Sole-searching: Theresa May has launched an enquiry into child abuse allegations. Photo: Getty
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A very British “cover-up”, the truth about the Isis crisis and the Tour de France in Essex

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Many institutions – the Catholic Church, elite fee-paying schools, the BBC, children’s homes – have covered up instances of sexual abuse among their own. So it is hardly surprising that Westminster and Whitehall are now accused of doing just that. It’s hard to shop people you’ve worked with most of your life and all the more so when you believe, as most priests, schoolteachers, BBC employees, politicians and civil servants do, that they need to maintain collective moral authority.

“Cover-up” isn’t quite the right term. It’s a matter of casually brushing things under the carpet – or more precisely shoving them to the back of the filing cabinet – and trusting to the old British practices of secrecy, discretion, quiet words here and there and believing that chaps who went to the right school wouldn’t do anything truly wicked. That was how Soviet spies such as Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt got away with it and so, it now seems, did child abusers in high positions.


No slice for Pie

Nowadays, the mere mention of paedophiles, even if they’re mostly dead, causes everyone to lose their head. As Theresa May announced what the Guardian called “a soul-searching national inquiry” into how public authorities handled child abuse allegations, the Home Office released a report on media claims that it provided direct funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie) in the 1970s. We learn that its voluntary services unit gave £65,750 over five years to the Albany Trust, a charity for sexual minorities, which reportedly held a series of “meetings” with Pie in 1975 and, in 1970, arranged the translation of a Dutch report on lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. The same Home Office unit (through another charity, the Princedale Trust) gave £410,000 over ten years to Release, the drug users’ charity, whose address was also used by Pie for correspondence. Incredibly, civil servants spent three months investigating this non-story.


Simple twist of caliphate

Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-head of MI6, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, says that members of Isis are “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures”, who present little threat to Britain.

This is a refreshing change from the credulous consensus that has emerged after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was the new caliph. If you believed most politicians and journalists, you’d think the caliphate was already a done job. In reality, Isis has an awful lot of Shias and rival Sunni factions to win over – or, more likely, behead – before one is established in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The last widely acknowledged caliphate was the Ottoman empire, where in 1914 the sultan-caliph declared jihad against western imperialism (that is, the British and French) and rumours later spread that the German kaiser had converted to Islam. It didn’t end well. Empire and caliphate collapsed during the war and were succeeded by a determinedly secular Turkish state.


Two wheels good

To Epping in Essex to see the Tour de France on its way to the Olympic Park and the Mall in London. A friend observed that it is one of the few great sporting events free to watch. Given that you see the cyclists for no more than about 30 seconds, it would be poor value if it charged. Moreover, long before anyone on a bicycle appears, you endure about 20 minutes of marketing – cars, vans and floats tear past, all blaring horns and throwing free samples – for just about every brand you’ve ever heard of.

Even the police seemed to be in on the act, riding motorbikes in advance of the race, waving as though they were conquering heroes and, in one case, slapping the hands of spectators lining the route.

The Tour de France was never just a cycle race. It started in 1903 as a promotion for a French sports newspaper that, since the paper’s circulation rose from 25,000 to 854,000 in 30 years, probably counts as the most successful sponsorship in history.


Call me Peter

Npower, which is reported to have the worst customer relations of any energy company, sent me an “annual summary”, saying that I was more than £1,200 in credit. I rang and asked if I could have the money back. No, I was told, the credit existed only because I hadn’t been sent a bill for six months. The next day, the company emailed me: “Thank you for contacting us . . . We’ll change the name on your account to PETER.” That must be its solution to the customer relations problem: to put us all on Christian-name terms.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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.