A non-partisan journal of the left.

Don’t Quota Me

Mon 20th Feb 2012

Is there a single reputable argument in favour of positive discrimination? The fact that so many of our institutions are unrepresentative of the make-up of society is of course deplorable, but manipulating recruitment in order to create an artificial balance is no way to put this right. Nonetheless, there is talk once again of setting targets and imposing quotas in various fields in order to achieve notional parity. Spare us, I say.

Last week, the Prime Minister was in Sweden, pretending to be engaged by liberal ideas on equality of opportunity. What this is really about is that his advisers have told David Cameron that the coalition is losing something called “the women’s vote”. You might think that enlightened opinion would doubt that there were any such absolute and manifest creature as “the women’s vote”, any more than there could be an interest as coherent as “the men’s vote”. Nevertheless, Cameron evidently thinks there is something in it. He has previously undertaken that his second government, if there is one, will number women in ministerial posts to the extent of one third.

When in opposition, Cameron toyed with the notion of selective all-women election shortlists, reckoning that this was “positive action, not positive discrimination”. Far be from me to suggest that any politician ever plays with words, but it’s hard to know where the difference lies between excluding men from a competitive exercise otherwise conducted on a level playing field and discriminating in favour of women.

Intriguingly, Ed Miliband has simultaneously set off in a different direction. His first shadow team, formed in 2010, was constructed by a method long favoured by the Labour Party: a vote among MPs. On this – and only on this – occasion, the members were obliged to elect six women. As a result of that combination of restrictions, Miliband was saddled with a front bench that was below par. I noted at the time that the great majority of them had surnames in the top half of the alphabet and essayed the theory that, with so many new members who were unfamiliar with the candidates, many ballot papers would have been exhausted before the voter had reached the names towards the end of the list.

Wisely, Miliband decided to divest himself of this faux democratic ritual and give himself the freedom that Labour leaders have always enjoyed when in government: the ability to construct a team according to his own assessment of merit. Accordingly, last October, he weeded out those shadow cabinet members who had performed poorly – including two of the token women, Ann McKechin and Meg Hillier – and brought in eminently able individuals who have duly shone, notably Chuka Umunna, Stephen Twigg and Rachel Reeves (all, you will have noticed, from the second half of the alphabet).

The last of these three is plainly a woman but one enjoying the great advantage of appointment on merit rather than on account of her sex. As it happens, the men in the list are, respectively, of mixed race and gay, but there is no sense that such considerations influenced Miliband’s choice. That each of these MPs might be said to represent an important sector of the community other than those who are white, heterosexual men is no doubt useful, but no one can argue that the Labour Party obliged Miliband to choose them for that reason.(Incidentally, the unmarried Umunna may be gay too, for aught I know, but he has not identified himself as such, whereas Twigg holds the distinction of being the first person elected to the British parliament who was out at the time of his election, which added yet more savour to his famous ousting of the sexually ambiguous Michael Portillo.

Returning to the Tories, Cameron has form in the gesture politics of making sympathetic noises about those who suffer discrimination. In a Guardian piece two years ago, he wrote that “too many people are denied the chance to escape poverty and build a better life for themselves and their family. Sadly, this is especially true for people in Britain’s black community”. The search is still on to unearth any scintilla of coalition policy that has helped a single black family out of poverty. No quotas there, it seems.

Last month, the New Statesman noticed that – oh my lor’ – all the national newspaper editors are white. It neglected to note at the same time that they are all (believed to be) heterosexual. And able-bodied. And – save for Tina Weaver at the Sunday Mirror and Dawn Neesom at the Daily Star – men. You might well think that Neesom’s rag is the most scurrilous of all British publications, if you didn’t think that of the Daily Mail which, as it happens, employs the highest proportion of women journalists on Fleet Street and attracts the highest proportion of women readers.

The point here is that weighting the game so that more people who are not able-bodied, white, family men get their hands on power does not necessarily make the world a nicer place. As it happens, the right has a better track record in advancing so-called minority candidates than does the left. The only woman Prime Minister Britain has ever elected was a Tory and the most divisive, anti-progressive leader in a century. George W. Bush, the most foolish, negligent and blinkered US President of my lifetime, never appointed a Secretary of State who was a white man – and indeed called up one who wasn’t a man of any colour. Miliband is Labour’s first Jewish leader, after the Tories have been led by two Jews, including one (Disraeli), though a Christian convert, who was Prime Minister as long ago as the 1870s. The Liberals were also led by a Jew some 80 years ago: Herbert Samuel.

Determining whether party leaders are or were gay is more problematic. The two Prime Ministers of recent vintage about whom most anecdotes swirl are Edward Heath and Anthony Eden. Heath was what used to be known as “a confirmed bachelor”, which was understood to mean either gay or asexual. It may well be that he was the latter, but it has been claimed – by an avowedly gay Tory who knew him – that police warned Heath off cottaging when he was first being considered for a government post.

Eden, once described by Rab Butler as “half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, was ever a dandy. He favoured the Homburg, a once fashionable trilby variation, that became popularly known as an Anthony Eden. His younger son Nicholas, who served as a minister under Thatcher, was openly gay and the first British parliamentarian to die of Aids. As for the father, I have a friend who once knew Eden’s former valet and who reports that this man told her most unambiguous stories of his master’s habits.

