Let’s put an end to the divisive public narcissism of identity politics
Obsessions over gender, race and sexuality are a self-indulgent distraction from global crises
as a definition of my professional identity.
So this is the column I swore I would never write – because I didn’t want to write about “Women” even for the purpose of saying that I never wrote about “Women”. But the moment has come when it can be avoided no longer.
Identity politics is now such a serious threat to personal freedom and democratic discourse, that it must be addressed head-on. If we go on like this, some of the most fundamental principles of individual liberty and private conscience will be undermined. It’s time to speak up.
When a Conservative government proposes to enforce the reporting not only of gender but of ethnic pay differentials as well, thus requiring all employees of large firms to categorise themselves by their racial origins – that is, to self-identify as members of minorities whether they wish to or not, or whether they regard this as clear-cut (as in the case of mixed-race people) or not – we are very close to a tipping point. What will be done about employees who refuse to be classified by their ethnic origins? Will their employers be fined because whatever government department is in charge of this aggressively intrusive policy will assume that a lack of complete information on their workforce is an attempt to evade the rules?
Suppose you – or your parents or grandparents – are of Jamaican or Indian origin, but you now consider yourself to be as British as your white workmates? Surely the right to decide how to describe yourself is a basic freedom in a democratic society and no one should have the power to interrogate you on this matter unless you are suspected of some sort of criminal deceit. The government does not generally assume it can legally demand to know your racial history.
The question of whether ethnic origin would be required on census forms has long been a contentious matter and questions about ethnicity on NHS forms are always optional.
This is more than a violation of privacy: it is a dangerous infringement by the state of our right to decide who we are. The word “define” means literally to set limits, to identify and establish the difference between this thing and the things that surround it.
To insist that people be identified, and thus defined, by their gender, their ethnicity, their sexual preferences, their place of birth or whatever other rarefied specialities the identity police can contrive is perforce to limit them: to determine in advance their relationship to the community and to the country.
Such enforced identification has a long and unpleasant history, from Nazi yellow stars to Soviet restricted passports. It is illiberal, divisive and alien to the values of merit and self-determination on which social mobility depends.
Ah yes – social mobility. That is what this initiative is supposed to be about. For women and ethnic minorities are thought to be disadvantaged in the pursuit of equal attainment and pay. In fact, this assertion itself is deeply controversial: virtually all ethnic minority children of both sexes do better in the state education system than white working class boys, and girls currently achieve more university places than boys.
What happens after that in employment is more ambiguous. The reason that women and (perhaps) ethnic minority men earn less than
at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion (white) men may be because they are less likely to be promoted to the higher levels of professional life. For women, we know that this is to some extent by choice – because they give priority to family responsibilities. But the question of preferential promotion for minorities or women is quite a different and less quantifiable matter than unequal pay (which implies that people are being paid less for doing the same work – and this would be illegal) and it is hugely problematic.
I personally believe that there is only one reason why anyone should be considered for promotion to the highest levels of their occupation: because they are the most competent, talented candidate available. I don’t care whether they are male, female, both or neither and I certainly don’t care about their (or their ancestors’) racial origins.
To ignore merit – or downgrade it – as the chief criterion of professional and social progress is to make nonsense of what aspiration and educational achievement are supposed to be about. And it creates bitterness and resentment in places that might surprise the militant pay equality campaigners. Just ask any woman who believes that her husband or partner, son or son-in-law, has lost out professionally to a less able female contender.
The worst of it is that this obsession with identity – which is a kind of public narcissism, an extension of the cult of the Self as the measure of all things – is taking attention away from the real social crisis of our time: globalisation and its consequences for democratic nation states and their populations. Perhaps that’s the whole point. Identity politics is what happens when real politics runs out of ideas.
Such enforced identification has a long and unpleasant history, from Nazi yellow stars to Soviet restricted passports