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Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.
The membership of the Government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities represents a significant evolution in the story of race in this country – and in the Conservative Party in particular.
Tories have been frightened of their own shadow on race for many decades. Modernisers feared that too many of their own members were still really Powellites at heart. Frightened that they didn’t speak the modern language of diversity and multiculturalism well enough (partly because minority voters mainly lived in Labour seats). Frightened that too few minorities voted for them, and they didn’t know how to make themselves more politically attractive to them.
One result of these fears is that the party has been unable to take the initiative on such issues, or dared to have its own views, and has allowed itself to be painted as deaf to the concerns of ethnic minorities. So as the country’s ethnic minority population has grown, and issues relating to diversity have become a more mainstream political subject, the Conservative Party has found itself, in recent years, turning for affirmation on such matters to exponents of the leftish-inclined, race relations orthodoxy.
It was Conservative ministers who appointed David Lammy to oversee a review of racial bias in the criminal justice system. It was Conservative ministers who appointed race campaigner Simon Woolley to chair the Race Disparity Unit, and also made him a peer.
This meant that Conservative policy ended up being a less strident version of Labour views on race: that Britain suffers from severe systemic racism; that things have barely improved over the past 30 years, with prejudice and discrimination merely becoming more subtle, and any departure from the proportional representation of minorities can only be explained by white discrimination.
This failure to think for itself on race meant that the Tories ended up ignoring a growing body of ethnic minority opinion that rejected large parts of the standard racism narrative.
Yet as the ethnic minority educated middle class has grown in recent decades, it has inevitably become more intellectually and politically heterogenous. The overwhelming majority of minority voters still lean left and accept the standard narrative on race but, as in America, a dissident minority has started to find its voice.
Some of the leading dissidents wrote for a special “rethinking race” issue of Prospect magazine in 2010 — including Munira Mirza, an academic who worked in the arts, and who served as a Deputy Mayor of London; Tony Sewell, Managing Director at Generating Genius; and Swaran Singh, Professor of Social and Community Psychiatry at the University of Warwick, and a former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Several, including Mirza, Sewell and Trevor Phillips, have worked for the Policy Exchange think tank.
It has often been noted that many ethnic minority voters have small-c conservative values: hard work and aspiration (symbolised by the shopkeepers from a variety of Asian backgrounds whose children go to university and become medical consultants); a belief in the centrality of family; parental authority; and, often, a rejection of liberal secularism.
Yet negative associations with the Conservative Party’s past ambivalence about multi-ethnic Britain and Labour’s happy embrace of it meant that those small-c values did not translate into voting Tory. There was a small upward blip in the minority Tory vote in 2015, though much of that progress was wiped out in 2017.
Nevertheless, in recent months, thanks in part to the new Government elected last December, the Conservative Party has evidently started to think for itself on these matters, and those dissident minority voices have been invited in from the cold.
The fact that the Cabinet has more non-white figures in senior positions than any before in British history, that Kemi Badenoch is an effective Equalities Minister, and that Number Ten has minorities in several key positions – above all, Munira Mirza as Head of the Policy Unit – has given this Government a confidence and moral authority on these issues lacking by previous Tory governments.
There was an interesting skirmish between the different strands of minority opinion over how to respond to the fact that Covid-19 was disproportionately hitting minorities. Munira Mirza and Phillips were on to the Covid-19 trend as soon as it emerged and were keen to monitor it closely and to set up an official investigation. Sayeeda Warsi and Simon Woolley, representing more conventional thinking, wrote a piece in the Guardian essentially blaming poverty and discrimination for the Covid deaths.
Sewell, an educational reformer, has now been appointed to chair the commission on race and ethnic disparities. Moreover, the ten person commission is full of independent-minded people of minority background including some, such as Samir Shah and Mercy Muroki, who have actively spoken out against the dominant anti-racist left narrative. It is not an accident that Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist, is also on the commission. The intent is to put evidence before emotion.
After the anger, and often sectarian politics, stirred up by the Black Lives Matter moment, the appointments to this commission constitute a notable step change. The mainstream “structural racism” left will try to discredit it and the Guardian has already dug up some embarrassing quotes by Sewell from 30 years ago.
But the race dissidents are now too entrenched and too powerful to be easily scared. And they are themselves an interestingly mixed bunch both socially and ideologically. Many, such as Rishi Sunak or Kwasi Kwarteng or Kemi Badenoch, are capital-C Conservatives. Others such as Mirza and Phillips come from the left. There are younger voices emerging such as Remi Adekoya, Inaya Folarin Iman and Muroki.
What is perhaps most striking is that none of them owes their prominence purely to being race campaigners. Some like Sunak have prospered in the private sector, though he subsequently did write an influential portrait of modern Britain when working for Policy Exchange, focusing heavily on these issues. Mirza was a long time writer and analyst of these issues. Badenoch was a systems engineer, then a banker
None of them believe we live in a post-racist society. But they reject the critical race theory assumption that everything about a majority white society is racist unless proved otherwise. And most are sceptical of the notion of systemic or institutional racism and think Britain is more open than the standard narrative gives it credit for.
I think all would sign up to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous attack on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” towards minorities, and the way that the standard narrative removes responsibility and agency from ethnic minority individuals themselves – a consistent theme of Britain’s “strictest headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh. Along with that goes a certain suspicion of white “saviour” liberalism.
This group is now being heard in the media and in government, and is becoming organised and self-aware, learning from the Left on how to make their presence felt. These ethnic minority free thinkers will help to counter some of the excesses of BLM subjectivism and guide the country to a more mature debate about race and discrimination. The Government’s new commission might be seen in the future as signifying their formal arrival on the political scene.