In another part of the forest, last year’s Davies Report proposed quotas for business to increase female representation on boards. Imposing quotas has been a success in Scandinavian countries in the numerical sense – two in five Norwegian board members are women these days compared with some three in twenty in Britain. But is there any discernible difference – let alone improvement – in the efficacy of Norwegian business? That surely is the only test.

Both parliament and the city – along with the military, the judiciary, the police and most professional sports – are, at heart, clubs for blokes. If you’re not a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, anti-progressive man, you will most likely feel uncomfortable, ignored, mistrusted, discounted, patronised and even threatened if you have the temerity to try to penetrate and thrive in these fields. As a gay man, I have never understood why anyone other than a Neanderthal would want to enter such brutal places, fuelled as they are by competitive, locker-room banter and ill-disguised misogyny in particular and misanthropy in general.

There is another male preserve that perpetrates a different kind of exclusiveness. A report commissioned by the Church of England last summer recommended “proportional intentionality” – discrimination by another name – to encourage ethnic minorities into the church both as worshippers and as aspirants to ministry. Throughout the leadership of Rowan Williams, his flock has been torn asunder over the admissibility or otherwise of women and openly gay people. The church – both Anglican and Catholic – is a boys’ club for a kind of chap different from those who typify business and football and other male bastions. The priesthood is dominated by self- and women-hating gay man.

It seems to me to be futile to try to reform these male preserves by imposing upon them entrance restrictions other than those that their nature dictates. The soi-disant jokes that men make about being obliged to rub shoulders with black lesbian dwarves give voice to a deep-seated resentment at supposed do-gooders attempting to frog-march ancient understandings into misguided reform.
One of the lessons of history is that social change secured and lasting is rarely achieved by accepting crumbs from the tables of the established. Rather, it is won by the courage and determination of those who most benefit from the change fighting for it and winning it, if necessary over the bodies of their martyrs. The likes of Emily Davidson, Steve Biko and Harvey Milk died for living causes that eventually bore fruit.

Positive discrimination is anyway of dubious legality. A white, straight, able-bodied man would be perfectly entitled to go to law if he could make a case that he had been passed over for a post in favour of someone whose credentials were only superior to his own because of membership of a particular grouping. But here’s another thing. Might it not be that women and gay men and non-whites and those in some way restricted in physical or mental capacity have More Important Things To Do than acting as fodder for political parties or sitting in judgment over felons or killing people in some far off country or bestowing Eucharist on half-a-dozen bored parishioners in an unheated mausoleum on a Sunday morning or standing on a football touchline looking at the unruly fans and hoping not to be hit by a random projectile? What sort of people are they who want to join these worlds anyway?

In a field more congenial to me – the theatre – there is yet another piece of nonsensical positive discrimination. It goes by the mendacious title of “colour-blind casting”. This is the woolly-minded liberal instinct that brings you black actors as Henry V and Henry VI though not, so far and as far as I know, Shylock or Richard III.

In what parallel universe should I be required to be colour-blind? How can I pretend that Adrian Lester and David Oyelowo, fine actors as they both are, somehow forego their colour because they are playing English kings who were undeniably white? If they had been black – a startling occurrence at this stage in English history (though it would be idle to hold your breath for anybody not white to ascend the English throne in the future) – would not Shakespeare have alluded to it in his text? And isn’t it actually profoundly demeaning to the actors that I should collaborate in a game that pretends that they are not black? If you would account my objection racist, I would respectfully ask if you truly understand the term.

If casting in the theatre were truly colour-blind, we would see a white actor play Othello. Such a thing has not been “permissible” in 20 years. (It still happens in Otello because the demands on the operatic voice are overriding). Fair enough that so-called “blacking up” – as Olivier and (just about the last to do it) Paul Scofield did – is recognised as unworthy. But colour-blindness surely means that, if a white English king whose reality is well chronicled may be played black, then the fictional and racially indistinct Moor – a slippery term at best – can be played white and let the dialogue tell the story.
Uniquely, in my experience, there was once a multiracial production of a new play in which a white actor played the patriarch of an Indian family. Unfortunately, because it was necessary to keep before the audience the notion that the man was indeed Indian, the actor played it with a cod Hindi accent. It’s hard to see how this could be characterised as preferable to casting an Indian actor.

The real issue here is not about “allowing” black actors to play the classic repertoire. It is about the signal failure of the companies that fall back on the phoney option of colour-blind casting to take the trouble to explore the rich theatrical heritage of Africa, the West Indies, South America and Asia and indeed to commission new work from significant numbers of non-white playwrights and, come to that, women playwrights. The theatre is almost as much a boys’ club – certainly as far as writing and directing and running theatres is concerned – as the air force or the bar.

And that, I conclude, is the real problem with positive discrimination. It fights the wrong battle with the wrong weapons. It gives those who engage these battles a satisfying but false sense that they have gallantly taken on the forces of reaction. The real war is very much bigger and more fundamental.
You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.