Before Theresa May made her first speech as Prime Minister in Downing Street, she delivered a short message outside Parliament, against a backdrop of Conservative MPs. She pledged “strong, proven leadership” first, the fulfilment of Brexit second, and:
“…third, we need a strong, new, and positive vision for the future of our country. A vision of a country that works not for the privileged few but works for every one of us.
Because we’re going to give people more control over their lives. That’s how together we will build a better Britain.”
While Brexit was forced upon her by the country, it is this agenda of equality and self-determination that she intends to impress upon the country in return.
She elaborated on the theme outside Number 10, when she committed to warring against “burning injustices”:
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the Criminal Justice System than if you’re white.
If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.
If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.
If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices.”
It is the first two of those injustices that she is taking on today, with the launch of a year-long audit of “racial disparities in our public services”. The terms of the audit are revealing – this isn’t a check on how we’re doing on equality to see if it’s working or not, it’s an investigation into definite inequalities, the existence of which Downing Street is in no doubt about.
May is being true to her word. She promised to take on such injustices, and she is doing so – that she has made this the focus for her first major announcement now she is back from holiday is a sign that she intends to live up to her promise.
It’s rather strange for the Daily Mail to dismiss this news as a ‘gimmick’ and a costly ‘Domesday Book of Disadvantage’. Perhaps the Cameron years trained us to assume that major announcements are more hot air than hard action, but it would be a serious mistake to judge the new Prime Minister by the standards of her predecessor. Ask anyone in the police about whether her pledge to reform Stop and Search in order to combat unfairness to young, black men turned out be a gimmick or a serious promise.
This review is good news, because it is a practical step towards delivering a fundamental conservative principle which May cited in that short statement outside the St Stephen’s entrance to Parliament: “we’re going to give people more control over their lives”. Racial inequalities in the public sector stand in the way of that. If, purely because of your race, you’re more likely to be stopped and searched, or your school fails to equip you with the basic requirements for a working life, or you cannot gain access to the health service then by definition you are denied control of your own life.
Identifying and eliminating those injustices will not necessarily be a comfortable experience. As the Prime Minister says, “the audit will reveal difficult truths”. If so, then they are better faced than ignored. A full, fair and transparent inquiry will, I suspect, produce some discomfort on all sides. Those of us who do not experience inequality on the grounds of our race will no doubt be confronted with the fact that that others do – an uncomfortable truth which is often ignored. At the same time, some of those who assert that literally every aspect of modern Britain is racist will have to accept that that is not the case. (The reality of a Conservative Prime Minister being willing to take on such issues as never before will also stick in the craw of some on the left, which is no bad thing.)
We Conservatives believe in opportunity. We celebrate the stories of those who are self-made, who innovate and venture to make the most of their natural talents. We defend the principles of freedom and the market on the grounds that these systems are not only morally desirable for the participants, but that they generate the greatest fruits for society as a whole. Racial inequality blunts each of those ideals, skewing the pitch and raising unfair barriers to people who find themselves denied the chance to even embark on pursuing the dream which we espouse. If May’s new investigation produces a Britain in which more people are free to make the best of their lives on their own merits, then it will be a piece of radical Conservatism to be proud of.