Two cheers for Saint David: race equality and conservative political rhetoric by Dr R David Muir

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Politicians are no strangers to charges of insincerity. Thankfully, they might feel smug in the knowledge that charges of hypocrisy or insincerity are not only reserved for them, but extend equally to other noble professions and to those in public life. But, every now and then, you hear a politician speak and your ears prick up. They say something that either infuriates you, or resonates with your ideals or cherished convictions. The latter was my experience, when I caught the second half of Prime Minster David Cameron’s speech at the 2015 Conservative Party Conference and, again, in his The Sunday Times article, Watch out universities; I’m bringing the fight for equality in Britain to you (31.01.16).

But then you think of the other times when they captured your attention, and you are still waiting for them to deliver on the rhetoric. Maybe they think that we have short memories, or that we suffer from political amnesia. Actually, we do.

At the party conference, the PM sounded almost prophetic, expressing a real understanding of ways in which discrimination affects Black people and other minorities. There was something Kingesque in this particular part of the speech, especially the careful repetition of the phrase, “Opportunity doesn’t mean much”.

OK, maybe that is taking it a bit too far, I hear those say who know a thing or two about the structure of King’s preaching style and the cadence of his oratorical structure. However, sections of Cameron’s speech did remind me a little of Martin Luther King’s castigation of White Christian leaders, who were either unwilling or unable to understand his impatience with racism and discrimination in America, as expressed in his ‘Letter from A Birmingham Jail’ in 1963.

So, what was it in the Prime Minister’s speech that resonated with me and arrested my attention? It was when he stated:

“We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally. Think about it like this: Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim, if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith. Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a Black person constantly stopped and searched by the police, because of the colour of their skin. Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a gay person, rejected for a job because of the person they love. It doesn’t mean much to a disabled person, prevented from doing what they’re good at because of who they are. I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them, if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender, rather than how good they are at their work.”

The rhetoric was brilliant, moving. I really wanted to believe that he sincerely believed what he was saying. I didn’t want to be cynical and see this as another bit of ‘politico-speak’ to appeal to BMEs, or to convince reluctant Black Pentecostals that it’s really safe to sign up to the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF).

In light of the conference speech, I was interested to read the PM’s article in The Sunday Times (30.01.16) on the same theme of equality, attacking universities and other public and private institutions for failing BME communities in the creation of his ‘One Nation’ ideal. Again, the sentiment and rhetoric of his 2015 conference speech is heard: “Consider this: If you are a Black man, you are more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university… There are no Black generals in our armed forces, and just 4% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are from ethnic minorities.” Of course, there is recognition that we have come a long way since the “blatant racism of decades gone by”, but the fact of racial and other forms of discrimination should “shame our country and jolt us into action,” says Cameron. There is the standard criticism of the under-representation of Black students at Oxford (27 out of more than 2500 accepted in 2014), including his own Oxford University (Brasenose College) for not doing enough to “attract talent from across our country”.

So what are we to make of all this? Has the PM become the new and unsuspecting cheerleader for equality? Well, it’s too early to tell; rhetoric needs content, it needs to be embodied in policies, programmes and practices that actually benefit disadvantaged groups and individuals, otherwise we cease to listen or take our politicians seriously. We heard similar rhetoric from David Cameron before he became PM in 2010. In his piece in the Guardian (17.03.2010), he promised to change Black Britain. He was concerned with poverty in the Black community, the scandal of Black pupils’ exclusion from our schools, and the paucity of bank loans to BMEs wanting to start their own businesses. In short, we were promised that his Government would “tackle the racial barriers in Labour’s Britain”, and that the Conservatives would “bring new energy to the task of building a country where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, irrespective of the colour of their skin” (all that was needed here was a little dash of ‘content of character’ and you get faint echoes of MLK).

But it’s now nearly six years later, and we are still waiting to see real and substantial change in the lived experience and fortunes of Black Britain. As we pointed out, in the Black Church Political Mobilisation: a manifesto for action, racial discrimination is still rampant; the disproportionate number of BMEs in our prisons is a national scandal – the same is true in respect of stop and search and mental health. Actually, the PM is merely expressing what most BMEs know as an existential reality.

But let’s give the Prime Minister credit for publicly championing the cause of equality (and I’m particularly impressed with the constant reference to Oxford and Cambridge; there are the Russell Group Universities and other good universities that are making an effort to attract more Black students).

His appointment of David Lammy MP to lead “a review of the over-representation of Black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in the criminal system” is good, but long overdue. And his ‘2020 agenda’ for BME all sounds hopeful – he is making all the right noises. Tackling issues of race is not too dissimilar to those of class. And what George Orwell said about class should be borne in mind by those thinking seriously about race. According to Orwell, the curse of ‘class difference’ in Britain was much like a stonewall, as the plate glass pane of an aquarium: it is so easy to pretend it isn’t there, and so impossible to get through it.

I always thought that the 2010 promise to “change Black Britain” was a tall order. In fact, I genuinely don’t believe any Government can do that. They can help to set the framework for groups and individuals to flourish, by removing institutional, cultural and procedural impediments but, in the end, Black Britain will change and is changing, because Black people are doing it for themselves. I believe in the primacy of agency, in the unshakeable belief that individuals are, and can become, the agents of their own improvement – even against the odds.

I wish the PM well on his new crusade for equality; it is politically honourable and, if he pulls it off, he might be seen as a saint in some quarters. But politics is the ‘art of the possible’; it’s not the kind of work for saints. However, as King reminded us about legacy and how we would like to be remembered, it is true to say that David Cameron may not reach the dizzy heights of sainthood, but it would be quite an achievement for him to be seen, in King’s words, as a ‘drum major’ for racial equality.

David Cameron tells us: “You can’t have true opportunity without real equality”. Who would disagree with that?

Rev R David Muir Lecturer in Ministerial Theology and Co-Chair of the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF)

 

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