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Simon Heffer: Could the general election lead to constitutional crisis?

Another hung parliament and the ill-conceived Fixed Term Parliaments Act could compromise the country's constitution.

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Although it has become a commonplace that the outcome of the general election on 7 May is less predictable than almost any in living memory, the consequences of a result that does not provide a majority government are only now beginning to be grasped. General elections are the agents of our democracy. They are supposed to ensure some relationship – however imperfect – between the will of the people and the composition of the executive that governs the United Kingdom. However, this was not strictly the case after the election in May 2010. No party won it. Once the Conservatives decided not to try to govern as a minority administration – it was never an option for Labour, with almost 50 fewer seats than their rivals – the outcome was a coalition for which, as with all coalitions formed after an election, nobody had explicitly voted. That coalition government has since then implemented a programme for which the electorate supplied no mandate, for the obvious reason that that specific programme had not been put before it at the general election.

Now it is quite feasible that what we call our democracy could be even more compromised in May. If there is a clear winner of the election, we can all continue smugly to congratulate and delude ourselves that our constitution is a model for the rest of the free world. But if there is not – as most opinion polls now suggest – the full consequences of the cocktail of constitutional changes made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats since 2010, and by Labour after 1997, will suddenly become apparent. And it is far from impossible that they could provoke the greatest constitutional crisis in Britain since before the Great War.

Suppose no party wins outright, and the one with the largest number of seats is asked to form the government. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that that is the Conservative Party. David Cameron, as the incumbent Prime Minister, meets parliament and offers a Queen’s Speech. His parliamentary party has made it clear it prefers minority government to more compromises with the Lib Dems; yet there may well be too few Lib Dems to give the two parties an overall majority. Even with support for him from the Democratic Unionists and Ukip MPs, he cannot carry the vote.

Labour, in this scenario, may have fewer seats than the Conservatives – thanks, perhaps, to the slump in the party’s standing in Scotland, and Ukip eating into its vote in English constituencies it hoped to win from the Tories – but with the help of the surviving Lib Dems, a much-expanded parliamentary SNP and Plaid Cymru, it can, and does, vote down a Queen’s Speech promising stringent further cuts. Cameron then resigns: and the leader of the Labour Party, for whom even fewer people voted than for the Tories, becomes prime minister. This is because the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 allows for no dissolution when a prime minister has been defeated in the Commons on his legislative programme. If, after 14 days, Labour were to find that it could not get a Queen’s Speech through, either, there would be another election. More probably, either a rainbow coalition of the same left-leaning parties which voted down the Tory Queen’s Speech would then become the government of the United Kingdom, or Labour would run a minority government, having negotiated a confidence-and-supply arrangement with those minor parties.

However, given what has been promised to Scotland in the shape of tax-raising powers, even a confidence-and-supply arrangement could prove controversial: and this is where another constitutional change, that of devolution, could start to have profound constitutional consequences in the United Kingdom parliament and in England. Passing a Budget would almost certainly entail Scottish MPs, whether SNP, Labour or Liberal, voting for some tax-raising powers that would not affect their own constituents. And when Labour began to seek to pass measures that affected only England – say on health or education – it would, as things stand, be perfectly within its rights to do so using the votes of Scottish MPs. It would, however, remain to be seen whether the English electorate would be any happier about that than their Scottish equivalents would be for English MPs to renew their control over domestic Scottish matters. There are 533 seats for English MPs, so Labour would need to have at least 267 of them to be sure to pass any measure that affected only England using English votes alone. As it currently has 190, and even the most optimistic polls suggest Labour would pick up at most 50 to 60 English seats if the election in May goes well for it, a majority of English seats may still elude it.

Early this month William Hague set out a strange plan to deal with the democratic deficit suffered by England after devolution. It specified that the committee and report stages of any legislation that affected England alone, or England and Wales alone, would be dealt with solely by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. However, in order not to do something called “compromising the integrity of parliament”, Scottish members would be allowed to vote on the third reading.

