Every week seems to bring a new report that sets off alarm bells about inequality in the UK but it never seems to reach a level of critical mass that sparks action. This week, the interim findings of David Lammy MP’s review into race and the criminal justice system showed that ethnic minority defendants were more likely to be imprisoned than white defendants for certain crimes.
It revealed, for example, that among those found guilty, a greater proportion of black women were sentenced to custody at Crown Court than white women. There will be more to come but David Lammy MP has said that what he has found so far raises “difficult questions about whether ethnic minority communities are getting a fair deal in our justice system.”
It’s not a surprise, but this sobering news that comes hot on the heels of reports from the UN and Equality and Human Rights Commission that point to entrenched and systemic racism in this country. The Commission warned that Failure to tackle deep-rooted race inequality will exacerbate divisions in our society unless urgent government action is taken. Meanwhile, the Social Mobility Commission also reported this week that inequality is holding back middle-income families as well as those on low incomes.
The reports keep piling up. Some are ignored or rebutted by the government – mostly the UN ones on inconvenient topics like the treatment of women at Yarl’s Wood or the way the cuts have violated the rights of disabled people. Others spawn further inquiries. At what point does the mounting evidence prompt some action to shift the scales of justice?
There is a lot of talk of the Brexit vote as a wake-up call, but scant evidence of much being done to answer it, beyond blaming migrants or loud braying from certain quarters for the country to crash out of the EU without a plan, despite the risks. Ideology is being pursued to the detriment of policy.
When we started this column, we named it White Men Dancing because of the spectacle of mainly white, male politicians treating politics as a game while serious issues went unaddressed. The Brexit vote was certainly not the working class (read: white working class) revolution that everyone claims it was, with evidence showing that in addition to voters turning out from parts of the country where inequality was felt most keenly, many middle class voters from the South East also powered the vote. Then of course there is the fact that people of colour were whitewashed from these analyses, voting in general to remain even though many are at the sharp end of inequality and many were also working class.
Beyond blaming immigration, though, politicians seem to have very little to offer in terms of concrete measures to tackle inequality. Politics trumps policy yet again. But as the row over the correct process needed to trigger Brexit shows, they’re also playing fast and loose with accountability and rule of law. Judges have been subject to political attacks for ruling on a constitutional issue.
That’s how democracy is supposed to work, with checks and balances on the power of the executive. Right now, the government is burning money on appeals, as evidenced by last week’s Supreme Court ruling on seven cases concerning disabled families and the bedroom tax on rooms that are deemed surplus to requirements. Two of the complaints were upheld, which means that tweaks will be made to the legislation to stop it happening again. Disability charities warned about the impact of the policy before it was rolled out, but the government has taken the long way round and problems still remain. Meanwhile, the UN’s warnings about the impact of austerity policies on disabled people are dismissed out of hand because the policy is an ideological touchstone.
The government is also appealing the High Court Brexit ruling. The issue is simple: the High Court found that the government cannot strip citizens of rights without an act of parliament because parliament is sovereign. You may recall that this was a pretty big deal for the Brexiteers during the referendum.
Instead of wasting time and money trying to bypass the democratic process, the government should be preparing a decent Bill for parliament to consider and allow MPs to scrutinise Brexit negotiations. Incidentally, due to this crazy new thing called the internet, I don’t think it is letting daylight in on magic to suggest that Europe knows what we want: as much as we can get goods-wise, and as little as we can get away with people-wise.
There doesn’t appear to be a plan and we desperately need one to avoid all these reports gathering dust on a shelf and having a Brexit without causing needless harm to the nation.
Brexit plus plus
So, in the absence of the plan, they keep dancing in the hopes that we won’t notice. The only person genuinely enjoying 2016 appears to be Nigel Farage, the spirit animal of Brexit and “Brexit plus plus”, once again ripped from the bosom of his family and forced out of retirement to stand in a golden elevator with Trump and demand a job as the Donald whisperer.
Farage, who has never won a seat in parliament, wants a job at the heart of government with one of our most important allies. The entitlement is breathtaking, but it’s the same privilege that made Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary though he missed out on being Prime Minister, the latest plum role in a career characterised by resurrections and soft landings despite previous indiscretions and regardless of past performance.
It’s what makes Boris join the chorus of voices urging us to give Trump time to settle in to the most powerful role in the world despite the fact that he is unqualified and has had 18 months to show us that he’s thin-skinned and prejudiced. Boris says Trump is just a fairly standard New York liberal – if you can take the word of another supposedly liberal blonde who was just as happy to ride the toxic populist bandwagon to service his political ambitions. These men may not be qualified, but they look the part in a way that Obama didn’t – that’s the real message.
Trump’s illiberal comments regarding the rights of minority groups in America, in addition to his tone on press freedom, are a shot across the bows. Farage, meanwhile, wants to march on the Supreme Court and has threatened unrest if Brexit does not go ahead the way he wants it to. And both were crying foul before the votes went their way.
Despite their claims to the contrary, one thing the men in that golden elevator share is a disregard for democracy. Having grown up in a young African democracy, I can safely say that elections are only the first step – governance, accountability and rule of law are all mutually enforcing scaffolding.
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Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian journalist and blogger specialising in immigration and politics. She has a background in French and Chinese language studies and holds an MSc in International Political Communications, Politics and Human Rights Advocacy. An accomplished public speaker, she has also written for the Guardian and the Independent, and has been a contributor to BBC TV and radio, Al-Jazeera and Fox News. Find her on Twitter @madomasi