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Change is needed in Europe, but David Cameron’s posturing is not the way to bring it about

The Prime Minister may encourage Tory Europhobes to believe he can change the shape of the EU — but, as our history shows, he can’t.


David Cameron’s Bloomberg address was one of the most vacuous speeches ever heralded as a major policy statement. In between the sub-Churchillian rhetoric about our “island story”, it made three points. We already knew that the Prime Minister wants to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union and that he intends to follow the renegotiation with a national referendum. He promised that the long-anticipated test of public opinion would ask the question: “In or out?” Tory Europhobes – who resent J S Mill’s description of the Conservatives “as by the law of their existence the stupidest party” – might suggest what other question a referendum on the EU could possibly ask.

They should also consider why the Prime Minister’s aims were described in windy generalities. The audience at which the speech was aimed knows exactly what it wants. So does Cameron. Douglas Carswell, Bill Cash and Mark Reckless tell him with tireless regularity. They share his view that the “rules restricting our labour markets are not some naturally recurring phenomenon”. But they go on to give the platitude meaning by demanding the repeal, or emasculation, of the Working Time Directive that, in Britain’s case, allows a working week of more than 48 hours only if the employee freely agrees.

Nor did Cameron have anything to say about “benefit tourism”, a topic that induces near hysteria at Conservative conferences, even though its opponents base their case on a misinterpretation of reciprocal welfare rights that is as grotesque as their claims about net migration from the EU. The Prime Minister knows that the Europhobes want repeal, and yet he did not promise to demand even a revision of the treaty article that established the free movement of labour. Cameron was strong on generalities but weak on particulars.

The reason for his reticence is clear. He knows that the Europhobes’ demands are unattainable but he lacks the courage to say so. As a result, he has encouraged the belief that he proposes to embark on a renegotiation that he knows would be doomed before it began. It is the price he pays for security of tenure. Flexible Tory moderates such as Malcolm Rifkind (my Scottish organiser whenI was director of the Campaign for a European Political Community) have congratulated the Prime Minister on uniting his party. That unity will not survive the realisation that the Bloomberg address was less a policy statement than advertising copy, intended to deceive without actually lying.

Yet there are changes – budget reform, dem­ocratic accountability and energy policy – that need to be made within the Union. Cameron’s political posturing has reduced his prospects of playing a meaningful part in bringing them about. No doubt he would claim, if asked, that he will be far more successful in changing Europe’s direction than we were in 1974, when – in Jim Callaghan’s words – he (the foreign secretary) made the big speeches and I (his minister of state) stayed up all night to argue about them. Yet there are valuable lessons to be learned from the experience of almost 40 years ago.

Then, as now, the rest of what we once called the European Economic Community (EEC) wanted the UK to remain a member. Had Britain left in 1974, Denmark and Ireland would have gone, too, leaving only the original six signatories to the Treaty of Rome struggling to establish a collective identity. Despite the troubles of the eurozone, Europe is more self-confident than it was then. There is now a higher price to be paid for exhibiting insular superiority. Callaghan’s objection to Gaston Thorn, the prime minister of Lux­embourg and president of the Council of Ministers, representing oil-rich Britain at an international energy conference set the renegotiation back by weeks. Cameron’s arrogant assumption that he can change the Union guarantees a bumpy ride.

The decidedly limited achievements of the Callaghan renegotiation were in areas where one of three rules applied: consistency with the idea on which the EEC was built, the avoidance of material damage to other member nations and postponement of extra cost until some long-distant date. There was also the occasional willingness to indulge a harmless British foible. The principle of a budget rebate – implemented at Margaret Thatcher’s insistence in 1984, but negotiated by Calla­ghan – was accepted under the “long-distance rule”. The importing of New Zealand butter was agreed as a concession to Britain’s imperial nostalgia.

Unfortunately for Cameron and his Europhobic backbenchers, none of the changes that have been bruited about can be justified under any of the definitions of acceptability that will be criteria for change in Europe in 2015, as they were in 1974. The notion that they could is as much the result of ignorance as arrogance. The Working Time Directive, like so much of the despised “regulation”, is essential to the single market that Thatcher agreed with Jacques Delors in 1992, and that most Tories still want to preserve. If the employers in one country could undercut the costs of employers in another by sweating their workers, competition would become no more than a race to the bottom of the social responsibility league.

Cameron cannot – however craven his instincts – negotiate the new European deal that he has encouraged the Europhobes to expect. So, in 2015, given the chance, he is bound to fail the men and women whose support he hoped the Bloomberg address would buy. Happily, the British voters are going to deny him the opportunity. All the more pity that, in order to gain a brief political respite, he should prejudice inward investment to Britain and reduce our influence in the world. 

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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.