My mum once told me about a man she knew who’d come from a poor background and had no luck finding a job. He’d applied for over 400 positions but never got a response, but then he made one change to his CV and the next job he landed straight away. What did he do? He used a friend’s address, a friend who lived in a neighbouring postcode.
The point of her story was that perseverance and lateral thinking will win out in the end, but what I took from it was that employers tend to choose people on arbitrary grounds.
Postcodes are just one way in which employers use direct or indirect discrimination to get the right person, because when they’re going through 300 applicants firms are bound to use shorthand of some sort.
That is one of the reasons why discrimination laws are perhaps unnecessary – because they are generally ineffective at protecting the disadvantaged. Unless you only allow blank CVs and ban interviews, and enforce equality of outcomes, they will always find a way to make decisions based on discriminatory factors. They might unfairly advantage someone because of their voice or their background or – the biggest but least mentioned form of discrimination – their looks.
Another reason why anti-discrimination laws might be unnecessary is because they are the product of fairly racist societies, and are therefore no longer needed. Where once a company, restaurant or hotel could get away with blatant racial discrimination, today they’d be heavily punished by the greatest force for non-discrimination in human history – the market. Businesses have a reputation to maintain, so it’s in their interests to at least appear opposed to racism, while with subtle, indirect discrimination it is impossible for government to regulate anyway.
That was one of the points Nigel Farage was making to Trevor Phillips for a television documentary aired this week, comments which Downing Street called ‘deeply concerning’, while Labour branded them ‘shocking’. Labour being idiotically populist about policy suggestions is no surprise although it is somewhat ironic as the party officially endorses ‘good’ discrimination itself. But it’s really sad to see what has become of the Conservatives. If the Tory party is not rational, sceptical and open to dangerous ideas, it may as well just hire out a patch of rainforest in northern Guyana and be done with it.
British anti-discrimination law has its origins in the Constantine v Imperial Hotels Ltd ruling, which came after a scandalous incident involving the popular professional cricketer Learie Constantine. In 1943 the West Indies international had travelled to London with his family to play in an England v Dominions match and made a reservation at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square. When they arrived some US servicemen complained and the hotel told them that they could only stay one night. Constantine took them to court. Although racial discrimination was not illegal, he argued that they breached the common law principle that innkeepers must not refuse accommodation without just cause. He won, and racial discrimination was fully outlawed by the Race Relations Act of 1965. Today, however, there are more than one hundred anti-discrimination laws covering not just race but sex, sexuality, religion, disability and other protected characteristics. The aim is not to prohibit blatant discrimination but to create a perfect society in which prejudice and injustice is removed, with an entire bureaucracy created towards achieving this goal.
Trevor Phillips was once a major part of that bureaucracy but has now come to believe it went too far. He said: ‘Campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them. But now I’m convinced we were utterly wrong.’
He is, in my opinion, a deeply reasonable and wise man who sees the limits and failures of diversity without losing his humanity and compassion. This is a hard balancing act, especially when so many politicians have a vested interested in taking offence. Abolishing anti-discrimination laws might not be a good idea but it is a defensible one, and were it to happen it would be a sign not of how racist Britain was but how tolerant it has become.