Hague seems not to have understood that this would mean the routine vetoing of legislation proposed by a Labour government, because by third reading the shape that the legislation would be in would most likely be offensive to that government. Such bills would have been butchered by an English grand committee that would most likely be dominated by English MPs, to a point where they would have had any Labour policy hacked out of them, thereby defeating the government’s original purpose for the legislation. For example, it is quite likely that a bill on the NHS proposing to undo the Lansley reforms could have the attempt to overturn those reforms completely removed from it, making it almost pointless to pass it on third reading. However, such a ludicrous system will not be put in place before the next election because the Lib Dems would not vote for it; and whatever the outcome in May, it is unlikely to happen at all, such is the widespread dissatisfaction with it.

The SNP, which could well find itself with more than 40 seats after 7 May and therefore with the sort of clout the Irish Nationalists had while keeping Asquith in power after 1910, currently does not vote on solely English matters at Westminster. It has tried to argue that it could vote on the English National Health Service, giving the argument that funding shortages in England could drive people over the border to seek treatment in Scotland. But that is too far-fetched for many English MPs and, more to the point, for many English voters. For English MPs now to demand a say in the running of the Scottish NHS would be regarded as an outrageous and reactionary act of effrontery; it is surprising that some Scots do not see that this argument cuts both ways.

The SNP’s own credibility would be at stake if it suddenly started to vote on matters that for Scots are settled at Holyrood and in which the English have no say. The widespread assumption among Tory MPs is, however, that it would start to vote on solely English measures, however hypocritical that was. Otherwise, Labour could use its own, probably diminished, numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs to pass measures that do not affect Scotland and Wales; but that would sit oddly with the party’s supercharged commitment to devolution and the removal of English influence from Welsh and Scottish affairs. And if the SNP realises the impropriety, given its principles, of voting on solely English issues, it would confine itself to helping Labour win votes of confidence and passing measures affecting defence, foreign affairs and the National Lottery; nonetheless a Labour administration might prove unable, without SNP support, or the support of non-English Labour MPs, to pass measures essential to the government of England.

Tory MPs are preparing to make an outcry if English laws are passed with Scottish votes, and it would be unwise to underestimate the effect such a campaign might have on the government’s standing. Since last September’s referendum, attitudes to this in England have changed. It might seem to be a quick fix for Labour in enabling it to gain power, but the resentment it could well create among an English electorate that is not stupid, and certainly smart enough to notice what the Tory press would daily call the interference of Scots in important matters that do not concern them, could cause Labour profound long-term damage. Some Labour MPs are aware of the democratically contradictory nature of this possible strategy, and deeply uneasy about it.

With Labour perhaps divided on other matters – such as the extent of the implementation of spending cuts, as recently suggested by Lord Liddle, and the general continuing criticism of the party leadership by Blairites – the government might quickly lose support during such a controversy. The SNP might also not enjoy the negative publicity, conscious of the great damage done to the Lib Dems by their participation in government. The Labour government might then find itself unable to get important measures through that would affect 85 per cent of the population of the UK, and feel it has no option but to resign. And that might in turn propel into office another minority Conservative government, quite possibly under a leader other than David Cameron, again because of the difficulty under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of securing a dissolution. As before, if the Conservatives cannot form a government after 14 days, then there can be an election; or it would require a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons, something unlikely to happen because it would entail large numbers of turkeys voting for Christmas. It would be much better for the country just to have another election, as was the practice previously, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act forbids such a simple solution. And while such a crisis plays out Britain would be at the mercy of financial speculators, and contempt among the electorate for the political process, which is already at an unhealthy level, would balloon.

Even before the ill-considered Fixed-Term Act, which senior politicians of all parties now wish to repeal, and the focus on democracy in England in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, our electoral arrangements were far from ideal or equitable. Sometimes the party with the largest popular vote comes second in terms of numbers of seats: Labour did in 1951 and the Tories in February 1974. What has been called a “postcode lottery” means that a single vote carries far more weight in some constituencies than it does in others, in terms of the ease with which one party or another can be elected. The first-past-the-post system has long enabled the Tories and Labour to win most of the seats, while the Lib Dems, with over half the number of the main parties’ votes, have nothing like half their number of MPs. Now, it is quite possible that at the May election Ukip could register many more votes than the Lib Dems, yet end up with a small fraction of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary seats. Only the introduction of a system of proportional representation, such as is used in the European parliamentary elections, could obviate this injustice.

