A few months ago, I told the editor of the Guardian that I wanted to stop writing my column for a while. "So," he said, "you're having a mid-life crisis." Unable to think of a better explanation for this desire to abandon a source of regular income, I accepted his diagnosis.

Freed from the tyranny of deadlines, I hoped to travel the world, write a book or two, mess about in boats, play more cricket. The last ambition was scuppered by the onset of a frozen shoulder; that apart, however, I've enjoyed my mid-life crisis enormously.

My first jaunt was to Colombia, whither I had been summoned by the British Council to deliver a speech about my biography of Karl Marx. During the past year or two, I've given similar addresses at pubs in Manchester, bookshops in New York, lecture halls in Stockholm and Helsinki, so it seemed an easy enough gig: talk for 45 minutes, then invite comments from the floor.

The first question bowled at me from the audience at the Bogota Book Fair was an irresistible long-hop: "Don't you think that the saddest day of the 20th century was when the Berlin Wall came down? Would not Marx have wept at the sight?" It's always a pleasure to despatch old tankies to the boundary with a walloping straight drive, and I duly did so. Then someone else piped up: "Do you not agree that Nikita Khrushchev was the most evil person of the 20th century?" This threw me off-balance for a moment. There are plenty of candidates for the title of supreme villain - Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Andrew Lloyd Webber - but why Khrushchev? "Because," the man replied, "he tried to discredit Comrade Stalin's great achievements."

Once again, I hit him for six. But there were no cheers from the crowd. And then it dawned on me, rather belatedly: I wasn't dealing with a few harmless nutters in an Islington pub now; I was in a country where unreconstructed Stalinists - and Maoists, for that matter - are backed by heavily armed groups of guerrillas, who have ways of dealing with people who annoy them. About 3,700 people were kidnapped in Colombia last year: that's ten every day. It is also the country with the highest murder rate in the world.

Later that night, one of the event's organisers was rung on his mobile phone by an unidentified man who said that he and "other members of my group" were not entirely happy with my comments. Could he please tell them where I was staying, so they could come round for a chat?

Fortunately, they never found me. Otherwise I might have ended up like the Scot-tish oil-worker Alistair Taylor, who was recently freed after spending almost two years in the Colombian jungle with nothing to read except Sir Alex Ferguson's auto-biography. It makes Tony Last's fate in A Handful of Dust seem almost enviable: at least he had the collected works of Dickens.

Soon after returning from Bogota, I was packing my bags again, this time for an eight-day whistle-stop tour of Russia - from Moscow to Murmansk, St Petersburg to Siberia - in the company of Prince Michael of Kent and a small posse of Fleet Street hacks. As a socialist and a republican, I have an embarrassing confession to make about the prince: I liked him. He is serious and thoughtful, but also remarkably unpompous. (Can you think of any other member of the House of Windsor who would undertake such a trip without so much as a valet or manservant to pack and unpack his suitcases?) Russians like him, too, not least because he has taken the trouble to learn their language and study their history. He also puts in many hours of work for several admirable Russian charities.

Although he is routinely vilified in Britain, over there he seems to enjoy genuine respect and affection - whether from Kremlin grandees or old babushkas in a remote Siberian outpost. British news-papers often ask suspiciously why Prince Michael spends so much time visiting Russia. But who wouldn't, in his position?

I, too, may have to spend more time abroad if Iain Duncan Smith, my lookalike and soundalike, wins the Tory leadership. Hitherto, awareness of our resemblance has been confined to Westminster. Now it has gone national. Diary paragraphs chortling over the confusion appear almost daily; Lauren Booth mocks me in the New Statesman; even the Guardian - perhaps to punish me for prolonging the mid-life crisis - has run several letters asking if "IDS" and I have ever been seen in the same room. (Yes, actually. Soon after his election to parliament in 1992, I was advised by a friend that I really must seek out this new MP - bright chap, going places, one to watch, etc. I duly invited him to lunch in the hope of learning something useful about the Conservative Party, but as soon as we met I guessed what was afoot. That afternoon, my friend rang, unable to conceal his sniggers: "Good lunch? And, er, did you notice anything?")

What was once a joke has become a nightmare. Strangers accost me in newsagents to ask for my autograph, while cab drivers deliver helpful lectures on what the Conservatives must do under my command. Queuing at the Tesco supermarket in Great Dunmow recently, I overheard a sotto voce conversation between two teenagers. "Don't look now," one whispered, "but that's Iain Duncan Smith in front of us."

There's only one way out. I have now bought several sachets of Wella hair-dye, which promises "instant colour" in a fetching shade of blonde. I'm going to wash that man right out of my hair.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot

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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.