Matthew Parris

Why I now believe in positive discrimination

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

The Prime Minister no doubt knew he would be fanning the flames when he waded into the argument about the admission of black undergraduates to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. We should do him the courtesy of trusting he means it when he says he feels strongly about discrimination in the awarding of university places – and I think he does. In this week’s issue Toby Young marks David Cameron’s essay with tutorial authority, and finds his case wanting.

Particularly valuable among Toby’s marginal notes is his point that you can’t accept applicants if they haven’t applied – and black and working-class students disproportionately don’t. But we enter a vicious circle here. People don’t apply if they don’t think they have a chance, don’t see many faces or hear many accents like theirs among the successful applicants.

And Toby’s argument is prefaced by a shrewd piece of bomb-proofing. Toby says he his talking about BME (black and minority ethnic) students. He then goes on to demonstrate that Indian, Chinese and other minority ethnic groups whose origin is east of Suez, are not a problem. But the PM was not focussing on these. The problem is black students. Despite the race industry’s attempts to conflate all non-whites, black means black: people of African and Caribbean origin. There is a problem here and Toby does not suggest otherwise. His urgent purpose is to add white working-class boys to the list, and he certainly makes that case, but it’s a different – if important – argument.

So what can be done for black applicants? I have become a firm believer in positive discrimination – in questions not of race alone, but of background and of gender more generally. And I should add that systematically overlooked issue for us British: class.

As a younger Conservative and as an MP I took the line Tories instinctively take: all selection should be on ‘merit’, and ‘the best candidate’ should unfailingly win the prize. Labour’s idea of (for instance) all-woman shortlists appalled me and still does; positive discrimination for jobs, university places or parliamentary candidatures in favour of candidates from minority ethnic groups seemed to me to discriminate unfairly against white applicants. Fair was fair and that was that.


I’ve come to believe it isn’t so simple. If of course you believe that black, brown, working-class or female applicants might as groups simply be inferior human beings then you’d have to conclude that this was among the reasons why they tended not to be selected. But what if there are other reasons? Let me suggest three. First, confidence. Secondly, polish. Third, unconscious bias on the selectors’ part.

This third, unconscious bias, is troubling. I was dismayed to try an online test for racial bias the other day, and find that I was ‘mildly’ discriminating against black (not BME) faces. This surprised me. Less surprising (because I’ve mediated many Conservative selection meetings for parliamentary candidates) is the observation that people doing the choosing have more difficulty in seeing (say) a woman as an MP – and so, though they do mean to be fair and apply the same standards to all, will find themselves less impressed by a woman’s performance.

Which brings me to the first of my suggested reasons for bias in selectors: ‘confidence’. In candidate selections I’ve noticed that men have a certain swagger that women often lack. Swagger does not equate to competence, but sometimes forget this when we are (and there’s no other phrase) taken in by an individual’s self-belief.

And this brings me to the third characteristic that can distract us in our quest for pure merit: polish. There really is something about a private education, a certain patina — fluency, articulacy, command — that a good public school can impart. An American lady once remarked that so convincing was an Englishman with a public-school background that you needed to marry him and live with him for ten years before you realised he was basically just thick. Such candidates — be they for a lady’s hand or for a place at Oxford will impress in ways that appear to selectors to indicate merit but don’t.

Successive studies have suggested that, once admitted, state-school pupils do better at university than their independent-school peers with comparable A-level grades. But, like daffodils, children can be ‘forced’ to blossom at the right time in the right way: in this case, achieving examination grades. Private education can do this. But once the university course is embarked upon, with its emphasis on understanding rather than regurgitating, the state-school girl or boy comes into their own. They had previously been held back.

And if we accept that something may often be holding back the black university applicant, or the woman in the jobs market, then surely considerations of ‘merit’ invite us to compensate for that handicap? One can continue to believe in selection by merit, continue to believe in getting the best person for the job or university place, but in assessing merit one will now take intelligent account of [ITAL] potential [ROM] as well as already-demonstrated performance. Once you realise that a car has been being driven with a handbrake on, or a child educated without much encouragement from peer-group, family or teachers, you adjust your expectations of how that car would perform unbraked, or how that child could perform unhindered.