Yet in 2011, when at the insistence of the Lib Dems a plebiscite was held on introducing the Alternative Vote, it was roundly defeated by 68 to 32 per cent. Therefore we must assume that the public, or at least the 42 per cent who cared enough about the future of our electoral system to vote, are quite happy for the present system to continue.

What we cannot assume is public support for the Fixed-Term Act. The Lib Dems had a commitment to fixed terms in their 2010 manifesto; but the dominant partner in the eventual coalition, the Conservatives, did not. Fixed terms may work in presidential systems such as the US or France, where the head of government is elected separately from the representative assembly, and where therefore the political culture is fundamentally different. Here, the act limits the democratic option, as previously existed, of a failed government going to the country as soon as it has lost the confidence of parliament – as with the Callaghan administration in 1979; or of a government so weakened by events that it decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate, as Edward Heath unsuccessfully did in February 1974. It also prevents a government calling an election at a time of its choosing, although, as John Major found in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010, prime ministers do not always call correctly.

When Nick Clegg introduced the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill in the Commons on 13 September 2010, the government front bench – as a Labour MP pointed out – was devoid of any Conservative ministers to support him. He claimed the measure was designed “to remove the right of a prime minister to seek the dissolution of parliament for pure political gain”. That was not quite true. Removing that right was indeed one of the reasons for the Lib Dems’ devotion to the idea of fixed terms. But the real reason why the promise was made immediately upon the conclusion of the coalition talks the previous May was an intervention by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary.

There are two categories of senior civil servant: those who act as true mandarins in tendering advice and implementing ministerial decisions with strict objectivity, whether they conform with that advice or not, and those who take a robust interest and keen delight in politics and the political process itself. Anyone who has come across Lord O’Donnell – as he has since become – will be aware that he belongs more to the second than to the first category. He was especially effective in Whitehall in dealing with ministers who were either inexperienced or not very bright. Cameron, whose first office of state was that of prime minister, and Clegg, whom few would expect to win Mastermind, were putty in his hands. O’Donnell correctly identified that the international markets were waiting to see how serious the new government was likely to be in tackling the economic difficulties of the time, notably a deficit excessive both historically and by comparison with those of economies in the eurozone. He argued that announcing in the summer of 2010 that the next general election would not be held until 7 May 2015, barring exceptional circumstances, would constitute a promise of stability that the markets would love.

Whatever Cameron’s doubts about this – and in that way that he seems to lack conviction about almost everything, it is hard to discern whether he had strong feelings either way – he could see this might be a deal-breaker with the Lib Dems: and so, despite what he must have known would be deep hostility from many in his party, he signed up to the idea. So when Clegg, in his vapid and shallow speech on the second reading, said that the result of passing the bill would be “no more feverish speculation”, once a parliament entered its latter phase, “distracting politicians from getting on with running the country”, he told less than half the story. And those who should be running the country seem to have found plenty of distraction elsewhere to compensate for not having the date of a general election to speculate about.

One of the many points Nick Clegg seemed incapable of grasping, in choosing largely to ignore or not being able to notice that there might be other consequences of this measure, was that some displacement would occur. “The political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode,” he told MPs, “making it very difficult for parliament to function effectively.” Parliament is scarcely functioning effectively now, more than three months before an election. MPs of all parties are mostly in their constituencies, attempting to secure their re-election. Fixed term or not, that was always going to happen. The arguments to which Clegg devoted his speech in September 2010 in supporting his case for this fundamental change to the constitution have turned out mostly to be hollow.

But then he gave himself away on the day in response to an intervention by Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House and widely respected on both sides of it, who first sat in the Commons in 1959, nearly eight years before Clegg was born. “Why,” asked Sir Peter, questioning the change, “do the Rt Hon Gentleman and our Prime Minister think that they are wiser than their 40 predecessors?” In a response sublimely fatuous even by the Deputy Prime Minister’s standards, he replied: “It is not a question of wisdom; it is a question of the weight of history.”

