The truth about black teenagers, prison and universities isn’t half as bad as David Cameron makes out, argues Fraser Nelson, editor of the right-wing political mag the Spectator.
His target was the Prime Minister’s claim that young Black Brits were more likely to end up in prison than a top university. ‘Nonsense’, Nelson snorted. The PM was telling a ‘porkie’ and should apologise. He cited figures purporting to show that ethnic minorities were more likely to go to university than white people, concluding: ‘Britain is a pretty good country in which to be young, gifted and black.’
Only the evidence does not show that at all. Nelson’s column took a highly selective slice of data, included very substantial numbers of foreign non-white students along with British-born Black students, lumped Oxbridge and Russell Group universities together with old polytechnics where BAME students are concentrated, and ignored TUC evidence this week showing that Black and Asian graduates were two and a half times more likely to be unemployed.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency, the same source that Nelson used, reports that eight percent of non-white university students attend Russell Group establishments, compared to 24 percent of white students. In 2009/10 there were 400 Black students studying at undergraduate level in Russell Group universities, 1.5 percent of the total 24,000 students. Just one third, 0.5 percent, were of a domestic African and Caribbean background.
Home Office section 95 prison figures show that 14.4 percent of the prison population were Black British men aged 18-24, proportionally even worse than the United States. A Runnymede Trust report calculates that for every African Caribbean male at a Russell Group university there were three in prison.
The prison population is currently 80,000 with 72.8 percent of inmates classified as white compared to a national percentage of 86. Simple maths indicates that if the ethnicity of prisoners reflected the country there should be 10,560 more white people behind bars, and 9,120 less African Caribbeans.
So Nelson misrepresented the truth, but what motivated his attack? After all, Cameron had made his comments months ago in January. Had Nelson accidentally stumbled upon a yellowing copy of the Sunday Times behind a cupboard during a spring clean? I don’t think so.
The context is all-important here. Despite austerity disproportionately hitting Black Britain, the Tories took one in three of all BAME votes in 2015, further increasing their share and reducing Labour’s. The demographics of growing multiculturalism are only moving in one direction with the 14 percent non-white population in 2011 projected to double by 2050.
More crucially, for Westminster parties, the BAME population is expanding far more rapidly in the towns and shires, as I fleshed out in my ‘Power of the Black Vote’ report for Operation Black Vote. In 2010, there were 165 swing seats with a non-white electorate larger than the majority of the sitting MP. This phenomenon is accelerating even faster in Tory marginals as black and Asian families move out of Labour’s increasingly gentrified traditional inner city heartlands. The Tories realise they cannot win without BAME votes.
If Cameron and George Osborne are following a neo-liberal Thatcherite agenda on fiscal policy and public services, they are equally students of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson on big-tent political strategies to consign their opponents to permanent opposition. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a Penthouse and Pavement attempt to woo aspirational white-collar northern professionals away from Labour with devolved powers and infrastructure to boost regional business. Government rhetoric is backed by coordinated action including legislation, cash and consultation conferences. A rising National Living Wage and tax threshold are other planks of this strategy. Osborne has already completed one lap of the track while Labour are still in the changing room.
Next up is the Black Powerhouse to bite another chunk out of Labour’s core vote. Cameron has appointed Labour’s David Lammy to investigate race inequality in the criminal justice system and tasked business secretary Sajid Javid with developing a more comprehensive plan on race equality. Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust has critiqued these moves in more detail on ConservativeHome and BrightBlue blogs.
On this issue the Tories are settling on the starting block while Labour are still searching for their running kit at home. My suspicion is that Cameron will seek to divide Black social tenants from home owners while demonstrating that the government is serious about tackling barriers facing people of colour, and to appeal to the aspirational Black class while hammering the Black underclass with welfare penalties. It is potentially the boldest divide-and-rule strategy since House Negroes were encouraged to feel superior to the Field Negro.
Cameron’s remarks that so upset Nelson were part of the Tories’ launch strategy on these issues. Surely if this helps to keep the Tories in power, why on earth wouldn’t the Spectator be wholeheartedly in favour of it?
What Nelson’s piece represents is a deep-seated uncomfortableness at efforts to address racial inequality and is shot over Cameron’s bows to warn him that, on this issue, he is simply going too far. It smacks of an intra-conservative battle between modernists and traditionalists.
Nelson styles himself as a modern conservative, sympathetic to issues like immigration and gay marriage. But style and substance are not always fused together. He employs as a columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, whose article saying that Caribbeans were ‘multiplying like flies’ prompted a police probe. Other Taki columns defended Greek fascists Golden Dawn, claimed ethnic minorities had ‘lower IQs’ and said that Black NBA basketball players walk around with their arms hanging down and their tongues sticking out.
Another Spectator columnist, Rod Liddle, has been the subject of several complaints concerning Spectator columns such as one claiming that Caribbean people committed the ‘overwhelming majority’ of crime and had contributed nothing to Britain other than ‘goat curry and rap’. A different Liddle blog moaned that the murderers of Stephen Lawrence might not receive a fair trial. There are many other examples of Liddle and Taki’s racism.
Nelson’s predecessor as editor, Boris Johnson, used his column to label black children ‘piccaninnies’, claim Africans have ‘watermelon smiles’ and call for a return of the Empire. ‘The problem [with Africa] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more’, he wrote. Boris also used his column to claim the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was a ‘witchhunt’ against the police, and accused Nelson Mandela of leading South Africa towards a ‘tyranny of black majority rule’. These controversial Boris articles are now removed, conveniently, but you can read about them here and here.
The ‘Speccie’ often feels like a leather-seated members club populated by malcontent conservatives harrumphing bitterly at the sharp-suited Johnny-come-lately’s running their party these days. It’s the sort of club where Black people only get in if they are wearing starched white gloves and playing the piano. If ConHome is where Tory foot soldiers energetically debate policy then the Spectator is where the Tory Association Chairmen hang out to reminisce about the old days. To hell with Cameron’s political strategy, they might say, this sort of thing is just not on. ‘What next, a coloured in Number 10? The world’s gone mad, I tell you’.
Nelson’s article about Black people, universities and prison was factually inaccurate and, I contend, motivated more by a desire to see Cameron drop his race equality work altogether than any concern about African or Caribbean youth hearing the Prime Minister talking about the problems and feeling that they couldn’t achieve their potential.
The column proves that a long history of the magazine churning out deeply offensive and racist content is no bar to feigning concern over black youth while simultaneously claiming that Black Britain has never had it so good.
Will the article make a difference? Perhaps not on its own but it is almost certainly a signal that traditionalists are grumbling and want Cameron to change direction on race equality. And that Britain is a pretty good country to live if, like Nelson, you are young(ish), privately educated, and white.
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Lester Holloway is writing in a personal capacity. He tweets at @brolezholloway
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