Mick Jagger is criticised for being wrinkly. But he's 57! Would we really prefer him on his seventh nip and tuck?

I've just returned from a week-long fundraising trek in Nepal with Penny Smith on behalf of the Children's Society. Our arrival coincided with the end of the Maoist guerrillas' ceasefire and the announcement of a state of emergency. However, the moment we saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas glinting in the distance, Osama Bin Laden himself would have been hard-pushed to deter us from setting off. In a group of 50 of the charity's UK supporters, we headed for the hills. Local newspaper reports took the edge off any fear. Apparently the Maoists were operating in a distant part of the country and honouring promises not to harass foreigners. Aside from their battles with the police, the guerrillas' worst crimes to date included demanding donations from passing Sherpas (for which they issue receipts). The Maoists' terror credentials were further damaged by the local media's continual misspelling of their name. We were warned to be on the lookout for "Moist" guerrillas. In our tent at night, curled up together for warmth, Penny and I speculated on how we'd be able to spot their approach. Perhaps a series of damp patches on the dusty footpaths?

Perhaps it was the sight of the Nepalese going through a daily battle just to stay alive, but one look at the papers on my return convinced me we really have to get a grip in this country. It's not like we've got such a lot to be proud of at the moment. Queues for beds in hospitals, homeless people on the streets, a Prime Minister who runs around begging America to let our troops go to war, infrastructure that's falling apart, a terrible record on pollution and waste disposal, and an overfished North Sea soon to be closed to cod fishermen. Fifty years after supposed emancipation, women are still not on equal pay, children aren't safe on the streets and racist attacks are a drunken Friday-night norm. But why should we worry about all that when we've got celebrities to distract us? Robbie Williams's battle with fame immortalised in 140 minutes of documentary, Liz Hurley's struggle with single motherhood straddled across the front pages, Geri's search for spiritual enlightenment, Mr Madonna telling his wife to cover up. The list of strangers' lives we spend our days gorging on is endless. In my line of work, you meet them all and, quite frankly, the "celebrity" lifestyle is as mediocre as everyone else's. Perhaps if we cauterised our showbiz obsession, we might get around to tackling real issues that would improve our lives. First step is stop buying Hello!, OK!, Heat and all the other dreadful rags that convince their readers that other people are having a better time. Trust me, they're not.

Our addiction to drivel was never more in evidence than with the deluge of vitriolic publicity about Mick Jagger having the audacity to release a rock album in his fifties. My grandmother died this year at the age of 96. One of my favourite memories of her is from our last Christ-mas together before she fell victim to Alzheimer's. Tears of laughter poured down our faces as she demonstrated her jiving skills using a Unicycle as a partner. I once found her, at the age of 80, outside her cottage, shovel in hand, obscured by a hail of earth as she planted a row of fast-growing fir trees to block out the housing estate being built across the road. She flirted relentlessly with any man I brought to her home, and loved a joke so long as it was dirty. Which brings me back to my friend Mick: what exactly is his crime? In a nation where ageing is treated like a disease, he refuses to duck out of sight and spare us the ghastly sight of a man in his fifties still living life to the full. Mick is ridiculed for being wrinkly. He's 57, for heaven's sake. Would we really prefer him on his seventh nip and tuck, clinging on to the face he first showed us at 20?

My week in Nepal enjoying the silence of the mountains left my ears ultra-sensitive. I was suddenly capable of overhearing conversations four tables away in crowded restaurants. Hence I picked up this example of film-industry philosophising in one of the media's favourite watering holes. Young director to ageing producer: "The thing about directing features is you've got to be prepared to give up everything, commit 100 per cent, live and breathe it . . . I mean, even to the point where you may have to remortgage your second home!" Perish the thought.

Three cheers for Princess Anne. I'd only just stopped celebrating the fall of Kandahar when a longer BBC news report alerted my attention to the Princess Royal stepping out in a dress last worn 14 years ago. It's good to see the BBC continuing its tradition of fine journalism. Numerous fashion experts were consulted on the protocol of recycling clothing. Despite being late for Sally Green's now legendary Christmas party, I stood there rooted to the spot. Should I leave the house in the Ben de Lisi minidress I'd just dragged from the bowels of my wardrobe after 12 years? Time was against me. On arrival, I pushed my way through the likes of James Rubin, Chelsea Clinton, Stephen Daldry, Ruby Wax, Charles Saatchi and Bob Geldof until I found someone who really mattered: Paula Reid, the Sunday Times's vivacious fashion guru. "Are minis back in or not?" I hissed, keeping my coat firmly wrapped around me. "Yes, definitely," replied Paula. Heaving a sigh of relief, I removed my outer layer.

Seconds too late, I noticed that Paula's hemline brushed the floor. Fashion really is a fickle business.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes

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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.