Bernard Jenkin, another Tory MP, accused the government of “gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition” and of making up the constitution “on the hoof”. He called for a constitutional convention to weigh up the pros and cons properly. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and historian of parliament, took issue with the five-year fixed term, pointing out that since the Reform Act 1832 parliaments, on average, had lasted three years and eight months. This was a more remarkable statistic than Bryant disclosed, because until the Parliament Act 1911 an act of 1716 required general elections to be held only every seven years. Jack Straw took up Jenkin’s point and accused the government of rushing through the bill without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. His colleague George Howarth came more directly to the point, describing the measure as “squalid in intent”.

The bill passed, but it is important to recall the extent of the doubts and fears expressed at the time by both Labour and Tory MPs, for it means that if we have a constitutional crisis caused by the act nobody can claim to have been unwarned. That 1911 act that established five-year parliaments as a maximum, and whose purpose was principally to end the veto of the House of Lords, was the result of precisely the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that Jenkin and Straw (and many others) called for in 2010, but which in an act of scandalous dereliction, given the gravity of the measure, was entirely absent. The consequences of removing the peers’ veto – a necessary step in a country close to achieving full manhood suffrage, and which within 20 years would have extended the vote to all men and women over the age of 21 – were so completely discussed in the Commons, in the Lords, on public platforms, in the press and (most significantly) at two general elections within 11 months that very few were unaware of what they would be. And the widespread acceptance of this change to centuries of constitutional practice, as well as the absence of unpleasant surprises afterwards, were a tribute to the effectiveness of an exhaustive debate before it occurred.

The possible constitutional crisis of 2015 could be the gravest since that of 1909-11, which was occasioned by the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and, once the fight over their right to throw out money bills was lost, their persistent refusal to contemplate surrendering their veto on all other measures. It was only when A J Balfour, the Unionist leader, was told in July 1911 that George V had promised Asquith, his prime minister, that he would create hundreds of Liberal peers to force the Parliament Bill through that the Unionists gave in and let the bill pass. The Lords were persuaded to surrender their veto on money bills by the Unionists’ defeat in the general election of January 1910, which forced them to pass the People’s Budget. When the peers would not agree to surrender their other veto powers Asquith requested another dissolution, and in an election in December 1910 the Unionists lost again.

Most MPs realised the game was up: many peers didn’t, hence the need for Asquith to extract the promise from the king to agree to use his prerogative to create enough peers to defeat the forces of conservatism in the upper house. But in the two years while this conflict continued, the matter was, at least, robustly discussed and extensively dissected.

Because such a debate did not precede the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, and the coalition was able to drive the measure through parliament without needing to pay attention to points of serious dissent, we stand at risk of a profoundly anti-democratic outcome from the forthcoming electoral process. This is recognised across parliament. Senior politicians from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, including Alan Duncan, Peter Tapsell, Jack Straw, Gerald Kaufman and Kenneth Clarke, have all called in recent weeks for the act to be repealed. Given that the present parliament has so little to do, it is a wonder that the Conservative Party – which has never liked the act – does not make common cause with the substantial number of Labour objectors and seek to repeal the bill now, before the election. It would hardly matter if that broke the coalition, which has but a few weeks to live in any case.

If that should mean that 2015 was a year of two elections, so be it. At least the second election would give the public the opportunity to reflect upon the indecisive outcome of the first, and to choose whether they wished to cast their votes differently. This is important not least because of the position with Scotland, and the growing controversy over the exercise of votes on English issues by Scottish MPs. If that question, raised by Tam Dalyell 40 years ago, is to be settled in a way that inspires the confidence of all concerned, it has to be settled by a government with proper democratic legitimacy. But if the British are to have a democracy in which they can properly believe, they cannot tolerate governments that come about contrary to the will of the people, and then are allowed to rule indefinitely because the mechanism to remove them has been abolished. The one lesson that should, above all, have been learned from the past 20 years or so, is that if a government decides to unpick parts of the British constitution, it should not begin to do so until all the consequences have been exhaustively considered, and – in keeping with the best ideas of a democracy – until the public has signalled its approval at a general election.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile