Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
Yesterday’s announcement that “unconscious bias training” (UBT) is being scrapped for civil servants is a very welcome one indeed.
UBT is perhaps the most conspicuous example of the kind of worrying thing that has crept into organisations in recent years under the guise of “equality and diversity”.
Obviously we want the workplace and elsewhere to be welcoming and supportive. First of all, it’s the right thing to do morally. It’s also the best way to ensure better performance: it makes it more likely that the widest possible pool of talent will want to work for you, and that as many customers as possible will buy your goods and services.
The issue with UBT and so many other “woke” approaches is that they actually do the opposite. They make it harder to have open and honest discussion between people, and create or deepen identity-based division and resentments.
This is because they take a very particular, quasi-religious, view on the world – everything is generally awful, due to the wrong people having power over everyone else – and insist that everyone adopts it. People who don’t buy into it are seen as part of the problem and heretical – and should be dealt with as such. History tells us that absolutist religions don’t make for happy countries, and “woke” workplaces are no different.
The good news is that UBT, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, doesn’t stand up to any kind of examination when you look at the evidence.
Indeed, it’s this paucity of supporting evidence that has allowed the civil service to make yesterday’s tactical retreat: in the Written Ministerial Statement announcing the end of UBT, it is said that “an internal review decided in January 2020 that unconscious bias training would be phased out in departments.” Yes, I’m sure it did…
(You’ll forgive me if I take this with a pinch of salt, given the enthusiasm with which senior civil servants were still pushing it as a response to the Black Lives Matters protests this summer. Still: Luke 15:7.)
So: the ending of UBT is a useful move in the right direction. But we shouldn’t consider it in isolation. Take a step back and it’s part of the broader move by the Government to rein in some of the more extreme politically correct excesses that went unchecked before.
In the past few months we’ve had the Department for Education remind schools of their obligation to teach political issues in a balanced way and Kemi Badenoch emphasise that Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be taught in schools as fact. Oliver Dowden told galleries and museums to not remove objects under pressure from activists. Liz Truss found a middle way through the minefield that is trans rights, and looks set to take the equality debate in a more consensual, small-c conservative direction with her speech tomorrow.
Then there’s the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. It’s quietly getting on with the job of examining what evidence – as opposed to emotions – tells us about why there are differences in outcomes between groups of people in health, education, etc. Its report on COVID disparities gives a good idea of the approach being taken.
Much recent Westminster gossip has focused on who is in or out with the Prime Minister, and what this means about the broader direction of the government. Well, it seems to me that the Cummings and goings have made little difference to the growing importance of using the evidence and existing law to take the heat out of the culture wars.
Some left-wing activists like to present this as a hard-right government stoking things up, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. All we’ve seen so far is politicians asking the public sector and taxpayer-funded organisations to keep their practice in line with existing law and public opinion, and focus on their core functions, not wokery.
There’s everything to gain from this approach too: less taxpayer cash will be wasted, performance should improve, and it’s very popular with the public too.
Yesterday’s move against Unconscious Bias Training was very conscious – we should hope for more of this kind of thing in the months ahead.