The royal baby is part of a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on the babies we don't care about today

Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. Let's not forget about them and their children today.

The consensus that it is feckless and irresponsible for couples who rely on state benefits to reproduce clearly does not extend to the monarchy. For weeks before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, news teams from across the globe camped outside the luxury hospital where the sprog was set to make its entrance. As the due date soared by, hacks of every stripe filed and refiled speculative copy that managed to combine sycophantry with prying in that uniquely British manner; amongst the realms of opportunistic merchandise produced for the occasion were “Royal Morning Sickness” bags in pink and blue, printed up with the legend “shake rattle and rule!”. The punnery was presumably designed to ensure that the sick bags will be used for their intended purpose, if only by common wenches like me who are incubating a sense of impending national collapse into crypto-fascist kitschery where our blue-blooded fetuses should be.

It is sourly ironic that in a week when the whole nation is mandated to celebrate the birth at lavish state expense of Baby Cambridge, the hard right of the conservative party is set to launch a new attack on “teenage single mothers”. Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. They have always been targeted by the more purse-lipped guardians of the nation’s purse strings, in part because they lack the resources to fight back, and in part because we live in a sexist, post-feudal society where contempt for sexually independent women and for poor people is expertly stage-managed.

Not only have teenage single mums broken the moral codes laid down on their behalf, they dare to ask for our help in order that they and their children might not have to go hungry. Because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about taking away benefits from single mums, as the Tories are right now: making women pay for sexual transgression by forcing them into poverty. As policy proposals go, it’s as retro as royal-baby bunting. The fact that the line of monarchial succession now passes to whatever comes out of the royal vagina, be it boy, girl or timorous beastie, is supposed to be the ultimate victory for modern feminism, but the spectre of a future queen ruling over a society where single mothers have to choose between sexual bargaining and starvation is no such thing.

Let’s step back for a second and talk about numbers. Teenage pregnancy has, in fact, been steadily decreasing since 2008, and public perceptions of the phenomenon tend to be wildly overestimated - this month, an Ipsos MORI poll showed that on average, British people think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than it is, with just 0.6 per cent of girls under 16 falling pregnant each year. This is still hundreds every year, but the figures are small enough to disprove the longstanding notion that waves of school-age strumpets are slutting it up to get on the public housing lists. We do have a housing crisis in this country, but it’s more to do with soaring property prices and lack of council building. By contrast, 100 per cent of royal mothers are housed at public expense, and the Daily Mail has so far failed to rifle through their bins for anything except mementoes.

Some might argue that this is the wrong moment to raise the stubborn issue of children born in poverty to single and teenage parents. Let the people have their bread and circuses, just for a week or two; let them live the vicarious fairytale. There will be time enough, after the tornado of media hyperventilation about nappy rash, couture booties and lines of succession has died down, to talk about the 700 other babies who will have been born into poverty in Britain on the day the notice of a new heir of Windsor was nailed to a slab in front of the palace. There will be time, surely, to talk about those other babies, perhaps on a day when mentioning them won’t sour the celebration punch.

Except that, somehow, that time never seems to come. We never do seem to talk about those babies and their mothers, or allow them to tell their stories, and this is precisely the week when we should. Because single mums and pregnant teenagers are the other side of the story we’re being told, endlessly, about the royal family and their perfect lives, the divorces, disputes and deaths of the 1990s seemingly entirely forgotten. It gives the lie to the aspirational fairytale of Kate, William and their as-yet-unnamed offspring, by showing that for some women, the handsome prince just doesn’t show up. Some women have children in poverty and raise them alone, and this government is doing everything in its power to make life more difficult for those women. Pass the royal sick-bag.

Baby Cambridge does, in fact, have a few things in common with the children being born to teenage single mothers this week, apart from its star sign (Leo on the cusp of Cancer: a sign that loves to be the centre of attention, which is probably a mercy). They will both be born to mothers whose bodies are treated as public property, scrutinised, shamed and judge even more than other pregnant women who fall somewhere in the middle of the social spectrum. They are both being discussed as symbols, rather than as real children who will grow up to become real people. The royal baby may not be a subject, but it’s still an object: an emblem of everything ordinary little girls and boys are meant to aspire to be, rich and cosseted, born to a loving, stable heterosexual couple whose story is a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy pushed at us in every paper, wrapped up in the sort of twee, creepy retro-Britannalia that has overwhelmed public discourse in past three years of royal pageantry, all cupcakes and co-opted war propaganda, like a nationalist hymn sung in the voice of a child.

The children of teenage single mothers are symbols, too, of everything that women aren’t supposed to do: have sex, live independently from men, and dare to rely on state assistance without already being the heir to the Duchy of Lancaster. The royal baby, being a baby, is not an appropriate target for contempt - but nor are the children of the poor, and I would like to live in a world where every child’s arrival is an occasion for happiness and hope, where every mother is respected, whatever her life choices. Give me a chance at that future, and even I might crack out the bunting.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.