Since the issue of race is invariably controversial and induces strong emotions, conversations about it are often heated and difficult. Britain is no exception in dealing with problems of racial disharmony. In some of its local communities historic racism continues to create resentment and mistrust. So perhaps it is unsurprising there has been a strong reaction, mainly from the Left, to last week’s landmark report by Britain’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. This is because the report challenges established orthodoxy on race with its main finding that, although racism and prejudice still exists, there is no evidence that the fabric of the UK is gripped by institutional or structural racism.
The comprehensive 258-page report, which has been nearly a year in the making, has stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism and conflicting views. In today’s open society, these opinions need to be heard. But many people are now asking whether such vocal opposition to this major review - and disagreement with its conclusions - can be justified.
The 11-member commission was set up last summer by Prime Minister Boris Johnson following the protests by the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in May. It was composed of experienced individuals of high standing in various walks of life. They included a space scientist, a surgeon, a police officer, an economist and a teacher, and all but one were from an African, Asian or Caribbean background. The head of the commission, Dr Tony Sewell CBE, is described as a person of originality, insight and principle. He is known for founding a charity promoting academic excellence for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and is himself of Caribbean descent.
Thus, there was an expectation the commission would produce a fair and balanced report that would provide a basis for a new, informed and reasoned debate about race. But, even though its work is seen by many as an important insight in to today’s multi-racial Britain, already hopes of such a debate have been prematurely dashed by the Left’s immediate condemnation of the report’s findings.
The overall conclusion of what has been regarded as a well-reasoned study is that in Britain the system is no longer deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities; but there are 24 detailed and practical recommendations, including strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission to enable it to challenge more effectively policies or practices that cause significant and unjust racial disadvantage or discrimination.
The report states that, although there is some time to go before a proper “post-racial society” is built, the UK stands “like a beacon to the rest of Europe and to the world” in the way it has worked with racial issues in a white-majority country. At the same time, the report admits racism remains a “real force” in the country and more must be done to tackle it. But too often this is used as a “catch-all explanation” for poor life chances - and, to quote from the foreword to the report: “the evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have a more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism”.
The report goes on to say there is a need to recognise the progress made over the past 50 years or so in breaking down barriers and ending racial inequalities so that race is not an obstacle to advancement. This is shown by growing diversity in the professions and the “emphatic success story” in education with children from ethnic minorities outperforming their white peers; and people should not lose sight of the significance of two senior members of Mr Johnson’s current Cabinet, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary, being the offspring of migrants.
Critics say that, even if racism is indeed less prevalent, it should still be viewed as a pressing problem. Some activists regard the report as patronising, historically illiterate and that it “sweeps the history of slavery under the table”. They add proper attention has not been paid to the reality of everyday life in Britain, when minorities are still discriminated against, black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched by the police and large numbers are suffering inequality in education, health, housing and the work place.
But what should constitute robust debate has already deteriorated into abuse and vilification of the authors of the report – including death threats – so that some critics are being accused of being professional agitators who want to foment division and promote the racial grievance industry for political ends.
As to the future, the report will undoubtedly lead to further discussion of this important issue, and that is presumably what the government wanted. There is clearly a need to stop the sense of victimhood - together with what has been called a “fatalistic narrative that says the deck is permanently stacked” against minorities - but at the same time to build on the progress already achieved in stamping out existing racism and discrimination. That said, among the general public there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the UK has become a more open and fairer society – and I, for one, often wonder why, if Britain is supposed to be a place of such racist turmoil, so many people want to settle there. A provocative thought, perhaps, but one that others also ponder upon!
Thank Heaven for small mercies
People often wonder what attracts people to politics and what motivates them to serve as Members of Parliament - and, after seeing photographs in The Tribune of the PLP candidates at the party’s ratification meeting two weeks ago, I started thinking about this again.
In Britain, the evidence suggests that, while some may seek to enrich themselves personally, others are driven by a desire to control public resources and, by contributing to legislation, to be in charge of events and the lives of others. Some might also be interested in good governance and protecting the interests of their own constituents. As such, they may be genuinely concerned about equality and social justice and be open-minded and caring individuals who are sincerely committed to helping others over and above their own interests.
