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Cameron is a great head prefect but what does he believe in?

The PM has never really possessed his party’s soul.

David Cameron’s government has been accused of many things in the past few weeks but lack of modernity isn’t one of them. Competence, coherence, empathy, strategy, judgement, sage advice, dependable staff – all of these have been declared in short supply during the long unravelling of the Budget that, punctuated by panic over petrol supplies, has formed Downing Street’s longest streak of high-visibility ineptitude since the general election. But at no point has it been suggested that antique social attitudes lurking in the Tory party – objection to gay marriage, for example, or intolerance of Britain’s racial diversity, or insensitivity to the plight of Arctic ice sheets – are to blame for the Prime Minister’s difficulties.

It turns out that many of the issues defining the “modernisation” drive that Cameron thought essential in propelling the Conservatives to electoral victory are peripheral to the business of government. That doesn’t mean modernisation was a con or a dead end. (Most of the Labour party insists it was the former and many Tory curmudgeons think it was the latter.) When Cameron became leader more than six years ago, he was right to force his party to imbibe some of the spirit of the age, which then happened to be booming, cosmopolitan, liberal, eco-urbanity. The alternative was unelectable, wallowing in mean-spirited reaction.

Old boy not-work

But modernisation, by definition, is something that seems like a good idea at the time. Then the times change. Cameron’s current woes are indigenous to the new era of austerity. Something has plainly gone wrong with the presentation of a Budget when grannies, pasties and charities are portrayed as victims of punitive taxation. But bad ideas can usually be ditched without causing much long-term damage to a government. Cameron’s problem is more about credentials than policies. It is the incongruity of a small number of rich people – old chums from old schools – inflicting hardship, which they call unavoidable but do not themselves endure.

Cameron’s original Tory modernisation plans, conceived at the decadent height of the boom, made no provision for this hazard. Class was no more a preoccupation of British politics in 2006 than deficit reduction, and the Tory leadership was no better at spotting a financial emergency round the corner than Gordon Brown. Until November 2008, George Osborne, as shadow chancellor, was committed to matching Labour spending plans – a pledge quickly forgotten once it became imperative to blame every budget cruelty on the last government’s profligacy.

The last drops of political advantage are now being wrung from that argument. Even if people still believe Labour left a mess, they expect ministers to clear it up, not use it as an excuse for ongoing misery. As the retrospective explanation for austerity loses currency, pressure increases on the Prime Minister to describe the destination at the end of his arduous fiscal odyssey.

It is the absence of such a story that casts Cameron and Osborne’s elite backgrounds in such unfavourable light. Few people would care how rich their leaders were or what schools they went to if they had a persuasive plan to get the economy moving. Britain is not on the brink of Marxist insurgency. It just so happens that posh-boy insouciance is a handy way to caricature the intellectual inadequacy of the Cameron project.

Downing Street aides say they recognise the need for the Prime Minister to explain where he thinks he is leading Britain; what he believes in apart from austerity. But there is rising suspicion in the Conservative Party that Cameron doesn’t know the answer to that question and can’t  really be bothered to work it out.

That complaint, once confined to the right of the party, has spread to erstwhile loyalists. “He doesn’t really believe in anything other than being Prime Minister,” is how one disillusioned Cameroon insider puts it. “He likes being head prefect.” It is a recurrent image: the Tory leader as someone groomed to wear the robes of high office and rather too comfortable lounging around in them. One senior civil servant paints Cameron as the archetypal head boy: “a competent all-rounder, lacking real passion”. Even his closest supporters say he is inclined to view intellectual enthusiasm with a mixture of bafflement and horror.

An irony, not lost on those Tories who have been sidelined in the name of modernisation, is that this tendency is essentially old-fashioned, representing a pre-Thatcher strain of patrician, steady-as-she-goes Conservatism. Cameron might get away with that if the ship of state were going somewhere steadily, but she is becalmed. That provokes a craving for ideological vigour in a leader – precisely the characteristic that is alien to Cameron’s nature. He has always outsourced animation by ideas to Steve Hilton, his excitable director of policy, but Hilton is quitting Downing Street for an extended sabbatical in California.  

Cleggo land

Fear that the Tories are intellectually adrift is exacerbated by resentment of the freedom enjoyed by Liberal Democrats, carving out their own identity within the coalition. Grumpy right-wingers have long seen the Lib Dems as perverts, sullying government with weird affection for Europe, windmills and red tape. Now, increasingly, the Cameroons are fed up with Nick Clegg snatching the credit for any policy that contains a whiff of compassion for the less well-off. Tory MPs who once celebrated partnership with the Lib Dems as a happy confluence of centre-right traditions now denounce their governing partners as deceitful and cynical.

Soft Tory liberals and hard Thatcherite revivalists feel equally suffocated by coalition and impatient to debate the future direction of their party. Cameron and Osborne, while unchallenged in their jobs, are becoming marginal to that discussion. They have spent the past six years thinking of the Tory party as the problem and themselves as the only solution. The past few weeks have made that a more questionable proposition. Cameron’s hold on the leadership is secure enough – there is no alternative – but he has never really possessed the party’s soul. That prize is still very much up for grabs.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Photo: Getty Images
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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.