We should not rush to seek structural explanations for individual acts of discrimination

Andy Mayer

January 27, 2022

Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani MP claimed recently that she was sacked due to her “Muslimness”. If upheld, this is a case of textbook discrimination; self-evidently no one in the UK, some 55 years after the Race Relations Act should be losing their job on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”.

The target of the grievance is Chief Whip Mark Spencer MP, who has stated the allegation is entirely false and defamatory. If the Cabinet Office inquiry finds otherwise, he will be fired. If it is upheld and deemed an accurate account of Ghani’s dismissal, it would also be curtains for the Prime Minister, who is the person who hires and fires Ministers, not the Whip.

The latter outcome seems remarkably unlikely. Though the Opposition makes much of the crass things the Prime Minister wrote about Muslims as a journalist (including likening women in burkas to letterboxes), there is no evidence that he or his administration systematically discriminates against any group, let alone Muslim politicians, many of whom hold high office across the government.

Whether Spencer or Ghani are right, however, may be impossible to prove either way. It helps Ghani that she related the incident to colleagues at the time. It helps Spencer that, currently, no one else is coming forward to make similar allegations that would speak to a pattern of behaviour. Both are entitled to fair treatment, and to have their positions taken seriously. The rest of us have no clue as to who is wrong or right, and as Iain Dale notes, everyone is “falling back on their preconceived ideas and bugger the truth.”

The case is interesting and relevant to the modern fascination with critical race theory (CRT) and demands to anti-discrimination practices, or ‘antiracism’. A positive aspect of CRT is to encourage listening without judgement when someone is telling ‘their truth’ – what people believe was said, how was it perceived, and what was intended. The negatives are assumptions that judgement should be suspended entirely, of implicit bias rooted in identity traits, and automatic conflation of the specific with claims of systemic bias. But fair treatment does not mean that someone telling their truth requires you to believe them – claims must be tested on the facts.

If your view of the integrity of either MP is formed by their colour, religion, age, sex, or any other group trait you are engaging in discrimination.

CRT implies there are exceptions, where discrimination is permitted and assumptions of truth should be biased, based on the assumed power relationship between individuals and groups. This is how Labour got into a mess over antisemitism.

In the toxic well of hard left identity politics attacking Jews is considered ‘punching up’, particularly in relation to Israel, whereas attacking Muslims is ‘punching down’ particularly after 9/11. Part of the claims of the CRT-rooted Black Lives Matter movement are based on unequal outcomes, not just unequal treatment. Clearly in law and common sense no such distinctions exist; discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of categories of people, there is no exemption for historic and political grievances.

Power imbalances do matter in understanding the dynamic of disputes, but they must be specific and clearly articulated. It matters for example that targets for Hollywood harassment allegations were in positions of control over their alleged victims. It matters in this case in relation to how MPs can raise disputes, and whether that disputes process is fit for purpose. The Prime Minister is correct that it was not his job to arbitrate this claim; Ghani may well be correct that the Conservative Party’s internal process would not have been adequate or appropriate to assess the conduct of a Minister.

The record of Westminster generally is woeful, whether on discrimination, harassment or bullying, with political imperatives often being allowed to override fair treatment, and presumption that claims of unfairness must in themselves be political.

Whether or not Ghani was unfairly treated or was correct to assume unfair treatment however does not speak to a “culture of Islamophobia”. The government’s opponents are attempting to draw the general from the specific, largely in the hope of ‘levelling down’ the Conservatives to Labour’s disgrace over antisemitism.

This is not a new campaign; similar attempts were made through the 2020 EHRC investigation. Should a flood of related allegations emerge, as happened then, and has happened over Partygate, they will have a point; that does not appear to be the case today. The rush to seek structural explanations for individual acts however is part of the CRT narrative and is unhelpful to tackling actual discrimination. Individuals should be held to account for their actions, not given the excuse of claiming poor judgement is due to their identity.

If the allegations are correct, Mark Spencer is a fool unfit to hold Ministerial office not a victim of his ‘white privilege’. If they are not, this speaks to Nus Ghani’s judgement not her race or faith. If it’s unclear, it is unlikely to be due to a racist conspiracy to avoid taking such things seriously, but the difficulty of reaching definitive conclusions over ‘he said / she said’ disputes.

Tackling discrimination requires that these matters are considered dispassionately and fairly, building people’s faith in the system. Not with a flood of politics and junk social science seeking specific outcomes before reviewing any evidence.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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