It is often said that at local government level, in particular, individuals with a deep-rooted connection to their community want to make a difference by bringing about positive changes for the benefit of all. While they might do this to fulfil a need to serve others, they may also want to satisfy an urge for personal power and a craving for the acclaim and recognition of those around them.
In the top tier of politics covering the whole country, ambition to seek high political office may also drive MPs forward, together with a genuine wish to protect their notion of the national interest. At that level, the work of politicians can be a thankless task. They are constantly at the beck and call of their constituents and are under constant scrutiny by the national press and by people more widely. Moreover, the public all too often regard MPs as self-interested and unprincipled and as being primarily concerned about their re-election prospects. Whether or not that is the case, at least people know that one virtue of democracy is that MPs are accountable to the electorate at regular intervals.
Compare that with many other countries around the world where political unrest and disorder, often driven by the tyranny of dictatorship, seem to be gathering strength. For example, Russia’s treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is reminiscent of Stalin’s worst excesses while its build-up of military forces on the Ukrainian border constitutes a new threat to the West. A national vote in 2020 gave Vladimir Putin the right to remain president until 2036, so he is likely to be around for a long time.
Think also of Xi Jinping of China who consolidated his power when the two-term limit on the presidency was removed in 2018 thus allowing him to remain in office as president for life. Consider, too, the so-called phoney democracies in the world like – to name just a couple – Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s grip on the country lasted for nearly 40 years, and Uganda, with President Museveni in power since 1986 and still going strong. Then there are trouble spots like Yemen and Ethiopia, the recent attacks by ISIS militants in northern Mozambique and the conflict in Myanmar which is now on the brink of civil war, together with - nearer home - what amounts to a socialist dictatorship in neighbouring Venezuela.
In light of all this, there is even more reason to be grateful for the peaceful and stable way of life enjoyed here at home. Despite poverty and the harsh effects of the COVID-19 virus – on the economy and in so many other ways – the country remains on the whole a relatively tranquil and ordered society to which newly-elected MPs will in due course surely make their own contribution.
To quote yet another example of prescient wisdom from George Orwell: “No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not an end, it is a means”. But at least in our system of a Westminster parliamentary democracy there is an opportunity every five years to endorse or change those in power – and the people of any democratic country need to protect that because it is their insurance against tyranny and dictatorship.
Finns can only get better
Recently, I happened to find on the internet the 2021 World Happiness Report, published under the auspices of the UN, which seems to have had little coverage in the media. According to its website, the report focused this year on the effects of COVID-19; and, for the fourth time in a row, Finland was found to be the happiest country in the world.
As far as I can see, surveys ask people to list their satisfaction with a range of so-called life factors that bring them a sense of well-being -- varying from the availability of food, shelter and transport to work conditions, education and the environment.
I do not pretend to have studied this report in any depth, but I cannot help thinking that “happiness” in this context is a bit of a misnomer. Throughout history, people have tried to explain the meaning and the art of happiness which is seen as the ultimate goal that gives meaning and purpose to life. They have found, generally, that it means different things to different people. But it is clear that philosophers agree that true happiness stems from a quality within people -- and from a way of looking at life -- rather than from external stimulus in the shape of material success, pleasures or possessions. So, they argue, a person can have a feeling of well-being without necessarily feeling happy in a deeper sense.
Of course, no one should underestimate the often severe effects of physical and mental illness together with the pain of grief and loss in the shape of bereavement, personal rejection and disappointment. It has been said so often that the price of love is grief and the challenge is how to react to personal loss - as the philosophers say, all too often people cannot control what is thrown at them in life but they can choose how to react to tragedy, loss and damage inflicted on them.
This is not the place to explore such a profound issue. But personal responsibility and accountability are surely important. So is it not the case that the remedy for restoring happiness and contentment beyond a simple sense of well-being is often in our own hands? As Abraham Lincoln, perhaps America’s greatest president, is quoted as saying: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”.