A piece by Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, published online by the Telegraph last night:
After a decade of pointless Tory “equality” speeches, it’s rare to come across one that’s worth listening to. In her role as equalities minister, Liz Truss announced yesterday that it’s time for a counter-revolution: to move away from seeing everything through the prism of race, sexuality or gender and to start seeing inequality in all of its dimensions. So also looking at north vs south, rich vs poor, city vs country. This matters because, if the Tories get it right, it could add up to a new modernisation agenda to guide them through the wreckage of Covid and lockdown.
The plan has been building for some months, and it starts with an analysis of where the Tories have got things wrong. David Cameron had nothing to say on equalities: worse, he told his party not to oppose Harriet Harman’s Equality Act and adopted her agenda wholesale. Theresa May was no better, exaggerating police abuses of stop-and-search and even inviting David Lammy, one of Labour’s most energetic culture warriors, to lead a review into racial injustice in the courts. He found no evidence of discrimination, but still pretended otherwise.
The Tory way, it seemed, was to try and beat Labour at its own game. Cameron once announced it was a scandal how young black men in Britain are more likely to be in prison than at a good university. The problem was that his statistic was nonsense: whites are the demographic least likely to go to university. All this baffled his new MPs, many of whom were brought in as part of Cameron’s A-list but were deeply uncomfortable with what they saw as tokenistic, patronising language. “Our whole equalities agenda was driven by a feeling of Old Tory guilt,” one Conservative MP tells me. “They’d tell the non-white MPs what to say, rather than ask their opinion. The conversation is finally changing.”
It started to change when Boris Johnson was elected and brought in Munira Mirza as his policy chief. Her views on all this were outlined in a Spectator cover story attacking Mrs May’s equalities agenda. It’s possible to acknowledge that racism still exists, she said, “without turning its waning influence into the pretext for a bogus moral crusade”. She made the case for a rival approach – which now seems well under way. Ms Truss’s speech is the latest in a carefully planned Tory counter-attack.
Kemi Badenoch, Ms Truss’s deputy in the equalities brief, went viral on YouTube after a speech declaring “critical race theory” to be the new Tory enemy. This marked, in effect, the Tories joining a battle that they had spent 10 years running away from. She also denounced the rise of “unconscious bias training”, where employees are encouraged to think of ways in which they might be unknowingly bigoted. Julia Lopez, a Cabinet Office minister, announced this week that such “training” was to end in the civil service. It’s not just pointless, she said, but it reinforces damaging stereotypes.
This is the new Tory theme. To reject the old equalities agenda as the disease of which it purports to be the cure – promoting stereotypes, discrimination and division. It also means talking more warmly about Britain. Rishi Sunak told me recently that he’s in politics to repay the country that gave his family every chance in life – a country, he says, that thinks nothing of having a Hindu Chancellor placing Diwali lights on the steps of Downing Street. From any background, it’s not hard to see Britain as one of the best places in the world to live, he argues, if you look at the facts.
In her speech, Truss said her new equalities agenda would involve “facts, not fiction” – which will likely mean publication of studies to open a new conversation about race and culture. Why do those from Indian, Chinese and African backgrounds tend to do better than whites at school and on pay, while Bangladeshis and Caribbeans tend to do worse? The simplistic “BAME vs white” narrative has never stood up to scrutiny in Britain, but Tories have always shied away from applying that scrutiny. No longer. Truss says she’s setting up a new scrutiny unit, based in the north of England.
Which, of course, is her final point. Seeing equality the old way – denouncing discrimination where it really exists – but broadening the debate to take in the north-south divide, the white working class and other left-behind groups. This matters because Covid (and lockdown) will have just torn open inequalities that had been closing for a decade. Studies already show disadvantaged pupils in England are now 18 months behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. Almost a third of pupils applying for university say they had no contact with their school during lockdown. Will they ever be given support to make up this lost ground?
The coming wave of redundancies – already bigger than in the last crash – will hit men harder than women and the young harder than the old. Then comes the likely increase in family breakdown (Citizens Advice has reported a spike in divorce inquiries) and the health effects of isolation, especially on the elderly. These are all problems that have not been properly measured, but if Ms Truss’s new equality scrutiny unit can do the job, at least ministers will know where the damage is to fix. It would rejuvenate the idea of an equalities agenda, giving it an urgent and deeply practical relevance.
Tories tend to dislike talking in such language. Their “Equality Act” was the Academies Act, which did so much to liberalise schools and close attainment gaps. Welfare reform led to a jobs boom that lifted the earnings of those at the bottom faster than anyone’s over the last decade. But as far as I’m aware, not a single Tory minister has ever pointed this out. The party has always seemed blind to – or, at worst, disinterested in – its own social justice achievements. Too many Tories still see “progressive conservatism” as a contradiction in terms.
Ms Truss called her speech the new “fight for fairness”, something that will be needed more than ever after recent devastation. The economy may well make a speedy recovery, but those abandoned by their school will need the kind of help that won’t show up in GDP figures. All told, it’s the perfect time for the Conservatives to reclaim and revive the equalities agenda: there is all too much work to do.
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