Leading article: Black and white issue

Click to follow
When Lord Tebbit echoed Enoch Powell with his blood-curdling warning against multi-culturalism last week, he might have expected a warm reception from right-wing allies in the Conservative Party and tabloid press. Instead the Sun virtually ignored the speech, and while the Daily Mail reprinted it in full, they distanced themselves from the former Tory party chairman by describing him as a "maverick". The Daily Mail's leader page sagely concluded that this was an "old populist in a fury threatening to upstage a young leader in a hurry". To add insult to injury it was William Hague and not, for once, "the Chingford skinhead" who administered the political equivalent of a blow to the groin. The youthful leader's aides were instructed to describe Lord Tebbit as a dinosaur. Then, in his speech on Friday he made a plea to "see black and Asian MPs sitting on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons". The ranks of Conservative representatives, who had been rather sniffy about other parts of his pitch for "caring" Conservatism, actually applauded.

The events of last week, then, represent a small victory for the forces of enlightenment. But interesting as they are, as a barometer of sentiment on this most delicate of issues, they should be put in perspective: the Conservatives are in opposition; Labour now has responsibility for creating a society that not only tolerates ethnic minorities but gives them a more equal share in the nation's wealth. Although the Labour government is only five months old we already have a series of public commitments from senior figures to the goal of advancing the opportunities of ethnic minorities. Take, for example, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who told the Labour Party conference that "If there is one test above all of the self-confident society it is one which treats people equally". Modern Britain, the Home Secretary pointed out, is a multi-racial, multi-religious society where as many Britons attend mosques as Anglican or Methodist church services. Despite this, Mr Straw continued: "There is discrimination and prejudice and too few opportunities for black and Asian people, too many glass ceilings and too many closed doors."

This is hardly news. Blacks and Asians lose out right across the job market and it is the responsibility of employers in all sectors to help redress this imbalance. This includes Mr Straw and his colleagues who are major employers now. At its highest echelons Whitehall, and the many offshoots of the Civil Service, remains overwhelmingly white. The case is proved by the publication tomorrow of a report by the Labour MP Keith Vaz, culled from government figures. For ministers committed to modernising Britain it will make disturbing reading. That none of the Civil Service elite, the circle of permanent secretaries, is black or Asian will surprise few. But the report, entitled "The Glass Ceiling", shows that the three next most senior grades contain no one of Asian origin either. Nor is this under-representation confined to the top. Even the government car service emerges poorly from the report. Only two drivers, 0.8 per cent of the service, are of Asian origin and three of Afro-Caribbean.

Ministers are aware of the problem in their new backyard. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, held an open day at his department in the summer when he said: "If I am going to represent Britain I need a Foreign Office that is representative of the whole of Britain." Mr Vaz's report shows that the department Mr Cook runs is a long way from that. No blacks or Asians are represented in the top five grades there.

And the Prime Minister himself, in his party conference speech in Brighton, was the most passionate of all: "Not one black High Court judge, not one black chief constable or permanent secretary. Not one black army officer above the rank of colonel. Not one Asian either. Not a record of pride for the British establishment. And not a record of pride for the British parliament that there are so few black and Asian MPs."

He might have added that, in his own staff of 54 Downing Street advisers there is just one Afro-Caribbean and no Asians. It is, of course, far too early to judge this government's record. One telling point about the report is that it has been produced from Labour's back benches. Mr Vaz, Labour's most prominent Asian MP, served on the opposition front bench between 1992 and the general election. But when Tony Blair's government was constructed in May he was not included. Equal opportunity, like charity, begins at home.