You can't move in Riyadh for stalls selling T-shirts with "A woman needs a man like a camel needs a bicycle"

There's nothing like a war for making drivel acceptable. So everyone nodded when Tony Blair, running through the reasons for supporting military action against the Taliban, added: "This is a regime . . . in which women's rights are non-existent." Unlike our ally Saudi Arabia, which is a veritable cauldron of modern feminism. You can hardly move in Riyadh markets for stalls selling T-shirts reading "A woman needs a man like a camel needs a bicycle". And every local authority is under strict orders to announce "Public stoning of woman for adultery", never "girls", "birds" or any other term that may be considered sexist. The grand coalition against terrorism is full of such honourable characters, crucially General Musharraf of Pakistan, who came to power by overthrowing an elected government in a military coup. He supports the war because, if there's one thing that makes him sick, it's people who use violence to achieve political ends.

Finally the bombing starts, and we're getting familiar with the procedure. First, there's an announcement about the supreme accuracy of the missiles - just as there was in the war against Serbia, quickly followed by an admission that one of the bombs had landed in Bulgaria. Now, call me a perfectionist, but shouldn't laser-guided accuracy mean hitting the right country? This time, within just a few hours, they knock over a United Nations building and kill the staff. At least if they get that 86-year-old Afghan king to take over, he'll be the only person of that age in the world to walk through entirely flat areas saying: "When I was a lad, this was all buildings round here."

Then comes the president's address to the people, ending with "May God continue to bless America". But this time round, with the worldwide coalition, they need all the Gods on their side, or the whole thing could fall apart. It would take only Buddha not to be on board and that's half of Asia out the window. The chances are that the Gods will be on every side, as they usually are. There's no instance, as far as I know, of a general ever having said to his men before a battle: "Last night, in this, our hour of need, I prayed to God for guidance. But unfortunately it seems he's backing the Turks on this one, so we're on our own, I'm afraid."

I come across a huge interview with the writer P J O'Rourke, in which he is referred to, as usual, as "America's leading satirist". And he starts the interview by saying "this is not a time for satire". What a twat. Crammed as it is with pomposity, lies and hypocrisy, this is exactly the time for satire. It's like a soldier saying: "I don't mind drilling during peace, but now there's a war on, this is not the time for fighting."

Besides, the bloke's supposed to be a satirist. What's he going to do - sign on the dole until this all blows over? Maybe this has been happening all over America, so that not only have airlines been sacking their staff, but hundreds of satirists have been laid off, and comedians are all on short time because of an international slump in funniness.

I've become a big fan of the al-Jazeera Arabic TV channel. The great thing about it is, I haven't the foggiest idea what they're on about. I pick up the odd word, so to my ignorant ears I get what sounds like "ahala sha laha Tonerblair ahala sha Bin Laden". At one point, I felt certain someone had mentioned Gary Lineker, so had to flick across to BBC News 24 to check whether he'd been kidnapped or become a suicide bomber, or got involved in some way. You can recognise the format - an interviewer in a studio asks two people a series of questions. Then the two interviewees row and shout across each other and you pick sides, but for all I know, I've plumped for the bloke who's yelling that the Taliban have become too soft on women and that political correctness has gone mad in Kabul. At one point, someone was ranting at such a volume and with such fluency that he literally couldn't stop, and the poor presenter kept trying to interject with words that clearly meant "I'm afraid that's all we've got time for, sorry, yes, we must leave it there, thank you, look, it's time for the weather report". But he carried on and on for several more minutes, and presumably the following programme had to be cancelled. Perhaps there was an announcement along the lines of: "We are unable to bring you highlights of tonight's football as the Northern Alliance education spokesman's final sentence went on for 23 minutes longer than expected."

On Monday night, I went to Brighton for a "Stop the War" meeting, at which there were more than 300 people. This sounds roughly in line with other meetings around the country, including the one in London attended by more than 2,000 protesters. A student came up to me afterwards and said he was really glad he'd come, because "before tonight, I thought I was on my own". But he's not. Now is the time to stand up against the drivel.

The story about that spin-doctor's e-mail has cleared up a few things. Ever since the attacks, the anti-war lobby has been accused by new Labour warmongers of being "anti-American" and unsympathetic towards the victims in New York. Now we realise what they mean. If we really cared, we'd have watched the planes striking the towers and thought: "Aha, this is handy."

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic

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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.