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The tree of secrets, shadows and scents

In praise of the magnolia.

There are certain images and associations that never become cliches, so when I arrived at my hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia a few days ago, I was delighted to discover a fine specimen of the Southern Magnolia, (M. grandiflora), right outside my window.

After a longer than usual winter, it is spring in Virginia now – daffodils and camellias blooming in the gardens, the improbable first whites of dogwood just starting to break along the winery road – but the magnolias are still to come, a tantalising promise hanging on the air all across town. This is a pity; for me, magnolias are the most gorgeous of blossoms, the lush, white petals unfolding against waxy, dark-green foliage in a haze of intoxicating citronella-and-honey fragrance that feels like the gateway to a world that would make even the most jaded and cynical believe again in true romance.

Even without the flowers, these are beautiful trees, especially if you take the trouble to sit and watch the play of light on the wide, glossy leaves; thick shadows forming in the spaces between, unseen birds flickering back and forth to the deep interior. Few trees are so closed and secretive, and at the same time so extravagant, columns of warmth and scent in spring and granaries of seed for possums and turkeys later in the year.

The tree species most often associated with Virginia is less showy. Everyone knows the song about “the trail of the lonesome pines”, (the Table Mountain pine, Pinus pungens) and it is easy to see how these low, strangely haunting trees got their name. To my mind, however, the most beautiful of the south-eastern pines is the Longleaf, (P. palustris) that once dominated this part of Virginia – though by now the native population has dwindled so much that an ambitious programme of planting and controlled burning has been created to restore this extraordinary species to at least some of its former glory.

This is important, not just for the sake of the trees, (though on a spring morning, when its light-green, ten-18- inch-long needles shimmer in the sunlight, few sights are more beautiful) but also for its associated flora of orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants and turkey oak.

When the first Englishmen arrived on the shores of what they would come to call Virginia, there were an estimated 90 million acres of unspoiled forest, populated by red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises, the forest floor spotted with pixie moss and white-fringed orchids. It would have been a breathtaking vision – and it is hard to understand, imagining such a scene, or simply standing in a wave of magnolia fragrance, why anyone would believe that this world was made for humans, or that we have the right to do with the forests what we will.

Nevertheless, the truth remains that we, as a species, have been both greedy and careless in our dealings with this land – a fact illustrated most poignantly by the fate of Virginia’s first naturalist, John Banister, who pioneered the study and classification of the state’s flora and fauna. Some mystery remains as to the exact details but it seems that, during a botanising expedition on the Roanoke River in May 1692, he was mistaken for an animal as he stooped to examine a plant, and was casually shot by a party of hunters.

He was 42 years old. Had he lived to complete the Treatise on the Flora and Fauna of Virginia he was writing when he died, he would have found his just place in the history of science. As things turned out, his letters, drawings and herbarium specimens were appropriated by others, sometimes without acknowledgment, reducing a remarkable figure to a footnote in the biographies of Linnaeus, John Ray and Henry Compton, the “gardening Bishop” of London, who used seeds and cuttings supplied by Banister to establish the renowned gardens at Fulham Palace.


This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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.