And the odd thing is that any parent, any good teacher, and any good employer knows this instinctively and through experience. We all know the importance and justice of ‘bringing someone on’ — of giving them a chance, that is, that past performance may not appear to warrant, in the belief that they may just need a bit of a boost.

This, of course, is a principled argument for positive discrimination: it is not in itself a workable proposal for adopting the practice at the semi-formalised level at which politics, university admission or human resources have to work. Systematising a good idea can poison it. Any points-based system that adds or subtracts points in a tick-box manner on the basis of race, gender or class, carries its unfairness on its face and will prove counter-productive. Anyway (as Toby Young points out) it would at present be unlawful.

Which leaves us with interview. Here, mercifully, the law has no window into thought-process. Interview, as Toby does not quite acknowledge, can be an important part of university admissions policy. And it is at this stage that David Cameron’s remarks deserve quiet, careful study. We should try to find ways of giving effect to his exhortations in the informal and unacknowledged way that interview can. I’m sure the best universities already do. They should try harder.

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Show comments
  • Badger

    If you discriminate for someone on the basis of their race you are discriminating against someone else on the basis of their race. It’s really that simple.

    • Peter Shaw

      Exactly but Matthew believes some pigs are more equal than others…

  • davidshort10

    I couldn’t get to the end here because I guessed the argument was to be against white working class males. Watch out for the tumbrils, Parris, u posh cahnt

    • Peter Shaw

      Exactly the war on the white working class is now in full swing….

  • Peter Shaw

    Such antediluvian views Matthew you should be ashamed of yourself….

  • Henry Butler-Sloshed

    Another ethnomasochist “who speaks only in threadbare cliches of multiculturalism and Cultural Marxism”. – John Derbyshire

  • Mongo

    how about people getting jobs/placements based on their own merits/talents/personality regardless of skin colour or ethnic origin?

    is that really too radical?

    must be pretty insulting to know you were only picked for a position because you’re the token minority

    • Henry Butler-Sloshed

      Once you show them the money the feeling of insult goes out of the window.

      Who are we kidding here? This whole thing is an effort by politicians and Leftist elite to dumb down whites to the level of non-whites. Once we get there politicians will be happy (they have pool of stupid voters), minorities are happy, they don’t have to compete against whites for jobs, and the “Loony left” is happy, now they can really feel superior!

      • Mary Ann

        No the whole idea is to give minorities equal opportunities because they are discriminated against.

        • Freddythreepwood

          No. The whole idea is to give minorities unequal opportunities because they are too dim to compete on a level playing field.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            And you show why there’s an issue, as you spout off eugenics.

        • Henry Butler-Sloshed

          How do you get from Affirmative Action and preferential treatment to “equal opportunity”?

          Obviously, Mary Ann, is another one of the loony left, presenting cliches without understanding the meaning of “equal”.

          This is a typical Orwellian newspeak!

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Ah, magical hate. Those “dumb” high-performing minorities, for example.

    • Mary Ann

      It has been proven that people with Black and Muslim names who send in CVs are only half as likely to get a response than people with white names who send in identical CVs, so it is actually the other way round at the moment, people are not being picked for a position because they are Black or Muslim.

      • Gilbert White

        That happened to my mate Mohammmed Islam when he applied for under wine server at the Ritz.

        • Mr B J Mann

          Did he also have to serve the bacon butties at chuckin out time?!

      • Mr B J Mann

        And what were the names used?

        I remember seeing a documentary where they had an incomprehensible Afro-Carribean woman phoning up to apply for jobs as a telephonist-receptionist, and she was told to exaggerate her accent so that it was obvious she wasn’t white British?!?!?!?!

        If the names were very unusual, very long, and very difficult to spell and pronounce, they may have been rejected on purely practical, totally non racist grounds.

