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The head of a race equality thinktank has accused the government of pursuing a divisive “white nationalist” agenda, prioritising the white working class at the expense of ethnic minorities in an attempt to win votes.
In her first interview since being appointed director of the Runnymede Trust, Halima Begum said ministers had failed to respond meaningfully to the “seismic shifts” represented by Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests and the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic (BAME) Britons.
She said that while companies such as Penguin, Goldman Sachs and Apple had been approaching Runnymede to find out what they could do to tackle structural racism, and the public and even civil servants were engaging on the topic, the government was denying its existence.
“I think the government’s long-term plan is to work up white nationalism for the next elections,” said Begum. “What we should be saying is that working-class black and white communities have been left behind, because they’ve seen industries demolished in the north of this country. We haven’t seen the economies built back, we haven’t seen investment in our education system for years so that our black, white and Asian working-class children will thrive.
“What I see instead is the Conservatives pushing through [a narrative of] a white working class that’s been left behind, which by the way is where [Donald] Trump was at about six years ago.”
Runnymede was formed in 1968, the same year as Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Much has changed since then but BLM and the health and economic impacts of Covid on BAME people have highlighted longstanding inequalities. Begum, who joined Runnymede at the end of August, said this year’s events shifted the public discourse.
By contrast, she said the government had been slow to address the increased risk to ethnic minorities from Covid and had used BAME appointments to its commission on race and ethnic disparities and to ministerial roles to propagate its denial of structural racism, citing as an example the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch’s rubbishing of critical race theory.
“If you have white liberals pushing a white nationalist agenda, it’s very easy to challenge for other white liberals who don’t agree,” said Begum. “But if you can actually put in more black and minority leaders pushing hard on white nationalism, [it’s] much harder to challenge … It’s really important that we understand why these leaders are appointed. It is not to promote inclusiveness, it is actually to promote divisions.”
Begum said she believed the Conservative government was inspired by the electoral success of rightwing politicians such as Trump in 2016 but also the party’s “individualistic notion of society and the economy”.
She said: “There’s nothing wrong with the values of the Conservative party, which is to create more wealth … What they don’t see is that when they talk about the level playing field, they think the level playing field is not level for white people. What they don’t see is that the playing field is not level for black people, it hasn’t been for years … What I’d like them to think about is a formula that brings black working-class people with them as well and then I think if they did win [the election] good on them, they’re actually taking the whole voter base with them.”
Despite her damning critique, Begum said she remained committed to working with the government and had recently met Boris Johnson’s special advisers. She also said her concerns were not limited to the Conservatives, warning a “nervous” Labour party against pandering to white nationalism and thinking “we’ve got to try some of that ourselves”.
Begum said that while white working-class communities were disadvantaged, “they are not discriminated against because of the colour of their skin and that is what we mean by structural racism”.
A government spokesperson said: “The independent commission on race and ethnic disparities was set up to examine where inequality exists across the whole of society. Both the prime minister and the commission remain fully committed to tackling racism, and we reject the divisive idea that the government is prioritising one group over another.
“The PM is thrilled to have assembled a group of talented and diverse commissioners, who each bring a wealth of experience from across a range of important sectors. The evidence-led commission has been undertaking research and inviting submissions from various stakeholders – with the aim of delivering a positive agenda for change.”