Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Why I Now Believe in Positive Discrimination

Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Why I Now Believe in Positive Discrimination

Article excerpt

The Prime Minister no doubt knew he would be fanning the flames when he waded into the argument about the admission of black undergraduates to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. We should do him the courtesy of trusting he means it when he says he feels strongly about discrimination in the awarding of university places - and I think he does. In this week's issue Toby Young marks David Cameron's essay with tutorial authority, and finds his case wanting.

Particularly valuable among Toby's marginal notes is his point that you can't accept applicants if they haven't applied - and black and working-class students disproportionately don't. But we enter a vicious circle here. People don't apply if they don't think they have a chance, don't see many faces or hear many accents like theirs among the successful applicants.

And Toby's argument is prefaced by a shrewd piece of bomb-proofing. Toby says he his talking about BME (black and minority ethnic) students. He then goes on to demonstrate that Indian, Chinese and other minority ethnic groups whose origin is east of Suez, are not a problem. But the PM was not focussing on these. The problem is black students. Despite the race industry's attempts to conflate all non-whites, black means black: people of African and Caribbean origin. There is a problem here and Toby does not suggest otherwise. His urgent purpose is to add white working-class boys to the list, and he certainly makes that case, but it's a different - if important - argument.

So what can be done for black applicants? I have become a firm believer in positive discrimination - in questions not of race alone, but of background and of gender more generally. And I should add that systematically overlooked issue for us British: class.

As a younger Conservative and as an MP I took the line Tories instinctively take: all selection should be on 'merit', and 'the best candidate' should unfailingly win the prize. Labour's idea of (for instance) all-woman shortlists appalled me and still does; positive discrimination for jobs, university places or parliamentary candidatures in favour of candidates from minority ethnic groups seemed to me to discriminate unfairly against white applicants. Fair was fair and that was that.

I've come to believe it isn't so simple. If of course you believe that black, brown, working-class or female applicants might as groups simply be inferior human beings then you'd have to conclude that this was among the reasons why they tended not to be selected. But what if there are other reasons? Let me suggest three. First, confidence. Secondly, polish. Third, unconscious bias on the selectors' part.

This third, unconscious bias, is troubling. I was dismayed to try an online test for racial bias the other day, and find that I was 'mildly' discriminating against black (not BME) faces. This surprised me. Less surprising (because I've mediated many Conservative selection meetings for parliamentary candidates) is the observation that people doing the choosing have more difficulty in seeing (say) a woman as an MP - and so, though they do mean to be fair and apply the same standards to all, will find themselves less impressed by a woman's performance.

Which brings me to the first of my suggested reasons for bias in selectors: 'confidence'. In candidate selections I've noticed that men have a certain swagger that women often lack. …

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