Whitehall takes the knee

When the MoD’s top man signs off with a BLM hashtag it’s a brave official who doesn’t get the message


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

What is tokenism? When the City of London Corporation set up a “Tackling Racism Taskforce” as its response to the Black Lives Matter movement last year, was it tokenism that the co-chairs were both black? Is official anti-racism so transparently a branch of public relations for the corporation that any colour will do, as long as for such roles it’s visibly black? Or perhaps the initiative meant nothing much at all and — the teachings of BLM very much notwithstanding — we should not obsess about who comes to be doing which jobs.

One way to assess the seriousness of these chartered anti-racists is to see what their “taskforce” did: recommend that statues of City benefactors, and slaving beneficiaries, William Beckford and John Cass, be removed from the Guildhall. While this result, happily for the City, comes in at the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to doing something, what it plainly does not do is “tackle racism”. For how can moving statues do this? Unless the City subscribes to a peculiar form of primitivism, how do statues and their movements effect racism? Not least when the victims of the claimed racism have first to be tutored that they were experiencing it from the evil totems all along but had been unaware of the fact. 

But if there is left-tokenism, cynically employed by wealthy and powerful entities like the corporation, dismally there is also a right-tokenism that habitually uses exactly the same empty symbols and lame techniques. 

After doing nothing last year when mobs were pulling down statues, this year ministers such as the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, and the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, have stirred themselves. Jenrick will protect statues by requiring his office to sign off on their removal. Dowden has exhorted the great cultural institutions he often also funds to resist politically correct revisionism. 

It’s a brave civil service lifer who did not get the message from his permanent master

With characteristic courage, Jenrick endorsed the prime minister in saying that tearing down statues was to “lie about our past”. But it’s not: it’s self-delusional about the present. The past will remain serenely unaffected by the arguments we have in the present or the street furniture we robe them in. For just as attacking statues is low-hanging fruit for the woke, so too is the ostentatious defence of these monuments by ministers. This “late and least” line is shown for what it is by what ministers do not do. When BLM struck, Whitehall took the knee.

It is far easier for ambitious ministers to issue press releases and write articles about statues than it is for them to turn round their departmental supertankers. The holds of Whitehall contain various lovelies like Project Race, the Race Ambassadors Network and the Civil Service Race Forum. The civil service’s most senior officials enthusiastically endorse the most politicised projects possible. 

Last summer, the MoDs permanent secretary, Sir Stephen Lovegrove (who Boris Johnson has been prevailed upon to make National Security Adviser in preference to Lord Frost), emailed his subordinates to inform them that “systemic racial inequality … has deep roots within UK society, including Defence”. Naturally he signed off with a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. It’s a brave civil service lifer who did not get the message from his permanent master. And a foolish one who pays too much attention to inconstant, here today, gone tomorrow ministers.

As long as the EHRC exists with its current mandate, there is no right person for it

If Jenrick is going to protect the past from the present by adroit regulation, Dowden’s finger-wagging at bulwarks of our common civilisation like the National Trust or the British Museum seems even more futile. For the culture secretary affects to believe that these institutions have somehow merely been “captured” by small, unrepresentative groups. But initiatives like Historic England’s Audit of Research into the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Built Environment or the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project (which David Starkey demolishes in this issue) aren’t the work of a handful of entryists. They are mainstream enterprises carried out by entirely representative people in each organisation. To pretend otherwise is self-deception. 

Effective ministers put the right people in the right places. Last December the government signed off on the Liberal Democrat peer, Kishwer Falkner, becoming chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. This is a perfect example of the wrong place — as long as this institution exists with its current mandate, there is no right person for it. By contrast, the lawyer and well-known Westminster figure Blondel Cluff will bring a lifetime of acuity to her new role as chair of the National Lottery Community Fund. Appointees are required to declare past political activity, offices held and any donations made, prior to their confirmation in the role. If she feels she must compartmentalise — or disavow — her views in exercising her role, it will only demonstrate more starkly the different attitude to public service that animates those in the centre or on the right, from the uninterrupted activism of left-wing and radical office-holders.

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