        Did they do a control experiment with very short, simple, well known, easy to type and pronounce Black and Muslim names and very unusual, very long, and very difficult to spell and pronounce Polish names with lots of unrecognisable accents?!

        And presumably they weren’t all sent to the same company for the same job at the same time (or they are lying about it being the same CV!), so you aren’t comparing like with like. All the BME name CVs could have been totally unsuited for the jobs they were sent for, if so getting half the response would show positive discrimination towards BME!

        • Mary Ann

          You just refuse to accept that people suffer racial discrimination, talk about burying your head in the sand.

          http://www.theguardian.com/money/2009/oct/18/racism-discrimination-employment-undercover

          • Mr B J Mann

            No, it’s you who refuses to accept that the “study” was a load of “bollards!

            For a start, the names all appear to be women, so Nazia Mahmood, and Mariam Namagembe could be Eastern European or Jewish, or even “White British” married to an Asian or African and Alison Taylor could be black American, Carribbean or African!

            Secondly, Mariam could have been rejected because the name was just too much like hard work, rather than for racist reasons:

            For example one of those confusing grand British names might be avoided for the same reason and someone, like eg Nazia Mamood, with a simpler foreign name, might have been picked instead.

            Thirdly, of Nazia had been discriminated against, it might have been because the employer didn’t want the hassle of someone who sounded like they might be burquad up, or it might have been a job on the pork counter, or in an offy or pub.

            So nothing to do with RACE!

            Fourthly the “false identities were created with similar experience and qualifications.”

            So there could have been good reason for some of the CVs being rejected.

            Fifthly: “They found that an applicant who appeared to be white would send nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.”

            How many people send out hundreds, thousands, even of applications and never get ANY response, despite having “true Brit” names?!?!?

            If they sent three different applications for 987 actual vacancies to “hundreds” of employers that looks like it might be for more than one job per employer.

            And if also “Nine occupations were chosen, ranging from
            highly qualified positions such as accountants and IT technicians to
            less well-paid positions such as care workers and sales assistants” there must have been nine different CVs for each “person”!

            There’s much too much variation there to draw any kind of conclusion from the results.

            And what really made me laugh was the example whinges at the end:

            “Navdeep Sethia, 24, an unemployed architecture graduate from Chalk Farm, central London, has submitted more than 400 job applications, but has only heard back from 40 employers and has had fewer than 20 interviews.”

            So a response from one in ten applications, and got an interview from one in twenty.

            I bet there are white British Graduates who would give their eye teeth for even the courtesy of a rejection letter, never mind an interview!

            But he has to whinge:

            “I personally feel that my foreign-sounding name makes a lot of
            difference. I am sure employers think of Southall when they see my name and that is enough for them to put my application aside,” he said.

    • KingEric

      After the boycott of this year’s Oscars as they’re not enough non whites winning prizes, wait till next year when the BME’s prize roll will be massively increased. Problem is, will everyone they got the prize purely for their skin colour? All positive discrimination does is devalue the organisation it is linked to.

      • Mr B J Mann

        And someone here pointed out that the film they were kicking up the biggest fuss about wasn’t even eligible for consideration for the Oscars!

      • Mary Ann

        Negative discrimination does the same.

        • Freddythreepwood

          So you would agree that there should be no discrimination.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Great – so you support name-blind applications, right, avoiding that issue known discrimination for instance?

  • commenteer

    I’ve been an Oxford undergraduate twice, with a thirty year interval. First time round, Oxford did indeed have a significant number of thick public schoolboys among the undergraduates (although more than half, as now, were from state schools). Second time round the thick Oxford students in my discipline were all from state comprehensives; Oxford dons had taken a punt that they were hiding their lights under the bushel of disadvantage, and were often wrong.
    Dons already bend over backwards to discriminate in favour of the less obviously advantaged. Any more, and standards will, inevitably, fall.
    As for the research on state school students doing better at university, I suggest you take a proper look at this. You will find it is pretty meaningless.

