Community spirit? Sikhs and Lord Suri

The very notion of a community leader promotes the idea that ethnic or religious identity defines an individual's views on all other matters
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The Independent Online

It turns out that Ranbir Singh Suri isn't a leading representative of the Sikh community; he's just a Sikh bloke. How easily we become confused. In fact Lord Suri, who was ennobled last week, is many things beside being Sikh. He's been a magistrate for more than a decade, he's the chairman of a very successful jewellery company and a long-term donor to the Tory party.

According to the Sikh Federation UK he also has about as much to do with Sikh community organisations as Lord Alan Sugar. Lord Suri is, however, a leading representative of another misunderstood group: "community leaders".

This is not a status Lord Suri claimed for himself. The title is almost always awarded by a second party, usually the government or the media. In Lord Suri's case it was a No 10 spokesperson who described him as a leading figure in the British Sikh community and an official citation which represented him as "former General Secretary of the Board of British Sikhs" – a group which folded more than 20 years ago after holding a few meetings.

In the 21st century, Britain's institutions are expected to represent every section of society, and they must do so even through their demographics have hardly changed since the 19th century. The community leader is the handy solution to this conundrum – one person representing many others. Instead of seeking out an individual who really is rooted in their community, however, the title often becomes a euphemism for "the only black/Asian/ female/working class/young person we could find to come on TV at short notice". That person may or may not be up to the task; the point is only this: their employer wouldn't know the difference, anyway.

If these establishment appointees were only a little out of touch with their roots, that wouldn't be so bad; but the very notion of a community leader is damaging. It promotes the idea that ethnic or religious identity defines an individual's views on all other matters. Worse, it allows the establishment to feel it's successfully fulfilled its obligation to listen to minority groups, when really it was only ever those with amenable views were who were invited to speak. In effect, it acts to silence further the very people who were supposedly being given a voice at last.

What do the designated community leaders think of this? Do they find it frustrating to be limited to identity-based debate when their interests and expertise lie elsewhere? Do they feel burdened by the responsibility of representing so many people they've never met? Or perhaps honoured? Is it simply too good a career opportunity to pass up? It would be interesting to know, but unfortunately, Lord Suri and his ilk are too busy answering silly questions on behalf of an entire community to give us much insight.

Good news, bad news …

The "bad news" was "good news" for many following the publication of this year's A-level results. The pass rate is down, but that's only because the number of students opting for "traditional" subjects is up. "Hard" maths and chemistry are hot; "soft" drama, media studies and photography are not.

Perhaps Sir Jonathan Miller will be among those nodding approval. He recently used a newspaper interview to rail against the "media studies twerps" who he says now run the BBC. Apparently they all have "degrees in media studies, which is like having a degree in stationery".

When I was studying for my media studies A-level (dissertation topic: "The Subtext of Paperclips"), it was the dearest wish to one day become such a twerp – one with a cushy job at the BBC. Unfortunately, and contrary to Sir Jonathan's views, a media studies qualification is not a direct route into a competitive industry such as television. But it is increasingly useful, all the same.

The educational philosophy in vogue says that learning is of value only insofar as it benefits the economy of the future. But what about the democracy of the future? Only some of today's school-leavers are suited to a career in science or technology, but all will have to negotiate the world through the prism of media.

For that, Sir Jonathan's generation were hopelessly ill-prepared. As any media studies graduate can tell you, the good news about education reform might be bad news depending on which way you look at it.

Blind ambition

Why is Michael Gove getting all the credit for improving A-level standards? This week Josie Cunningham (NHS boob-job woman) and Jeremy Clarkson (Anders Breivik's favourite Top Gear presenter) both tweeted to say that good A-levels played no part in making them who they are. And with that, they did more to raise student aspirations than any education minister for a century.

The best of British tourism

Far be it from me to tell VisitBritain its business, but its new report is all wrong. "Barriers to Overseas Visitors' Use of Public Transport" criticises the UK's "fragmented and unhelpful" transport operators and accuses them of putting tourists off visiting areas outside London, giving the five-hour, four-stage journey from London to Stonehenge as an example.

First, it is mistaken if it believes this is an experience unique to overseas visitors. Every Brit who has ever ventured beyond their back garden has felt the cold eyes of a judgemental B&B landlady, or spent five hours on a succession of slow trains. Nor have we ever tried to hide this from the rest of the world. See Harry Potter's occasionally visible Platform 9¾ at King's Cross, or The Wicker Man film – and still they come. Yes, VisitBritain, the British countryside can be austere, uninviting, baffling and inaccessible – and long may it remain so. That's what keeps it beautiful.

Pass me the smelling salts!

The fifth series of Downton Abbey starts next month and executive producer Gareth Neame insists he's not bored yet. "I find myself getting more compelled by the characters," he said. But not everyone on set has maintained a similar enthusiasm. A promo shot released on the same day included a glaring anachronism on the Earl of Grantham's mantelpiece. They couldn't even be bothered to pick up a plastic water bottle before the picture was taken!