Robin Richardson, director of the Runnymede Trust when the Commission was first designed, and editor of the Commission’s report, describes the background debates and concerns.
The founders of the Runnymede Trust named the new body after ‘the meadow called Ranimed between Windlesora and Stanes’ where the final draft of Magna Carta was hammered out in June 1215. Some of the Great Charter’s 63 clauses meant different things to different people, and some were so obscure that they meant nothing to anybody. But the charter as a whole, notes Norman Davies in his recent book The Isles, was ‘fundamental to the subsequent growth of the rule of law’. He adds: ‘Indeed, the basic idea underlying the charter, that good government depends on agreed rules of conduct observed by all, is the cornerstone of constitutionalism.’
The Trust came into operation in summer 1968, a few weeks after Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Birmingham. Its two founders were Anthony Lester and Jim Rose, respectively a constitutional lawyer who had been much influenced by direct experience of the civil rights movement in the United States, and a former journalist who was the director of a major survey of race issues in Britain in the 1960s. They were determined to locate the new body they were creating in the traditions of rule of law and constitutionalism symbolised by Magna Carta.
Rose’s magisterial study Colour and Citizenship was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. A year or so later Colour, Citizenship and British Society by Nicholas Deakin, who had worked closely with Rose on the longer book, was published as a Panther paperback. Together, these texts acted as charters or founding documents for the Runnymede Trust in the 1970s and early 1980s. They also, it is relevant to recall, had a major influence on the creation of the Race Relations Act 1976.
In 1992 the trustees of the Runnymede Trust, chaired by Anthony Lester, began to discuss amongst themselves and with close friends the possibility of a new version, so to speak, of Colour and Citizenship – a document which would act as a charter for the following decade, and which would be imbued with the same combination of passion and reason. A new document would need to take account of a substantial new body of research and theorising; the much greater influence of Asian and black organisations and individuals in national and local affairs; and the massive changes in public administration and governance known by the shorthand term ‘Thatcherism’.
In 1994 Runnymede organised a large residential conference, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. It was here that the idea of a follow-up to Colour and Citizenship was first publicly mooted. ‘There is a need for a new public philosophy and a new national consensus,’ the conference declared, ‘about the nature of Britain as a multi-ethnic society.’ The first and over-riding recommendation from the conference was: ‘A national commission on multi-ethnic Britain should be set up, to develop further the proposals listed in this report. The commission should consult with all interested parties, and should aim to disseminate its findings as widely as possible.’
The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust immediately offered financial support to enable planning to start. Over the following months precise terms of reference were hammered out, procedures and criteria for appointing commissioners were agreed, and the legal relationship between the Trust and the Commission was clarified. The Nuffield Foundation (which in the 1960s had been the principal funder of the research by Rose and Deakin) joined the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust as a major funder, as also did the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The commission was launched in early 1998 by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The first chair was Sir John Burgh, until recently president of Trinity College, Oxford. In autumn 1998 the commission took on several new members and Bhikhu Parekh took over as chair.
By October 1999 a first draft of the commission’s eventual report had been drafted. It was based on the meetings, seminars and visits which it had organised, and on the many submissions and papers which it had received. Over the following months the first draft was substantially re-written, and indeed only about five per cent of that initial draft survived intact into the final report. Long passages and complete chapters were ditched, even after they had been much revised. New paragraphs, sections and sentences were continually added, right up to the day in late August 2000 when the manuscript finally went to the printer. T S Eliot once said that poets are engaged in ‘an intolerable struggle with words and meanings’. Well, so are the members of a commission, as they hammer out a statement which they all can live with.
The struggle with words and meanings was fundamentally, of course, to do with politics and ideology – words such as nation, history, culture, identity, cohesion, equality, diversity, race, racism. But also there were questions of style, register, tone of voice. How deferential or conversely how critical should the report be towards the current government? Could it be academically watertight but also reasonably down-to-earth, and accessible and reader-friendly for non-specialists? Could it simultaneously address policy-makers on the one hand and strengthen the hands of campaigners on the other? Should it accept and use the prevailing vocabulary – ‘minority ethnic groups’, ‘ethnic communities’, ‘race relations’, and so forth – or should it seek out new terms? In plenary meetings and in sub-groups the commission went backwards and forwards as it wrestled with these and related questions. King John and his barons, meeting 800 years ago in ‘the meadow called Ranimed’, can scarcely – it sometimes seemed – have had a more difficult time.
Nicholas Deakin once remarked that writing Colour and Citizenship in the 1960s had been like painting the Forth Bridge. As soon as he and his colleagues had finished it was time to start again, for so much had happened since they began. There had been changes in the outer world and also in their own understandings and perceptions. So it was with The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. By the time it was finished it was incomplete. And the same, even, for Magna Carta. Of the making of constitutions there is no end.
It verges on grotesque hubris, of course, to refer to the commission’s report and Magna Carta in the same breath. It may even be hubris to associate the report with Colour and Citizenship. But the commission would be insufficiently ambitious if it did not dream and intend that its report should be widely read. Each commissioner – and each reader – will have their own feel for what is particularly important in the report. What the report itself says is that the future of multi-ethnic Britain depends on six main tasks: (1) rethinking national identity and the national story; (2) developing new understandings of identity, and seeing that all people have multiple and shifting identities; (3) working out a balance of cohesion (‘One Nation’), difference and equality; (4) dealing with racisms – i.e. seeing and addressing racism as multi-faceted; (5) reducing material inequalities but at the same time avoiding colour-blind and culture-blind approaches; and (6) building a pluralist human rights culture.
None of these six notions is in itself new. But they haven’t previously been brought into such close proximity with each other. As readers grapple with them and their interconnections there could be many exciting and fruitful conversations, reflections and actions. That, any way, is what the commissioners have to hope.
What do those six tasks mean for a police officer, a teacher, a nurse, a journalist, an arts administrator, a trades unionist, an employer, a parent, a lawyer, an immigration officer, a religious leader? What would such people do differently if those tasks were at the forefronts of their minds? The report raises these questions, and provides resources and ideas for answering them. It doesn’t, of course, actually settle them. But not even Magna Carta actually settled anything. T S Eliot also said, in the same poem quoted above: ‘For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
Robin Richardson is a director of the Insted consultancy. He was director of the Runnymede Trust, 1991–96, and editor of report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, 1999-2000.