What is there to say about Tony Sewell, the charity boss appointed to lead the government’s new commission on racial inequality?
Sewell’s appointment has been criticised in part because of some of his past remarks – he has expressed scepticism that institutional racism exists, and since being appointed has had to apologise for an article he wrote in the 1990s in which he said that “we heteros are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets”.
To be blunt, I don’t much care what Sewell has said in the past. He could be on the record saying that the single most effective way to end racism in the United Kingdom would be to buy me a nice big house in central London and I would still be dubious about the point of his commission.
The biggest question for him and Downing Street is: what was wrong with the three reports commissioned by Theresa May on these issues? As home secretary, May commissioned a lengthy report into deaths in police custody that has largely not been implemented. She commissioned a report by David Lammy into inequalities in the criminal justice system that has largely been left unimplemented. And, most usefully of all any my view, she commissioned an audit into all the various inequalities that plague modern Britain.
Frankly, there are few issues of race and inequality in public life where a willing government doesn’t have a useful inheritance of data and analysis from the reports commissioned by May.
The picture revealed in the reports is complex. You are more likely to die in police custody if you are white – but a disproportionate number of black people that die in custody have done so following the use of force, and people with mental health difficulties are the most overrepresented group of all.
The ethnic demographics that do the worst in the United Kingdom are people from the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities. Black Britons from the African continent do significantly better than the national average – but black Britons from the Caribbean and white working-class Brits do worse.
You can argue for a wide range of political and policy approaches to fix the problems uncovered by Theresa May. This is a good thing: politics can’t be wholly replaced by number-crunching and by commissions. Political divides and ideological divisions over how to tackle various problems still exist. The value of May’s reports is that they ought to strengthen the proposals about what comes next by grounding them in reality. And they ought to be the beginning of a better and more fruitful conversation about inequality in the UK.
If you think that the primary issues are about strong male role models and stable home lives, you can construct a perfectly sensible data-led argument from Theresa May’s reports. If you think the primary issue is of white supremacy, and that poor white Brits are given a “raced” identity, you can do the same. If you think the problems are about low cultural capital and can be solved with strong teaching and school discipline, you can construct a perfectly sensible data-led argument from Theresa May’s reports. If you think that the primary problems are of class and socio-economic deprivation, or if you want to argue that it is a combination of some, or all, of the above – guess what, you can do it from the reports.
The one thing you can’t really argue is that the UK needs another commission on inequality. The new commission has a brief to take witnesses and commission evidence in order to generate proposals, “building on” the work of the racial disparity unit. But some of its objectives raise questions that May’s reports have already answered, for instance in probing how high a sense of belonging is in both a local neighbourhood and the country as a whole. The commission’s terms of reference would make sense if May’s reports, particularly the disparity audit (none of the other reports are mentioned at all), had focused on setting out questions. But the precise value of May’s reports is they did not do this: they were extensive exercises in data collection and data-mapping. It is also not clear why the new commission has a narrower remit than May’s report. There are arguments for doing this (I personally think it should be as broad as possible in order to uncover the various overlapping issues and not to prejudge its findings) but the government has not made them, and given a golden thread running through May’s reports was that these issues are not simple or easily split from one another, this also seems like a backward step.
The time now is for a government in possession of a stable majority, at least on paper, to decide what it believes the causes of these inequalities are, not commission a Xerox report.
So why have we ended up with one?
I suspect it comes back to the foundational myth of this new(ish) Conservative government: that they are the first and the smartest group of people to grapple with the country’s great problems. That’s why they talk a great deal about how they are going to reform the state like no one has ever done before – and then commission a report from management consultants, like successive British governments have done since the year dot. They talk about closing the gap between north and south using innovative solutions, and then propose something that looks an awful lot like Tony Blair’s regional development agencies.
I highly doubt that anyone in a position of power in the government could explain what they expect the Sewell commission to uncover or add to our understanding of inequality in the United Kingdom that is not in May’s reports. This is not least because I highly doubt anyone in a position of power in the government has read any of these reports, because to do so would be to entertain the idea that maybe not every previous government was blundering around in the dark.
The solution, of course, to the idea that everyone else was blundering is for the government, again, to recruit someone to do the same job as before, but in its own ideological image and from a relatively narrow social pool: the big problem with Sewell isn’t that he has praised Rod Liddle, but that he prefaced his defence of Liddle with the words “my good friend”.
And those blind spots are a far bigger problem for the prospects of confronting, let alone changing, any of the inequalities in the UK than anything Sewell has said or written.