    • Mary Ann

      I have always understood that children from state schools are more likely to get 1st than those from private schools, I would be interested in your source of information.

      • commenteer

        Why don’t you try the internet? You’ll find all the research quite easily.

        • William Brown

          Not a particularly helpful, or friendly response to a genuine question, during a debate. Why so?

          • Todd Unctious

            Well to be fair he is not debating. He is making a clumsy attempt to insult state schools.

        • Mary Ann

          I have, that’s where I got my information from.

  • UmUmUmUmUmUm

    Two wrongs will never, ever make a right, no matter how much you thrash around looking for expiations, rationalizations and justifications

    • SunnyD

      maybe not, but I saw a programme on Chinese TV last night about IVF in which two Wongs made a white (baby)

    • Mary Ann

      So you think that the wrongs should just be allowed to continue?

      • Freddythreepwood

        Strawman! From a familiar troll.

        • Mary Ann

          Familiar troll = someone who sees the other side of an argument.

          • Freddythreepwood

            Strawman = Refuting an argument that wasn’t put in the first place.

  • MikeH

    My old grandfather, on witnessing the early rumblings of Third World immigration into the UK always warned:
    ‘Once they get a foothold into our institutions they will slowly destroy our society. Once they get into our parliament it will only hasten our downfall’

    Forty-odd years later, with the country’s narrative now dominated by these various exotic factions, all seemingly keen to be victims of various “isms” at any given opportunity, my grandad doesn’t seem to be the daft racist he one appeared to be!

    • Freddythreepwood

      Was his name Enoch?

    • Todd Unctious

      But you appear to be grandson of a daft racist.

      • The_greyhound

        Important notice for mental pygmies : uttering the magical word no longer works. Glass does not shatter, no one falls over, or even rushes to assure the waiting world that their best friend still lives in a tree.

        We are utterly bored beyond measure with the professional offence takers, and the hordes of economically useless foreigners battering down our doors to take up residence in our truly terrible, truly discriminatory country.

        MikeH’s grandad was perfectly correct: people from such inferior cultures do indeed connive to damage the fabric of our society. Now go and parade your virtue in a school yard, where it might be more appreciated.

  • JEK68

    Bad news Mathew, due to the lack of black writers you will now be replaced and not given a platform to write anywhere due to your skin colour (all for the greater good you understand), your unqualified incompetent replacement will be arriving soon.
    Sound fair or just or helpful or rational or historically justified? No didn’t think so. Grow up.

    • Ipsedixit

      No, he sussed that one out the other month by writing that he’d prefer to be black. He’s trans-racial so he gets the benefit of positive discrimination on two counts.

  • MikeF

    ‘Unconscious’ bias on the part of people selecting candidates for university places or jobs or whatever may, of course, just be imaginary bias on the part of Mr Parris and those who think like him.

  • Count Spencer

    Coming from a man who is, as i seem to remember (if you read his Wikipedia pre 2015), literally a cuckold you will find his support for this policy very predictable.

    • Todd Unctious

      Homophobic. Is there no moderation here?

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Actually seems more eugenics to me. Or maybe just a call to kill…hard to tell.

      • The_greyhound

        Demonstrate that he is wrong, if you can, instead of whining for mummy.

      • JJD

        I’m not aware that Big Eck is secretly gay. Is he?

        Too quick off the mark, Todd. Save it for real homophobia, lest you cheapen the currency of offence by over-production.

  • SunnyD

    one of my former employers used to weed out the “unlucky” applicants from the “lucky” ones by tossing half the cvs on his desk into the bin

  • Brassmonkey

    I would have loved to have played professional football but unfortunately the playing staff at our clubs are dominated by a variety of non english ethnic groups. Any chance of a quota system to keep England teams having a representative number of white working class lads?

    • Todd Unctious

      Full of Carlos Kickaballs and Africans.

