Podium: Pleasing all the people all the time

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From the first ICA annual lecture given

by the professor

of sociology and cultural studies

THE NATIONAL convulsion that followed the publication of Macpherson's report was not the healing moment that it could have been. The apologies were mostly too easy or grudging, and sometimes patently insincere. The language employed was often emotional but it was not charged with any moral significance, and for the celebrity apostles of the Third Way, compromised by the traditional habits of an emphatically anti-modern police service, the post-Macpherson spasm amounted to a spot of bad weather that could soon be made to blow over.

This rare moment offered plenty of additional proof as to how much Britain's chronic political crisis became and remains intelligible principally as a crisis of national identity.

A fully independent system for managing complaints against the police is as far away as ever, but there were new departures kicked off by the publishing of the report. In one decisive step beyond the analysis offered by Lord Scarman, getting rid of racism emerged from this episode as a matter of administrative and managerial technique. The idea that "institutional" racism could have significant implications for the way political processes were conducted or understood did not appear to have dawned on anybody. Here, the populist legacy of Conservative rule was the main intimidating factor. Boateng, his youthful GLC days long forgotten and now eagerly playing a fawning Smithers to the whims of Jack Straw's Monty Burns, was first dispatched to defend Commissioner Condon against the unjoined-up demand that he resign, and then to warn the nation's black muggers and marginals that they would not be able to "use the Macpherson Report as a cloak for their criminal activities".

Boateng continued: "Stop and search is there to be used as part of the police's armoury." In this lost world of politics without conflict, division or even debate, the spin doctors are always right. You can have business as usual in the street-level operations of police power but you can also "use" stop and search "in a way that attracts the support of the whole community, black and white". The compromised imperatives of sensible, joined-up politics dictate that no one is to be estranged, offended or perturbed, that everyone can board this privatised bus to post-political utopia. You can please all of the people all of the time.

Power is there to be administered, and Middle England will never be inner London. Politics, joined-up or otherwise, eventually yields meekly to the different rules of statecraft. In the key constituencies where control of government will be lost or retained, the British love of playing fair does not currently include recognising the possibility that blacks can belong. Far better then to manage the problem of diversity and inclusivity, theatrically and aesthetically, by, for example, putting up Trevor Phillips to be a celebrity mayor, or by gilding the withering boughs of the House of Lords with the delicate blooms represented by a few carefully selected ethnic peerages. Minority business people will supply the incontrovertible proof that this country is, after all, modern! Their knee-bending legions will be the final evidence that Britain really has changed for the better. Under the arc-lights, colour will turn out to be a critical index after all, and - surprise, surprise - the American corporate model will once again be decisive. To quote Keith Vaz MP: "Bill Clinton showed an acute appreciation of the fact that in the modern world, good race relations and good business practice are synonymous." It's hard to see how this deluded profundity might have helped Stephen Lawrence, but then he seems to have passed outside the present. To all intents and purposes, that wrong resolved into a financial transaction that provides an uncomfortable alternative to more substantive forms of judicial restitution.

By now we have no excuse for not knowing that our political culture is being transformed by management technique, celebrity, and a host of bad habits drawn from unchecked commerce and rampant corporate life. But how does that big shift impact upon the politics of diversity?

Is the best we can hope for the idea that racial division will wither away and become an ephemeral, insubstantial moment in the operations of regionalised consumer preference? The situation is dominated by the anti-historical fantasies of the advertising people whose creative input sculpted Labour's brand identity and fed their corporate populism. Meanwhile, mass electoral abstention and routine image-manipulation tell a different story about the health of British democracy.