22 July 2021
A report without a heart.
By John Watson
There is something rather unattractive about an academic knife fight and it is a great pity that the authors of the Runnymede Trust’s report Civil Society Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination should have allowed their dislike of the government to spill over into the trashing of the recent report by the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities “which concluded that Britain was not ‘deliberately rigged’ against BAME people”, saying that: “This conclusion misrepresents the scale and complexity of the issues” and later that “The report selects alternative explanations, including geography and socioeconomic status, but also culture, language and family issues, to obviate the need to consider institutional racism as the underlying cause”.
Take these passages in turn and the allegations are stark: a Britain which is “deliberately rigged” against BAME people. Who is doing this deliberate rigging? The Queen? Boris Johnson? One of the political parties? The Church of England? Some hidden Dr Evil, lurking in the cellars beneath Whitehall? Whoever they are, these deliberate riggers, these pourers of the sweet milk of concord into hell, must be pretty awful people. Influential too or the rigging would hardly be successful and I suppose there must be quite a lot of them. The average reader of the Shaw Sheet must know one or two. I must have another look at my Christmas card list.
Then there are those other villains, of course, who deliberately skewed the government report. Why did they do so? The authors of the report were almost all from minority communities. Were they bribed? Is there some form of treachery at work? Will they all get peerages?
Of course it is all piffle. The authors of the two reports are simply groups of people who disagree with each other in relation to a difficult and sensitive area. There is no more to it than that, but, because the Runnymede report opens in the way it does, it is right to look at it rather carefully and some of it does not stand up particularly well. Take the passage on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill with its recommendation, with which I may say I agree, that the enhanced powers for the police be removed. Why is it that the reasoning running up to it focuses on the removal of monetary value as a criterion for the offence of destroying or damaging a memorial rather than explaining how police powers are being extended? Sloppy, you might think, and the overuse of the catchall term BAME falls into the same category.
But what is more disappointing is the lack of a centre. The report sets out, no doubt correctly, many examples of where minority communities are getting a raw deal from society but it does not ask the question “why” and understanding that is key to making things better. If we raise our eyes from the detail for a moment we have to ask the question of what we want things to look like in 20 years time. Most of us would probably answer it in the same way and there are two limbs to that answer. The first is that we would like race hate and racist abuse to be a thing of the past. We will not achieve that completely because those who feel they have failed in society normally try to find someone they can despise and the fact that people of different races look different makes them an easy target. That being said, racial taunts are increasingly viewed as unacceptable and that, combined with restrictions on internet anonymity, will hopefully suppress the worst of this sort of behaviour.
The second limb is that we would like race to cease to be a defining factor in the opportunities available to a citizens and this, at the end of the day, is very much a question of combining the various cultures into a common stream so that members of different communities trust and understand each other better.
Let’s take an example and assume that you, dear reader, propose to set up a business venture which requires three people to run it. You are in the process of choosing the other two and, since you will be placing considerable reliance on them, you will choose partners whose conduct you believe to be predictable. In other words they must be people you believe you understand. Of course that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be from the same racial background, or the same class, or the same sex or have similar names to you – I had a cousin who went into manufacturing with a partner on the basis that they had the same unusual surname and it was a disaster – but it does mean that you are likely to choose people who at least in some respects are like you. That is why the appointment to boards often reinforces their biases and it also explains why some people seem unaffected by racial stereotyping. If Mr Javid were to lead the Conservative party or Sadiq Khan to lead Labour, no one would be interested in their racial background because they communicate in a manner which most of the electorate understands and so become predictable.
The key to opening up opportunity to minorities is to ensure that they are well equipped to communicate, and I am not just talking about language here but about common culture, assumptions and comprehension of nuances, with the establishment and our success or failure in producing an integrated country will depend on how well our education system manages to achieve that. There is no reason, of course, why people should not keep their ancestral traditions and religions alive, and most of us would think the more of them from doing so, but in terms of integration that must be a supplement to the main theme. Ensure that they are equipped to participate in the mainstream culture and they will get the same opportunities as the rest of the population. It is really just as simple as that.