We have grown used to politicians approaching the issue of ‘race’ in the context of immigration, crime, or the aftermath of a tragedy.
So it was enormously refreshing to hear Nick Clegg offer up a well-informed speech on the quest for true race equality, without a negative backdrop.
Delivering a Scarman Lecture on the 30th anniversary of the ground-breaking report into the 1981 Brixton riots, Clegg gave arguably the best speech on race equality by a Cabinet minister.
It was Liberal Democracy at its best, bravely shattering the conspiracy of silence on one of the biggest issues of the day – the scandal of the shockingly disproportionate outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
As I listened, the question of what took us so long was eclipsed by a swelling pride; this was what I always believed social liberalism was all about.
Stepping into the arena of race from a progressive standpoint is always going to attract a hail of brickbats from the right but the great Liberals of yesteryear always faced down the howls of reactionaries.
Clegg located the issue firmly in the context of our party’s tradition. He said:
The state-led, law-led approach can only take you part of the way. If you assume the state has all the answers, you absolve other parts of society from playing their part. You let businesses off the hook and you discourage activity in the wider community to support young, enterprising men and women from ethnic minorities too.
In focussing on economic injustice he touched on hidden factors, often invisible even to the victims, and shone a much-needed light on the subtle dynamics of racism in today’s society.
African-Caribbean unemployment is running at twice the rate of white unemployment. So few British-born people of colour sit in the top City boardrooms. So few would-be entrepreneurs are getting bank loans to start a new business.
Clegg’s speech demonstrated that Liberals can indeed shape a discourse that has hitherto been a depressing bun fight between Labour supporters and the forces of conservatism.
Too often Liberals have opted out of this debate, taking refuge in purist colour-blindness when all around is evidence of racial discrimination.
Clegg has shown we can have the confidence to propose solutions to succeed in challenging the casual racism which contributes to the hugely unfair outcomes and undermines justice in our whole society.
If we back our words up with far-reaching policies, Lib Dems can look back with pride in years to come and say: at the very time when the issue race equality was at its’ most unpopular, we took the mantle and made great inroads to making Britain a fairer place for people of colour.
What was notable about the first wave of attack, in the threads of online news stories, was how inarticulate the response was. Few critics took on Clegg’s arguments, instead resorting to abuse.
If we, as a party, can face this down and drive forward, we will be remembered for it.
It requires turning words into actions. The inquiry into bank lending, led by Andrew Stunell and Lynne Featherstone, is a start. But much more is needed.
As Clegg rightly pointed out, it is in Britain’s economic interests not to waste talent. He said:
If we tapped into the full potential of our black and ethnic minority communities, imagine the benefits and prosperity that would bring? Now is the moment to unleash black talent, for the good of us all.
Black and Asian people are estimated to earn £165 billion a year after tax, but it could be so much higher. Conversely the cost to the taxpayer of disproportionate educational under-achievement, unemployment and criminal justice is in the a huge drain on the state.
Deal with school exclusions, create a level playing field with job opportunities and entrepreneurship, and all Britain will be better off.
Generations have lost out because colour-blind policies of successive governments either caused, or failed to deal with, underlining racial inequalities.
Some political ideas may benefit BME communities in theory – our coalition policy of raising of the tax threshold is one. But how it pans out in reality is another story.
There is nothing illiberal about seeking to change outcomes; it is conservative not to. Changing outcomes for Britain’s BME communities means being radical, or to put it another way, being Liberal – in the old-fashioned sense.
We need an holistic and radical vision, applying our solutions to every aspect of life where hard figures tell us unequal racial outcomes are stark.
Two-fifths of BME households live in poverty, double the rate of white households. African and Caribbean youths are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched.
There is much that the state can do to change this.
There is also much that grassroots and political pressure can do to encourage the private sector to employ diverse talent.
Lord Scarman called for a “direct coordinated attack on racial disadvantage”. In his speech, Clegg responded: “It’s time we resurrected the Scarman sprit to tackle the lack of opportunities for our ethnic communities. The barriers built into everyday life.”
It was Dr Martin Luther King who said true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice. Let us be for racial justice, not in just theory but in practice.