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Fussing over the Queen, Clegg’s Oratory, and how to deal with terrorist threats

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

“Don’t make a fuss!” was the Daily Mail’s front-page headline, paraphrasing the mon - arch’s instruction when she needed hospitalisation after repeated dashes to the unmentionable. The Mail proceeded to make a fuss, as did most other papers, particularly the Telegraph, with its royal picture occupying the entire space above the front-page fold, save for a short column headed: “Her Maj - esty in hospital”. The BBC’s royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, who once worked for Panorama and reported from Northern Ireland, Beirut and the Falklands, waited humbly outside Buckingham Palace, as if he were a medieval peasant hoping that his monarch would recover sufficiently to cure him of scrofula. One item of substantive information emerged: the Queen would spend two days in hospital.

She was out in less than 24 hours.

Yes, it was all very silly – but no sillier, perhaps, than equally ill-informed sports reporters speculating about a footballer’s ligaments. And not much sillier than endless stories about what one Lib Dem said to another Lib Dem about Lord Rennard’s allegedly wandering hands. Newspapers and broadcasters have so much time and space to fill that they have long lost the ability to discriminate – between the reliable and unreliable, significant and insignificant, surprising and unsurprising. All they know is that royalty, football and sex will sell.

School ties

The London Oratory – the comprehensive to which Nick Clegg and his wife have opted to send their eldest son – is said to be a “good school” because it has some of the best exam results in London. Yet it is “good” because parents such as the Cleggs and the Blairs send their children there, armed with cultural capital from affluent, middle-class homes. Situated in an area where houses sell for more than £2m, it recruits God-fearing, churchattending Catholic children from across the capital. Only 6 per cent receive free school meals (the best available proxy for deprivation), against 36 per cent in inner London as a whole. No doubt the teachers do a fine job but the main determinant of any school’s success is not the quality of teaching but the calibre of the pupil intake.

Clegg is capable of understanding this. Yet, like other politicians, he trots out platitudes about how parents need more choice of similarly “good” schools. It is not, however, possible for more than a small number of comprehensives to have as few poor children as the Oratory. The Tories’ Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced full “parental choice” to “drive up” standards. All it has done is to allow the smarter and richer middle classes to keep their children in socially exclusive laagers without paying fees. In the Oratory’s borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, only 60 per cent of parents get their first choice of secondary school and nearly 20 per cent don’t get even their second or third choices. Isn’t it time somebody admitted that the parental choice policy has failed?

Home truths

Several boss-class members announced their support for Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo!, who has banned working from home. Mayer argues: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, owned by Condé Nast, agrees: “The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way.”

Corporate executives keep staff in the office for “incalculable” reasons but when they see calculable ways of saving money – in customer services, say – they have no hesitation in outsourcing.

Scare tactics

On 3 March, police in Londonderry, the UK’s 2013 capital of culture, rammed a van carrying four primed mortars. Officers said (as they would) that, if they had not acted with minutes to spare, “mass carnage” could have followed. Most papers printed in London thought the story hardly worth mentioning. Yet the incident was not exceptional: last month, police found a rocket launcher and warhead in Belfast.

The threat of Islamic jihadists receives great attention from politicians and the press and we are told that, to control them, we should abandon civil liberties. Irish Republican terrorists, though fewer than 20 years ago, have a longer history, more support in their communities (at least tacitly), better equipment and a more successful record. Yet we shrug our shoulders at the threat they pose to a part of the UK that is due to host the G8 summit in June. And that, I think, is the better reaction.

Killing the joke

My wife and I went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. It has two thuggish but goofy gangsters and, in one scene, a US general is warned they carry guns. “I should hope so,” he says, asserting his support for the Second Amendment. The gangsters – like Laurel and Hardy, one is thin and weedy, the other well built – cry: “Guns don’t kill people. We do.” The audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.

Kiss Me, Kate was first performed on Broadway in 1948. Have Americans been discussing gun control, in the same terms, for 65 years? I fear they have and the line will sound just as edgy in 2078.

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 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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.