Stories and Policies

The implications of The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain for officers
in local and regional government

By Robin Richardson, reprinted from Public Finance, 13 October 2000

'Stories,' the novelist Ben Okri has said, 'are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.' He continues: 'Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.'

Okri's words are quoted in the report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, published on 11 October. The Commission makes about 130 specific recommendations altogether, across the full range of social policy. The recurring concern is with organisational change, and with the role of government in providing resources and impetus, establishing and maintaining legal and regulatory frameworks, and leading by example. But the recommendations are presented in the wider context of stories. The Commission's ambitious aim, in Okri's words, is 'to change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves'. Its recommendations will not be successfully implemented unless they are accompanied by profound changes in national narratives and self-understanding.

The report recalls that the UK is a recent creation, that it has meant different things at different times, and that colonialism and empire were integral to its making. It stresses further that there are several versions of the national story. For example, and most obviously, there are different versions in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and according to class, gender, region and religion. These islands have always been marked by ceaseless dissent and argument. Britain should be pictured, the Commission maintains, as a community of communities. Most if not all individuals belong to more than one significant community, for communities overlap with each other. Also all communities are changing, not least as a consequence of their mutual interactions, influences and interactions. 'Britain' is the name of the space which many different communities share, and in which they negotiate with each other to build a common life. Some have far more weight and power than others, but no group, no community, owns Britain. It is no one's sole possession.

The Labour Party manifesto that preceded the 1997 general election contained a commitment to introduce new legislation on racist violence and harassment. Subsequently this commitment led to a consultation paper and to clauses in the Crime and Disorder Act 1999. Otherwise, in its 177 commitments, the manifesto made no direct reference to issues of race equality and cultural diversity. Likewise there was almost no reference to race and diversity issues in the speeches of Tony Blair published a few months before the election, or in any of the other key texts which outlined New Labour's general thinking, for example Philip Gould's The Unfinished Revolution, Will Hutton's The State We're In and Anthony Giddens' The Third Way. The tacit assumption was that measures intended to benefit the whole of society would automatically benefit Asian, black and Irish communities at the same time. This inexplicit approach to social policy - often known as colour-blind and culture-blind - continued to be dominant at least until the end of 1999.

For example, there was initially no reference to race and diversity issues in the government's strategies to combat social exclusion; no explicit focus on them in the raft of new educational measures and initiatives which it introduced; and no reference in early documents about cultural policy. The public service modernisation programme took for granted that it was bound to benefit all sections of society equally. There was no reference to race issues in the Business Excellence Model adopted for public services from the private sector, or in the early documentation issued about the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU). The Treasury's Public Service Agreements (PSAs) with other departments required clear policy objectives, broken down into targets and performance indicators. However, there was no requirement in the first round of PSAs to consider race equality objectives, or to take into account cultural diversity.

In the latter half of 1999, however, the government began to drop its colour- and culture-blind approaches to social policy and to modernisation. The most important single reason for the change, undoubtedly, was the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. By summer 2000 a list of the government's initiatives included: first steps in the creation of a race equality performance management framework, involving a 'basket' (the government's own term) of race equality performance indicators for many government departments ; the announcement that all public authorities are to be put under a statutory duty to promote race equality; amendments to the Race Relations Act, such that all the functions of public bodies, including regulatory functions not previously covered, will be subject to the Act; the introduction of race equality recruitment targets for the police, fire and probation services, the armed forces, public appointments, senior grades in the civil service, and several individual departments; the inclusion of the Commission for Racial Equality's standards in the best-value regime for local government; acceptance of the vast majority of the recommendations in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, including the adoption of a ministerial priority to increase confidence in policing among black and Asian communities; the issuing of clear and helpful guidance on race equality issues in New Deal for Communities partnerships; and the creation of a grants programme for Asian and black voluntary organisations, intended to improve the infrastructure of this part of the voluntary and community sector.

The Commission welcomes these various developments, but criticises the piecemeal and low-profile way in which they have been introduced. It criticises also the government's failure to lead a debate about national stories and self-understandings, and to lead public opinion on issues to do with immigration and asylum. If Britain is to be a successful community of communities it will need to combine the values of equality and diversity, liberty and solidarity. In the language of political theory, the ideals and principles of both liberalism and communitarianism have to be pursued and realised. Achieving this synergy will certainly not be easy, not least because of the legacy and current realities of racism - or, more accurately, racisms. The Commission distinguishes between institutional racism and violent racism; colour racism and cultural racism; the racism of stories and the racism of behaviour and structures. It stresses also that racisms - including anti-Irish racism - have been an integral strand of the weft and warp of British history, and that they have to be addressed directly and explicitly.

For senior managers in public bodies, the report poses and discusses a series of questions about organisational change. It stresses the importance of 'transformative' leadership - involving, amongst other things, a readiness to take risks in order to force staff to face uncomfortable truths - and observes that projects such as the Commission for Racial Equality's Leadership Challenge are unnecessarily timid and modest. It acknowledges that good quality documentation is sometimes necessary and often invaluable but never sufficient, and commends in this connection the policy statement of one particular London authority. It commends also the so-named Rotterdam Charter, which was drafted a few years ago on good policing practice in Europe's multi-ethnic cities. On monitoring by ethnicity, the report is scathing about most current practice. It maintains that too many officers in public bodies do not have a grasp of fundamental principles, do not use appropriate categories, and do not use professional methods of analysis. They do not see monitoring as a high priority, and therefore they permit it to be obstructed or delayed by institutional inertia. On racism awareness training, the report is critical of the concept of awareness as a way of summarising goals. It stresses rather the importance of practical management skills from an anti-racist perspective. On community consultation the report notes pitfalls to avoid and proposes principles of good practice.

It is at city-level and borough-level, and in individual public bodies and institutions, that really significant change takes place. Central government, however, has key roles to play is supporting, and indeed in insisting on, change at local levels. The report calls for a new Equality Act to replace the existing separate statutes for gender, race and disability, and in due course for a single Equality Commission. In addition, it maintains that there is an urgent need for a Human Rights Commission, similar to those which exist in many other countries. New legislation needs to be accompanied by new approaches to enforcement, and in this connection the report uses the concept of 'enforced self-regulation'. It envisages therefore new roles and practical approaches for the current inspection regimes, and new relationships between them. As soon as possible a programme of inspections should be set up to study and report on - naming and shaming if and as appropriate - each central government department or agency.

The Race Relations Forum which the present government set up is a sound idea in principle, and indeed each government department should have its own version. But such forums must not be allowed to stagnate into mere talking shops; procedures for appointment to them must be transparent; agenda papers must be in the public domain; even when they are not elected, members must make themselves accountable to specific constituencies and communities of interest; and a measure of independent funding is desirable. Information and communications technology should be used to publicise a forum's debates and concerns, and to invite participation from a wide range of people.

Specific measures such as these should take place, the Commission maintains, within the wider context of six broad political and cultural tasks: (a) re-imagining Britain's past story (b) picturing the present state of Britain as a community of communities (c) balancing equality, difference and cohesion (d) confronting and eliminating racisms (e) reducing material inequalities and (f) building a pluralist human rights culture.

The Commission hopes that its report will provoke, and be a resource for, widespread conversation and debate, and that many of its 130 recommendations will be implemented. It hopes also that there will be, to recall the words of Ben Okri cited above, widespread story-telling: 'Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations.' Multi-ethnic Britain requires narrative as well as policy, passion as well as prose.

1. Birds of Heaven, Phoenix, 1996.
Race Equality in Public Services: driving up standards and accounting for progress, Home Office, March 2000.

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