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  • Asad Dhunna

What did the Tory party conference teach us about diversity, equity and inclusion? 

Back on 3 March 2021, we were told by the government that we were going to ‘build back better’. We were given a plan for growth through significant investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation in the wake of Covid-19. So this week, I was intrigued to get a status update in the form of the Tory party conference. I followed via the internet, because there isn’t yet a high speed train connection to Manchester (turns out there won’t ever be one now) and I didn’t want to fly for reasons I’m about to mention.

Despite the idea that we should be building back better, Britain is very clearly broken. It’s not just in our psyche and the fact that we have broken apart from the European Union, it’s that schools are literally crumbling and seamless air travel today is just as miraculous as the Wright Brothers’ first discovery of flight. It’s become a running joke for me that every flight I have taken this year has either been delayed or canceled. While I can handle this first world problem, what I find harder to stomach is that my 77-year-old mum with late stage cancer couldn’t be told the results of an ECG after a fall outside her home - because the doctors were on strike.

The doctors aren’t to blame, however. Watching the comedy/satire Partygate on Channel 4 this week brings home the sheer anger and exhaustion we’re all feeling as a country and particularly within an underfunded and abused health service. Having recently been (privately) diagnosed with ADHD, which would have taken years through the NHS, I’ve learnt that one of the traits is a constant sense of fatigue. After five years of building a business, advocating for inclusion and working with passionate and dedicated people who want to see a better world, I’m left asking: what do we do when the home secretary says “If Keir Starmer became Prime Minister, the country would go woke with diversity, equity and inclusion”.

Doing the wokey-kokey

Well, we start by recognising the woke claims aren’t new. In our diversity & confusion report we found that mentions of the word ‘woke’ in the press increased by 19% and by 34% on social media in Q1 of 2023 vs 2022. What is new is that the rhetoric of the British government is very closely following that of the US. We’re not pausing to revisit the ‘special relationship’, and listen to eminent voices like Tomiwa Owolade, whose book ‘This is not America’ provides vital and critical thinking about Black British identity and how it differs from the US.

What is also new is that vitriolic messages about ‘woke’ and migration are coming from faces that are Black and Brown. They are coming from people who themselves have benefited from migration and - in the case of Vivek Ramaswarmy in the US - from measures such as affirmative action. What this means is that people get the sense that ‘well if they can say this, then it’s okay for me to think it’.

My colleagues - the majority of whom are from underrepresented backgrounds - continually make the case of why representation is only one piece of a broader and very complex puzzle, and that true change in our systems and in our country needs to come from us understanding how we come together as a society and how we lean on multiple levers to create growth and progress. Soundbites like ‘multiculturalism has failed’ simply set us back because we don’t stop to explore what about it has failed, and indeed what about it has worked. That requires free speech, surely?

The reach for free speech

The proponents of an ‘anti-woke UK’ are also the proponents of free speech. Having met Claire Fox and being invited to speak at the Battle of Ideas Festival, I’m all for the core tenets of debate and discussion. I’ve also debated with one of her supporters, Andrew Doyle, on BBC News about the commercialisation of Pride - only to find he posted an edited clip of the conversation on his Twitter / X account a few days later that cut a lot of my contribution out. Surely free speech means handling and hearing both sides? However, to see another Andrew - Conservative MP Andrew Boff - being kicked out of the conference for questioning that Suella’s comments on gender ideology were untrue only goes to show the problem we have with hearing things we don’t agree with and holding space for disagreement.

For a country that has spread its language around the world, it’s astonishing to see just how hard we’re finding it to have hard conversations about who we are individually and collectively. I often look to the German language for words that express where we are today - especially as commentators such as Gary Linekar suggest we are in 1930s Germany. A word I’ve come across lately is: Heimtückegesetz, which literally translates as the ‘treachery law’. It was in fact the Treachery Act of 1934, which established penalties for the abuse of Nazi badges and uniforms and restricted the right to freedom of speech. I worry that this is the direction we’re heading in, particularly when I hear that people want to ‘reclaim’ terms like ‘Tory scum’.

Sticking with the Germany theme, we have to, just as the Germans did in the 1960s, come to terms with the past and face into our own ‘Vergangenheitsbewaltigung’. The irony of a British Indian prime minister making the trains worse in the UK is not lost on me - after the nation he now rules over built the infrastructure in his (and my) ancestors’ home lands. The railways are the constant bastion of why the Empire was a good thing, and so to be where we are today just makes me LOLsob (laugh and cry at the same time).

Ever the optimist, we need to look forward to the future and we need to - as a country - look at how we are collectively going to build back better. What’s become clear is that we cannot rely solely on the government, and there is perhaps an underlying malaise and sentiment that we need to. Covid only exacerbated that sense, because our health and our lives relied on their moves and mandates. However, as someone running a business, and someone working with leaders in business and charities, I think we need to move the conversation on from the what’s and the why’s of diversity, equity and inclusion and we need to move on from staid roundtable discussions that don’t lead to tangible change.

Trans hate

There’s no clever subheading for this part, just sheer dismay and outrage that an unelected Prime Minister can use his platform to spread hate about just 0.2% of the population.

His rhetoric echoes that aimed towards gay people in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, and as we’ve seen over time - the human condition has more empathy for each other than amongst those looking to grab and hold onto power. It’s a playground tactic - bully those with the least power to protect themselves, just to play to the crowd.

We’ve got to move on from this, and fast. In my time as a trustee of akt, a leading LGBTQ+ charity, I learnt first hand just how vile transphobia leads to homelessness and poorer life outcomes for some of the most marginalised individuals. The idea of living in a country that is led by people who want to fuel that fills me with dread and despair.

The hope for change

We need to now pay our attention to the short term ED&I bashing we’ve seen this week and examine the changing public response and sentiment around it. While in some corridors we’re seeing skepticism and cynicism around inclusion, in others we’re seeing people want to be part of changing the organisations and the structures they’re in.

We’re seeing data that demonstrates how the fabric of society is changing, and we’re seeing how different generations are questioning the status quo - from Gen-Z ‘quiet quitting’ to baby boomers joining Extinction Rebellion. We are also seeing people speak up and speak out about the transphobic comments and rhetoric. This should give us hope that there is a groundswell of change on the horizon being sparked at all levels.

In the mid-term we need to roll our sleeves up and have hard conversations about who we are today and who we want to be. That requires grappling with the heaviness that comes with ‘Britishness’ as an identity, that requires grappling with the nations Britain colonised that are going through rapid growth and whose diaspora now lead the land of the coloniser.

In the long term there’s every possibility that today’s dog whistle will become tomorrow’s case study of where it all went wrong. Truly grappling with what the sentiment and desires for diversity and inclusion mean isn’t about one identity group over the other - it’s really about relevance and how we function in society.

This week just might just be the start of some change happening - it’s certainly left me and others around me thinking: what am I doing to create a better country for myself, for those around me and for the next generation?

Asad Dhunna is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Unmistakables.


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