Gaddafi plays a straight bat, Murdoch bowls a bouncer

How the Libyan leader went by the rule book, how Rupert may get his way, and how coming out may play

Let us look into the mind of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator thought that provided he gave British firms construction contracts, allowed access to oil and joined the "war on terror", our politicians would be his friends. Like several other Middle Eastern tyrants, he imprisoned, tortured and murdered his opponents. But that has always been permissible as long as the opponents are called Islamists.

So, Gaddafi reasons, if his people are in revolt, he need only say they've all suddenly become Islamists, or, if they're not Islamists, al-Qaeda must have drugged them. Shooting and bombing the rebels is, to borrow a familiar phrase, "the right thing to do". After all, the west did a great deal of bombing and shooting when it detected Islamists in Afghanistan and decided Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda. Only the other day, Iraqi security forces, on behalf of a government that the west created, shot unarmed demonstrators and killed 29 people without a peep of protest from British politicians. They must have been Islamists, too.

What is the poor man's reward for following the rule book so carefully? Not only is he told by David Cameron to "go now", he also gets a nagging phone call from his old mucker Tony Blair, telling him to "step back, stop this constant boxing in of yourself, this sort of last-stand mentality". Peter Mandelson seems to have lost the phone number for his friend Saif Gaddafi, the dictator's son, but, he tells Andrew Marr on the BBC, if he'd had "a couple of minutes" on the blower, he would have explained to Saif that he had been "very clumsy and ham-fisted". Which, I suppose, is one way of putting it.

The Gaddafis must be baffled. What have they done wrong? The whole family may be mad - but their logic is impeccable.

Victory for votes

One would hope that, given their record in the Middle East and the distrust in which they are held among Muslims, western politicians might find this a good moment to shut up and attend quietly to their fiscal deficits. But no, they threaten unspecified forms of military intervention in Libya. It is not, readers will appreciate, in my nature to be cynical. But one is bound to note that Barack Obama faces an election campaign next year while Cameron, as cuts hit home, is likely to experience levels of public unpopularity similar to those recorded for Margaret Thatcher before Argentina invaded the Falklands. Lest we forget, approval ratings for Thatcher's government were below 30 per cent for 18 months before the Falklands war. After victory, they stayed above 40 per cent for two years.

Rupert and friends

Any day now, we are likely to hear that once again Rupert Murdoch has got his way. Reports suggest he has agreed to hive off Sky News into a trust, which will be financed by his News Corp but independent of it. That should allow him to take full control of BSkyB without reference to the Competition Commission.

There are two problems. First, what "independent" means to Murdoch isn't what it means to most of us. If the trust structure stops him or his children talking directly to Sky News editors, he will bend the ears of the trust members themselves and, if they are not attentive, remind them where the money comes from.

Second, he will still be able to bundle up subscriptions to his newspapers with subscriptions to Sky. Though the proposed BSkyB deal would nominally maintain plurality of news provision, it would allow him to strengthen his dominance in the newspaper market.

Coalition ministers will not bother about that. They want to resume their cosy relationship with Murdoch, whereby he tells them what
to do and they can rely on his papers for pro-government propaganda.

Another Hamster's wheels

The most dangerous man in the government - in the sense that his actions may lead to deaths and injuries - is Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary. Immediately on taking office, he announced an end to the "war on motorists" and stopped financing speed cameras. The AA accused him of creating "a road-safety policy void" but Hammond has a clear policy, which is to reduce safety. In a Sunday Times interview, he says he will be doing "a pretty rigorous cost-benefit analysis" on the motorway speed limit and will probably increase it to 80mph. In other words, we can tolerate a few more deaths if higher speeds contribute to "efficiency". We may as well have the other Hammond as transport minister - the one who presents the BBC's Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson.

Gay for play

I shall watch the progress of the Surrey and England cricketer Steven Davies, who has come out as gay, with interest. A few years ago, Davies, now 24, was regarded as the most outstanding wicketkeeper-batsman of his generation. But he has played only 13 matches for England so far (none of them Tests) and, earmarked to open the batting in the current World Cup, was abruptly jettisoned from the one-day team before it began.
We are assured that Davies's sexuality had nothing to do with his omission. Equally, we are told cricket is free of racism. I don't doubt the good intentions of cricket's players and coaches in either case. Yet, in the past 40 years, Nasser Hussain and, briefly, Monty Panesar were the only non-white players who established a regular place in the England team, being easily outnumbered by exiled white South Africans including Matt Prior, who replaced Davies in the World Cup party. Somehow, non-whites never seemed sufficiently comfortable with England to perform at their best. I hope Davies and other gay players fare better.

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 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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.