In its essentials, this set of articles could have been published in the conservative press at any time over the last 20 years. It reflects anxieties amongst white people about so-called political correctness, and about measures introduced by central and local government over the years to make direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of ethnicity unlawful. In the normal way of things, the articles would not be worth commenting on. But for two reasons, note should be taken. First, it is unusual for a serious intellectual journal such as Prospect to give a platform to populist, ill-informed and unoriginal superficiality of this kind. Second, autumn 2010 is a significant time in the history of Britain's long journey towards a fairer society, for consultations are currently taking place about the specific duties to be introduced to support the Equality Act 2010. Even though unoriginal and shallow, there is a danger that the Prospect articles will strike a chord in circles close to the coalition government, and that the practical implementation of the new Act will in consequence be at best lukewarm, reluctant and fitful.
The Equality Act received royal assent on 8 April 2010 and about 90 per cent of it came into force on 1 October. It was the culmination of many years of cooperative deliberation and planning on the part of lawyers and third sector organisations working on issues relating to age, disability, gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual identity. It was steered through parliament by the Labour government but in all its most important aspects it received all-party support throughout. In the House of Lords, it was championed with huge articulacy and intellectual authority by the Liberal Democrats.
In its public utterances about the Act so far, the coalition government has emphasised the importance of transparency, of evidence-based planning and of measurable, outcome-focused objectives in each separate public body, for example every school, every local authority, every police force, every government department. 'Our proposals,' its consultation paper of August 2010 says, 'use the power of transparency to help public bodies to fulfil the aims of the equality duty to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different groups. This means that public bodies will be judged by citizens on the basis of clear information about the equality results they achieve
Transparency means public bodies being open about the information on which they base their decisions, about what they are seeking to achieve and about their results.'
These aspirations are in principle admirable, and entirely in accordance with the direction in which the previous administration was moving. Much will depend, though, on political will in central government; on the good will, knowledge and energy of leaders and managers in each separate public body; and on the capacity of citizens and their representative organisations to obtain, scrutinise interrogate and use the information which public bodies by law provide. The ungenerous, point-scoring and fearful articles in Prospect will do nothing to strengthen good will and embolden commitment in the places and spaces where they are most needed, and may on the contrary diminish and weaken confidence, hope and resolve.
To be fair, the articles contain one or two good points Tony Sewell's stress on empowering young people to take control of their own fate rather than wallow in a sense of victimhood, for example, and Sonya Dyer's references to commonalities in human experience explored through the arts. But overall, the articles are of very poor quality. They make no reference to the changing legal context of the last ten years, as mentioned above, and none to scholarly work on the intertwining of colour racism and cultural racism, or to the intertwining of both these main forms of prejudice with notions of, and anxieties about, national identity. It is extraordinary that they make no reference at all to anti-Muslim hostility throughout western societies, and to the urgent need to challenge and deal with it. Instead, they uncritically recycle silly little myths invented by the tabloid press, for example the absurd claim that children as young as three are reported to local councils for making racist remarks. The collection as a whole is very sad.
Robin Richardson is a director of the Insted consultancy and a former director of the Runnymede Trust.