By Sunder Katwala
British Future thinktank
“ACTION this day!” became Winston Churchill’s Second World War watchword. So he might have been looking down quizzically as his successor Boris Johnson announced a new cross-government commission to look at all aspects of inequality, in an article pledging “to resist with every breath of my body” any attempt to remove Churchill’s statue from Parliament Square.
Almost nobody wants to remove the statue of the prime minister who defeated fascism. My own Twitter experiment – canvassing ethnic minority opinion in particular – heard from just two people who would like the statue to go among almost 100 who would keep it.
After the phoney war of Churchill’s statue, we need to address “the substance, not the symbols”, as Johnson put it. But the charge against “yet another review” was led by Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy, who told the BBC’s Today programme that it was a plan concocted on the “back of a fag packet”. Why not implement hundreds of recommendations from “countless” previous reviews, Lammy asked, citing his own 2017 work on criminal justice.
Action, not words, is always a resonant slogan. But dismissing the new commission would be a mistake for those campaigning to keep race equality on the agenda. It offers a route to achieve that goal, especially to sustain the policy salience of race once the headlines move on.
This government will soon be juggling the battle to contain Covid, get out of lockdown, mitigate the deep post-pandemic recession and navigate the return of Brexit too. The bandwidth of ministers and officials has rarely been more stretched. Former chancellor Sajid Javid argued that only prime ministerial ownership could secure attention across Whitehall for large-scale, systemic changes that cuts across government departments, while warning that “shining a light on injustices isn’t enough without an action plan to tackle them”.
Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May did put race on the domestic agenda. Her race disparity audit was a more comprehensive study of opportunity and disadvantage than any other major democracy has undertaken. Yet it ran out of steam, having promised that “Explain or Change” action plans would cascade across Whitehall departments. Without the Covid pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests, the race audit was set to become an abandoned orphan child of the May administration. So Johnson’s commission has the data as a platform to build on quickly, if it does not choose to reinvent the wheel.
Both left and right underestimate the value of the race data. The left has an excessively fatalistic narrative, that nothing ever changes on race inequality, as if half a century of race advocacy and policy had achieved almost nothing. The right has the opposite challenge – celebrating past progress won’t bridge the generational gulf on race without a clear agenda for how the “levelling up” vision will break down the barriers to meritocracy.
Will the opportunity to act get lost in the “culture war”? The ugly counter-protests from violent thugs and the state of online debate suggest a country highly polarised by race – yet new research from Ipsos-Mori shows how much of a distortion this is. The decline of overt racism means that just three per cent of people now think you must be white to be truly British, but 93 per cent disagree. There is scepticism about whether public services yet treat black and Asian people equally. Widespread concern about current racial tensions is married with a grounded optimism about the next decade on race – a view that rarely gets a hearing, even though seven out of 10 people share it, across the majority and minority populations.
So what action can unlock that common ground?
First, the government needs to show where it can act ahead of this commission process. It will mark “Windrush Day” next Monday (22), the anniversary of the ship’s arrival. The Home Office has promises to keep in implementing Wendy Williams review: it should make progress this week. Action on Covid-19 ethnic disparities can’t wait until Christmas either.
Second, the commission will need to prioritise. Opportunities for young people would be a good issue on which to focus. The aggregate white/minority gap in educational attainment has closed, with a complex pattern across groups. Non-white Britons are slightly more likely to have a degree than their white British peers. Ethnic opportunity gaps in the workplace – such as differential interview rates – need to come under pressure.
Third, race equality must reach the top of every site of economic, cultural and political power. Westminster is much more diverse than a decade ago, yet diversity has flatlined in Britain’s boardrooms: almost none is as diverse as the cabinet. Indeed, a third of FTSE 100 companies and six out of 10 FTSE 350 companies still have all-white boards. The black presence is absurdly miniscule, so corporates tweeting the Black Lives Matter hashtag need to turn symbolic support into real change.
Action this day should be a rule beyond government too.