Why I can’t celebrate with the black leaders honoured in the New Year’s list

Until we have Prime Minister who is up for honestly and openly debating race equality issues, black people should snub the honours system

Claudia Tomlinson
Saturday 31 December 2016 14:34 GMT
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, challenged Theresa May over the appointment of an all white board at Channel 4
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, challenged Theresa May over the appointment of an all white board at Channel 4 (Justin Sutcliffe)

Yesterday I opened my inbox to be greeted by a Government press release and two emails about the line-up for the 2017 New Year Honours list. Indifferent, but wanting to stay on top of the news, I opened them. My interest was only piqued when I saw that the Government was proudly announcing this year’s list as the most diverse yet. “In the almost 100-year history of the Order of the British Empire there has never been a greater number of individuals from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background,” it trumpeted.

It then went on to list the highest honours, some of them granted to black people I knew personally through my work in the health sector and my involvement in campaigning for race equality in the NHS.

Among the colleagues listed, I saw that Elizabeth Anionwu, emeritus professor of nursing at West London University, received a damehood and, having just published a review of her memoir, I felt a rush of pleasure. I was also proud to see Cecilia Anim, President of the Royal College of Nursing, had received a CBE.

I rushed to Twitter to congratulate them publicly; they are very popular people and well liked members of the health profession who have who have dedicated themselves to decades of public service. I was genuinely pleased for them, and knew that these awards would be seen as additional recognition for their achievements in an often hostile working environment.

But then, a sense of my own hypocrisy started to creep in as I struggled to reconcile my praise with my strong views that no black person should ever accept an honour from the British government because of the ways it supports the legacies of colonialism. Surely I should be admonishing my colleagues, not congratulating them?

The effects of post-colonialism play out in the everyday lives of black and ethnic minority people living in the UK. I have lived it myself, working in the NHS. There is a wealth of evidence proving that BAME staff in the NHS are disproportionately bullied and harassed, and have less access to promotion and training, despite an astonishing track record of supporting the NHS since its inception – so much so that Simons Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, launched the Workforce Race Equality Standard to help turned things around.

This colonial legacy is evident in the way Government operates, with Theresa May forcefully and patronisingly telling black MP David Lammy that there is never any race discrimination when senior appointments are made to public boards.

Lammy had followed the plight of Athea Efunshile, the pre-approved black woman denied a place on the board of Channel 4 board while four, also pre-approved, white male colleagues were appointed, resulting in an all-white board. He said: “The Prime Minister’s Government published a Green Paper on corporate governance emphasising the importance of gender and race diversity and I congratulate her for that. But why, then, has her Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport blocked the appointment of a black woman to the Channel 4 board? Does she think there isn’t a woman or a black person in the country worthy of being on the board of Channel 4?”

I was open-mouthed when May responded: “All I would do is say this to him – that in looking at public appointments, a very careful process is undertaken, to ensure that people who are appointed have the skillset and the requirements needed to play the role that is being required. I will look into the issues that he has raised, but I have to say to him that this always is a question of the right person for the job and issues around the sort of questions that he has raised don’t come into it, it’s about who is right for the job”

MPs raised their voices in protest and I quickly jumped onto Twitter to voice my main concern: how could the PM be sure that no issues of discrimination were at play? She had not yet even looked into the individual case – as she stated in her response – let alone the bigger picture. Using a post-colonial prerogative, she decided to try to silence the Lammy, willing him to accept her preposterous response.

Like me, Lammy was born in London, the child of Guyanese parents, a naturally well-resourced country still struggling to find its feet 50 years after claiming its independence from the UK. The legacy of the colonial era means Guyana looks set to struggle to have the infrastructure and prosperity it deserves.

Fortunately, the days of listening to colonial leaders without challenge are over; Lammy and others are continuing to press for an appropriate answer to his question. No one knows whether race discrimination was at play, but it was astonishing that May pronounced that it definably was not a factor.

As the former Home Secretary, May knows about race inequality and injustice. She even referenced it in her statement outside 10 Downing Street on becoming Prime Minister: “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.

But, if race discrimination was at play in the appointment to Channel 4 board, then that would be a very serious thing to admit – particularly if the Government itself were involved. Her response is about self-preservation; she can admit to race inequality and discrimination as something “out there” that others are involved in – but not her Government.

At some point soon, I will again be in the company of our now-honoured black and ethnic minority NHS colleagues, individuals who were already highly admired and will continue to be admired by myself and all who know them. But as a race equality campaigner, I believe that – until we at the very least have a prime minister and a government that can honestly and openly debate race equality issues – future black nominees should turn down honours.

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