  • sidor

    The positive discrimination issue is much more relevant nowadays than it was half-century ago. The reason is that we have a dramatically new economy where all the national wealth is produced by a minority, the rest are (relative or absolute) parasites. The parasites are divided in two groups: well-payed parasites and poor parasites. The latter are trying to join the former group. There is no rational reason to constrain these desire by whatever specific qualities (merits), since these don’t matter at all. Most of the well payed are payed for a job which is either redundant or doesn’t require any merits. Consider journalists, politicians, pop stars and other media figures, economists, philosophers, sociologists and other representatives of the so-called “social sciences”. Therefore, it would certainly be fare to provide equal representation of all the social groups in that section of well-payed parasites. It wouldn’t have any effect on anything real.

    • Todd Unctious

      Correct. Little opportunity to show any merit. We all live on tick.

  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘As a younger Conservative and as an MP I took the line Tories instinctively take: all selection should be on ‘merit’, and ‘the best candidate’ should unfailingly win the prize. ‘

    And you were rIght, Matthew. Besides, your argument falls at the last hurdle. If black students don’t get the grades, they will not qualify for the interview. The situation will not change as long as we keep allowing them to accuse us of discrimination and racism when they fail. Giving children a ready made excuse for failure is asking for trouble.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Yea, never mind what happens. Tell me, when a name more typically English is used for job interviews, why do what’s otherwise the same CV’s do far better?

      (Hence name-blind recruitment on the rise)

      • Freddythreepwood

        So, which part of ‘the best candidate should unfailingly win the prize’ do you disagree with?
        And I have evaluated thousands of CVs (many of which went into File 13 unread) and drawn up dozens of short lists, and not once did I come across two CVs that were exactly the same.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          The part where it doesn’t happen, *as a matter of statistics* and demonstrably, when names are left on CV’s.

          And I’ve handled maybe a few hundred and already had to deal with several identical ones. Both cases of deliberately copying other peoples. And?

  • Athelstan

    The Fall of Rome.

  • Athelstan

    We need an entirely new political consensus, which rejects the notion that Whites must be disenfranchised in order to solve the worlds problems.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Oh, so what we have today, as your fantasy…

  • JJD

    Of the three reasons you cite, two, probably all three, never actually come into play before the interview. There’s no way of gauging confidence or swagger other than by meeting a person. But people don’t get the interview unless their grades are good enough.

    So the point about the “thick” public schoolboy has no traction. If he’s thick, he won’t get to interview. Once there, then I’m quite happy for the panel to take these factors into account. As you reasonably suggest, it is systematization that is to be feared. There is nothing to be feared, on the other hand, from experienced judges who draw on that experience when weighing the abilities of students. Experience teaches that the best candidate is not always the smoothest or the brashest or the most immediately impressive. Or male, or white, etc, etc. Good judges are able to spot potential.

    But how do we judge whether or not this is happening? As you say, the interview room is sealed from scrutiny. It is the attempt to tailor the admissions process to set targets that I fear. And this seeems to be implicit in your closing sentence. How do you define “better”? By taking a more ‘relativistic’ approach in interviews (achievement relative to circumstance and opportunity)? But how do you know the current approach is insufficiently relativistic? Only by having defined “better” numerically, in advance. For me, the “better” is a procedural “better”, not a quantitative one. And the absence of the latter does not prove the absence of the former.

  • Frank

    Must you always parade your virtue?

    • The_greyhound

      What else has he?

  • The_greyhound

    I should like to see positive discrimination in favour of real Britons, now gravely disadvantaged by toadying politicians who would never scruple to sacrifice the interests of their countrymen, in order to signal their virtue to their fellow bien pensant liberals.

  • Carstairs

    Mathew Parris has confidence and polish but seems to lack the ability to question his assumptions or do basic fact checking. Some quick googling established that the drop out rate for Oxford was 1.6%, that of other prestigious establishments slightly higher, whereas poor old London Metropolitan ( where many a dusky face will be found ) was 15.5%. So the people who get into “good” universities may be “forced to blossom” ( Parriss’s words ) but they do carry on blooming for at least the next three years!

