It’s alright, it’s OK According to the latest report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, aka the Sewell Report, the UK is a haven of racial harmony, a veritable Eden of equality, a beacon of inclusion and a Utopia of opportunity – and as for institu-
tional racism, it is a myth. Everything in the UK is OK.
And pigs might fly. As the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, cited by Tom Denman (see Features, p6), has argued, ‘the essential function of Utopia is a critique of what is present’, and this particular utopian vision is no exception, bearing absolutely no relation to the lived present of most black people in the UK today. Anyone not taken in by the rosy picture presented by the report, however, is accused of ignoring the so-called facts in order to knock the UK’s shining record on race in a way that is downright unpatriotic. As the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty put it: ‘You might not like the politics, runs the argument, but you can’t dispute the data. Except’, he adds, ‘you absolutely can.’ Never before, he points out, have so many commissioners consulted in a report gone on to repudiate its findings, many claiming that, at best, their contributions were selectively cited and, at worst, that they were entirely misrepresented. One commissioner who wished to remain anonymous accused the government of ‘bending’ the work of its commission to fit ‘a more palatable’ political narrative. Samuel Kasumu, meanwhile, No 10’s most senior black special adviser, resigned on the day that the report was released. According to Downing Street his resignation had absolutely nothing to do with the report’s findings, but no one seriously believed that, especially given that Kasumu had already been dissuaded from resigning once, following clashes with controversial equalities minister Kemi Badenoch back in February, and in the light of his reportedly expressed fears that the Conservative Party was pursuing a ‘politics steeped in division’.
In its published form, the Sewell Report has the director of the Number 10 Policy Unit Munira Mirza’s fingerprints all over it. She has form in peddling ‘palatable’ political narratives on race. Many Londoners, particularly those in the art world, will recall with a shudder that, when Boris Johnson became mayor of London, he appointed Mirza as his director of policy for arts, culture and the creative industries (see Editorial AM317). It was easy to see why Johnson chose her: being non-white she not only offered him a get-out-of-jail-free card on the issue of inclusivity, but as a founding member of the right-wing Manifesto Club and author of a number of reports and articles designed to reassure the white ruling classes that everything was just fine including, ‘How Diversity Breeds Division’ and Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, she was also just the person to deliver Johnson’s so-called ‘Third Way’. Goodbye diversity and multiculturalism, hello inclusion – as long as you are ‘one of us’.
Unsurprisingly, when Johnson became prime minister, he brought Mirza with him. Anyone who thought that the toxic Hostile Environment policy of his predecessor Theresa May (see Morgan Quaintance ‘Looking Back in Anger’ in AM442 and AM443), with its ‘go home’ vans and forced repatriation, was a thing of the past would have to think again. The tactics may have changed, but the message on race is the same: ‘put up and shut up’, the rider being ‘or else’. Against the background of the BLM movement, this latest report is intended to remove the grounds for anti-racism protests, while the draconian proposals to further clamp down on the right to demonstrate are intended to remove the means.
Along with attacks on freedom of speech under the guise of tackling so-called ‘cancel culture’ in UK universities, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to give it its full, unwieldy title, can be seen as a form of revenge for the failure of earlier attempts to stifle protest that resulted in the notorious ‘kettling’ tactic used against the G20 protesters in 2009, later ruled illegal by the High Court. The man behind the theory of kettling, Peter Waddington, was a sociologist and former police officer who cut his teeth during the violent Poll Tax protests in 1990. He wrote that ‘containment succeeds in restoring order by using boredom as its principle weapon, rather than fear’. It is an interesting concept, one that resonates with a society perceived as being in a state of arrest if not actually going backwards, like that sensation of apparent movement when the train next to you pulls out of the station.
As in life, so in art: art historian and cultural theorist Jean Fisher, also cited by Denman, long ago argued that, ‘Genuine inclusion requires an institutional mindset prepared to reconfigure British society in a multicultural way, in effect a redistribution of power’; the alternative, she added, is ‘hegemonic containment’.
Containment – facilitated by restrictions put in place during lockdown – is exactly what this government wants (see Editorial AM445), and it is willing to falsify the facts and bend the narrative – even the law, if we let it – to achieve this but, with apologies to Primal Scream, no: ‘It’s [not] alright, it’s [not] OK.’
Against the background of the BLM movement, this latest report is intended to remove the grounds for anti-racism protests, while the draconian proposals to further clamp down on the right to demonstrate are intended to remove the means.
Art Monthly no. 446, May 2021