Imagine if a black MP argued that working-class kids should be taught with strict academic rigour. That fathers should play a more prominent role in the lives of their sons to curb the crisis of masculinity. What party would you think this black MP represents? The Conservative Party, you probably assume. But that would be wrong.
In an interview with the Guardian this week, Festus Akinbusoye, Britain’s only black police and crime commissioner and a Conservative, argued that “when you look more closely at the values of African and Caribbean communities, they actually align more with Conservative values than otherwise is [assumed]”. Although the article doesn’t explicitly spell out what he claims these values are, I think he means things like the importance of stable families, religiosity and a strong work ethic.
Such values do not, however, exclusively belong to the Tory party. Diane Abbott, the most prominent black Labour MP, is representative of some of them. In a Guardian column from 2013, for example, she argued that, “I get depressed when I hear educationalists arguing that working-class children should not be expected to study anything they don’t initially enjoy.” Abbott brings up her own experience as the child of working-class parents who immigrated to Britain from Jamaica: “I did not enjoy learning strings of irregular verbs and Latin grammar. But it helped me understand writing and literature, which has not only given me a lifetime of pleasure but has also been a retreat from the world in times of trouble.”
For Abbott, academic rigour is not against the interests of working-class kids. In fact, to her they need it more than kids from affluent families. Richer families not only have the wealth to stock their home with books, but the social connections to give their kids advantages in the hard scramble for work. Abbott sent her own son to a private school to give him the very best opportunities. She also believes in the importance of fathers to the wellbeing of boys. In a speech in May 2013 for the think tank Demos, Abbott argued that our culture was becoming increasingly “pornified”, and that this was having an adverse effect on the behaviour of young men. Young men needed male role models, and she advocated for, among other things, father-friendly parenting classes and better parental leave for fathers.
David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary and another prominent Labour politician, has also frequently emphasised the importance of fathers to the success of boys. In his 2011 book, Out of the Ashes, he even argues that absent fathers are one factor that explains why many young men get involved in violent crime.
Akinbusoye is also wrong in a more profound sense. The black British population is too diverse to meaningfully invest them all with the same values. Proportionally, black British people are more likely, for instance, to be religious than the general population. But I am wary of any talk of “black British values” because I don’t think black people who do not subscribe to such purported values are any less black.
What values would a young, gay, atheist black man of Jamaican descent, for example, share with a devoutly Muslim, middle-aged British-Somali woman? On social and cultural matters, I would imagine very little, but neither of them are any less or any more black than the other.
Small-C conservative values do not inherently belong to any one political party. And the black British population may, in general, espouse certain conservative beliefs, but this doesn’t transform such beliefs into “black values”. Ideas exist on a continuum; they shouldn’t be sealed off from each other.