Debt, Gove and royal wedding hysteria

Capitalism these days is one damn thing after another. In the past 30 years, we've had a Latin American debt crisis, an Asian debt crisis, a Russian debt crisis and a US debt crisis (sub-prime mortgages). Now we're in the early stages of a European debt crisis, which has hit Greece and Ireland and will soon spread at least to Spain and Portugal.

Capitalism cannot function without debt, just as aircraft cannot function without oil. The more unrestrained the capitalism, the more debt it needs. That explains why the era of neoliberalism and globalisation - which, we are often told, has delivered unprecedented prosperity and security to the masses - has actually been one of chronic and growing instability.

The state's role is to act as backstop, stepping in to rescue financial institutions when they misjudge the risks that all lending entails. A bank crisis automatically becomes a state crisis. Risk is in effect transferred from bankers to general taxpayers. To leave scope for more bailouts, such as the £7bn advanced to Ireland to prevent UK banks being saddled with bad debts, our welfare bills will be cut and our VAT rates increased. On the other hand, when risks are judged correctly, the rewards accrue almost entirely to bankers. If you think all this is desperately unfair, you are right. If you think the chances of anybody creating a fairer system are significantly better than zero, you are wrong.

A royal knock-out

This is a bad time to be a republican, and it won't get better any time soon. A rare dissenter from the general euphoria about the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton - Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, a Labour Party member who announced himself "a ­citizen, not a subject" and said the marriage would last only seven years - has expressed "sincere regrets", as one must these days, if one says anything remotely controversial. Nevertheless, he has been suspended indefinitely from the C of E. Even if Broadbent is right, and the marriage ends, as is customary for the Windsors, in acrimony, infidelity and divorce, we can expect Buckingham Palace to delay Prince Harry's nuptials until then, so that negative publicity is cancelled out by the positive.

Moreover, the Queen and Prince Philip are at the age where they become national treasures, and nothing must be done to upset them. Prince Charles, it is true, is a walking negative - a sort of Gordon Brown of royalty - and a coronation of Charles III (if he doesn't call himself George VII), with Cam­illa by his side, would be a disaster. But his parents will be kept alive, on life-support machines if necessary, either until he is safely dead, probably from overdosing himself on quack health remedies, or until he himself qualifies for national treasure status.

In these circumstances, we republicans must think laterally. I propose a campaign to privatise the monarchy and put it on an efficient, commercial footing. People would readily pay tens of thousands for a royal to open a factory, make an after-dinner speech or just turn up to a new product launch. The government could therefore sell off the monarchy for, say, £20bn on a five-year contract, thereby avoiding the need for its desperate cuts to welfare. Under EU rules, the franchise would presumably be put out to tender and Russian oligarchs, Indian steel magnates, Arab sheikhs and Simon Cowell would probably be among the bidders. But the Windsors could easily outbid them by selling off a few precious stones and Old Masters, plus one or two castles.

If the coalition adopts this imaginative scheme, I promise to become a fervent monarchist and to vote Conservative, just for once, at the next general election.

Bah! Humbug!

In the meantime, I shall adopt a curmudgeonly attitude to the royal wedding festivities. In particular, I shall oppose the idea that we should have a bank holiday to celebrate. Bank holidays are excuses for shutting down most of the country's public transport, allowing banks to take even longer over processing cheques and other transfer payments, and filling the television schedules with cheap trash. I am all in favour of more time off for the toiling masses. But the requirement that they all take a holiday on the same day - at the behest of central government - is one form of collectivism that we can do without.

Level the playing fields

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has got many things wrong, but on school sport, for which he proposes to cut ring-fenced funding, he is right. The idea that education should include games dates back to the 19th-century public schools, which needed an outlet for the energies and passions of boisterous youths that would stop them rioting against the teachers and roasting each other over fires.

In most other European countries, children join community sports clubs that cater for all sports, all levels of ability and all ages. They find their own levels of performance and commitment, free from the rigidities of school time­tables and age-group organisation. Those who do not want to play competitive team games, or aren't very good at them, are spared the boredom and humiliation. These playing fields aren't just used in term times and these European countries generally seem to have fitter populations and more successful international sports teams than we do.

You cannot be serious

The coalition was due, before the end of this year, to publish a white paper setting out its ­detailed plans for Britain's future economic growth. According to the Financial Times, however, it has been dropped because "the government did not have enough serious content to warrant a white paper". I think that just about sums things up.

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

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 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

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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.