The meaning of freedom

. . . on meddling in Iran, pay cuts for bosses and wasteful words

Daniel Finkelstein, a Times columnist and a former director of the Conservative Research Department, writes: “I am a neocon . . . It declares my belief in two things – that in every country . . . whatever its traditions, the people yearn for liberty, for free expression and for democracy; and that the spread of liberty and democracy . . . is the only real way to bring peace to the world . . . What we are seeing on the streets of Iran now is a vindication of these neoconservative ideas.”

I find this paragraph offensive. I, too, believe in freedom and democracy for everybody – as well as in the potentially peaceful results – and the neocons have no right to claim a monopoly. Barack Obama, who has not yet come out as a neocon, used language similar to Finkelstein’s in his Cairo speech. “I do have an unyielding belief,” he said, “that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal . . . ; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas; they are human rights.”

Indeed. But as Obama largely recognises, America has undermined prospects for freedom and democracy in several ways. First, it coupled democracy with economic ideology, and rated most highly the freedom of American-owned multinationals to make money. Second, it overthrew leaders it disliked even where they clearly reflected the popular will (for example, Iran’s elected premier Muhammed Mossadeq, overthrown with CIA and British help in 1953 for wanting to nationalise the oil). Third, it tried to impose democracy, at the cost of millions of lives, thus allowing anti-democrats to pose as patriotic protectors of their peoples.

American and British support for Iranian protests is therefore counterproductive. If neocons really care about freedom and democracy in Iran, as opposed to privatisation and market “reform” (both advocated by the defeated election candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi), they should keep quiet.


If I were a worker in a firm that “invited” employees to take pay cuts or give up a month’s salary, this is what I would say to my boss. Reduce your pay (including bonuses and share options) to the same multiple of the average employee’s earnings as it was in 1979. Then sign a contract stating that your future percentage rises will be no greater than what the average worker receives. Who knows? If bosses are as much into sacrifice for the common good as they pretend to be, they might agree. As chief executives got about ten times the average salary in the 1970s against about 100 times now, Britain could regain the modestly egalitarian pay structure that it had 30 years ago.


A visit to Prime Minister’s Questions the other day reminded me of how impenetrable the House of Commons must be to members of the public. I could just about understand the perfectly timed Tory laughter when Gordon Brown, answering a question about police surveillance of Heathrow runway protesters, began: “I know nothing . . .” But I was baffled when David Cameron stated that “the recession is all over Europe” and the Labour benches went into what we journalists call uproar. I sought advice and was told Cameron had committed a significant gaffe because, for months, he has argued that the recession is a peculiarly British phenomenon. Which shows, as if we needed reminding, that MPs live on a planet of their own.


In some respects, however, MPs are beginning to get the message about how voters perceive them. For example, they are rushing to drop some of their lucrative second jobs before the 1 July deadline when all earnings from moonlighting must be declared in detail. Voters think that outside commitments distract MPs from their parliamentary duties. MPs insist that outside interests are healthy and even necessary to provide an insight into the real world and the problems of real people.

No doubt this argument will be heard again from those who hold on to second jobs. But it would be more convincing if the jobs weren’t usually directorships or consultancies. Wouldn’t MPs gain wider insight if they did early-morning cleaning shifts or flipped burgers in McDonald’s once or twice a month? Why, moreover, if they take directorships to broaden their horizons, do they need paying? If Francis Maude, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, gives up his directorship of Barclays’s Asian division (as he says he will), the bank would surely still allow him to attend committee meetings and tour its offices should he wish to know more about either banking or Asia.


Long experience has taught me that nearly all statistics that politicians and journalists quote as though they were received wisdom are, in fact, bogus. Many come from pressure groups or other bodies, including quangos, which have interests in concocting figures that make headlines. An excellent new website –, run by the science journalist Nigel Hawkes – provides a perfect example: the claim that “Britain wastes a third of the food it buys”. This comes from a report by the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), which would clearly be out of business if we all stopped being wasteful. Hawkes detected a bad smell, as it were, when the report estimated that consumers annually throw away 11,000 tons of pheasant, roughly equivalent to 15 million birds. Since only 20 million birds are raised a year, that seems unlikely.

To get its “one-third wasted” headline, Hawkes discovered, Wrap included potato peelings, bones and apple cores; measured waste by monetary value rather than weight (so that discarded lettuce leaves, for example, boost the percentage); and counted food used for compost or feeding pets as waste. After readjusting the figures, Hawkes estimates our true food waste at 18.4 per cent. Which may still be too much, but is nothing like that headline-grabbing one-third.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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.