18 March 2022

Let’s avoid pointless polarisation and work towards a truly inclusive Britain


Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch has good reasons to believe in the opportunities of Britain. Though born in London, Badenoch was schooled mainly in Nigeria, returning to Britain as a 16 year old. Her upward trajectory since reflects her individual talent, yet it is testimony to something more structural too. There are opportunities in this century for those with drive and talent, from the Black middle-classes at least, that were seldom available in the last.

When the teenage Badenoch returned to Britain in 1996, only one Black woman – Diane Abbott – had ever been elected to the House of Commons in its long history. Today Badenoch is among 39 Black and Asian women in the House of Commons. This rising share of ethnic minority voice and power across both left and right has contributed to a more sharply contested political debate about race. But today’s arguments about what still needs to change on race are also the product of the rising expectations of the British-born generations.

Polarisation can go too far. The debate sparked by last year’s Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities as a textbook case of how not to talk about race if you want the conversation to go somewhere. Both the government and its critics embarked on mutual recriminations over the perceived bad faith of their political opponents, each accusing the other side of ignoring the evidence, either about the progress made in Britain or the persistent discrimination that remains. A depressingly binary public argument often crowded out the nuanced reality when the story of opportunity and outcomes on race has never been more complex – not just across ethnic groups, but by age and education, geography and gender within them.

Almost entirely overlooked was any discussion of the Commission’s 24 policy recommendations, despite many of them being much more consensual than the framing and communication of the report.

Inclusive Britain, released by the Government this week, largely defends the Sewell Commission’s analysis. Yet with its emphasis on the action plan, it offers the opportunity to attempt a more constructive public conversation about the state of the nation on race – and, especially, what can be done about it.

Substantive disagreements remain about the relative weighting of the socio-economic and the cultural, the individual and the structural. The report recognises the need for change in many institutions: such as levels of ethnic diversity in the police coming closer to reflecting the public that they serve, and tackling online harms. It also acknowledges the need to ‘remove personal and structural barriers which block the way” to equal opportunities, while continuing to argue that that there has been an over-emphasis on structural factors. That case fits the evidence better in some policy areas than in others. The CV discrimination evidence that ethnic names still cost candidates job interviews, compared to similarly qualified candidates, is the clearest proof that the challenge of eliminating discrimination, witting or unwitting, remains a work in progress.

There is a particular opportunity in the pledge that our school curriculum should help students of all backgrounds understand their stake in Britain’s history and how it helped shape the multi-ethnic society we share today. Arguments about statues have given the impression of an appetite for a British culture war over history. Ironically, the idea of an inclusive curriculum that deals with the history of race and Empire, including its complexity and controversies, is the proposal that commands the broadest inter-ethnic consensus in British Future’s research.

The report’s 74 recommendations often resemble the policy agendas of the New Labour and the Cameron era, including in its faith in data-driven analysis to drive policy change. This moderate and incremental programme of change, often summarising work already in progress across government, could be challenged for being too gradual. Labour has committed to a Race Equality Act, though it has yet to reveal much of what would be in it. Doing so would be one way to take forward the policy argument about how to narrow the gaps that remain.

The Government’s plan is still missing some important foundations of a strategy for race and inclusion. The foreword to Inclusive Britain declares its commitment to tackle prejudice (‘No exceptions. No excuses’) and the Government has been a laudably vigorous opponent of antisemitism. It has not, however, made any progress on proposing a definition for anti-Muslim prejudice, having apparently forgotten its commitment to embark on that process three years ago.

Driving change on race and fairness is not a matter for government alone. National politics may itself be an outrider: newsrooms and liberal universities, for example, still have much more to do. This week’s Parker Review showed the FTSE 100 picking up the pace on ethnic diversity in the boardroom, though with less progress in executive roles. Somehow, national charities lag embarrassingly and anxiously behind both the private and public sector, having failed to make similar timetabled, public commitments to change.

Arguments about how we talk about race will continue. The Government will talk about ‘people from ethnic minority backgrounds’ when it needs to talk about this group as a whole, rather than using the BAME acronym, which few will miss or mourn.

Talking about ‘white privilege’ is even more polarising. It has resonance with most ethnic minority Britons, but it is also language which invariably triggers a conflict between the hard-pressed – suggesting the argument is about race versus class – making it harder to build coalitions for change and mutual solidarity. So British Future’s polling across minority and majority groups finds that any other way of making the argument about the challenges faced by minorities, omitting the word ‘privilege’, is much more successful in moving hearts and minds.

The culture war skirmishes are never going to entirely stop, even if both left and right seem convinced that it is the other side that starts them. Tony Sewell was stripped of an honorary degree this week, as if he were a disgraced Russian oligarch: whatever the flaws of his report, that seems an odd way to punish an effort at public service. But if we could resist emulating the American example of an ever more heated argument about race, we could attempt to unlock the common ground on how to do more about it.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.