    Could the problem be the plant and not the greenhouse? Oh, say not so!

  • Jacobi

    Positive discrimination is a disaster, in whatever field. It prevents excellence.

    Universities, particularly “top”, whatever that means, should pick from the
    best available.

    Colour of skin, address, sexual orientation, male or female are other problems, and should not come into the selection process.

    In particular you mention the problem of some people having been held back. That simply does not apply these days given the versatility of entrance
    systems and indeed the desirability of pre-university experience while candidates mature.

    These remarks apply not just to education, but to any field.

  • ugly_fish

    Read “No Matter What…They’ll Call This Book Racist” by Harry Stein. IMO it pretty convincingly demolishes the arguments for so-called “positive discrimination”.

  • Mr B J Mann

    “We should try to find ways of giving effect to his exhortations in the informal and unacknowledged way that interview can. I’m sure the best universities already do. They should try harder.”

    Why when as many, if not more, BMEs and Asians get into Oxbridge and Russell Group universities pro rata?!

    And more women get into more, and more well paid, jobs!!!

  • Marvin

    The only message I get from “Positive Discrimination” IS, that the white race is superior and the rest need to be helped because of the colour of their skins. And I ain’t white.

    • Mary Ann

      That’s not it, We need positive discrimination to negate negative discrimination. I was actually against it until I read a report that showed that even now it is far harder to get a job if you have a black or a Muslim name.

      • Pioneer

        “it is far harder to get a job if you have a black or a Muslim name.”

        If that is true, why do you think it would be?

        Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see. You are constantly being manipulated.

  • green hackle

    Only an ignorant Halfwits would think Positive discrimination is a Good thing, All discrimination is Discrimination no mater if You are Black, White or Yellow, Why is it Stupid people think its O/K to Discriminate against White People, Black people Deserve as Much as Any White person, But No Way do the Deserve More, thats Discrimination and thats not on..

  • Ipsedixit

    Matthew, You have supported positive discrimination for years. You knew it would benefit people like you. I remember when you ‘came out’ on Radio 4. I realised then that they’d give you airtime for life and pay you for it.

  • 22pp22

    Diversity depends on cheating and lies. What a mess!

  • Richard Lutz

    It appears that Mr Parris outed himself as a racist and sexist bigot who supports discrimination based on race and gender. Might it be the case that he thinks blacks and white women are not as smart or talented as white men and wants a politically correct vehicle with which to express this belief?

  • Paul

    Unfortunately much of this nebulous and hard to quantify. Take confidence for example: it is of course perfectly true that some people are more confident than others. However, can we really make this an issue of, for example, gender inequality? We all know many men who get by on supreme confidence which perhaps masks a more average competence and likewise know able men who don’t meet their potential due to a lack of confidence or gravitas. Confidence is not a gender issue however much feminists try to make it so. Positive discrimination is at the top of a slippery slope after which comes quotas and an undermining of excellence where it currently exists.

  • Julian Beach

    II have always instilled in my two little brown boys the idea that they are equal to their white classmates.

    Matthew Parris clearly believes that they aren’t.

  • Bertie

    One cannot help but conclude from this article that Parris is no true Conservative

    “It need not rule out selection by merit”

    Oh but it will. As soon as the politically correct get their mitts on promoting Affirmative Action consideration for merit will go out the window. We see evidence of that across the board already with people clearly getting promoted above their abilities to positions of authority – whether it be that vulgar obnoxious Diane Abbot, to the likes of Louise Mensch, once a Tory MP, to the unlikely big chief of Credit Suisse, Thiam, who is sitting astride a disaster that is declining profitability, low morale, the lowest share price since 1989..all these people have been over promoted based on personal ability. So to think pursuing a similar policy for University admissions wont end with the same outcome is naive at best.

    “First, confidence. Secondly, polish. ”

    You want to push affirmative action / legislate to account for lack of an applicant’s confidence or polish – seriously?

    I’ve seen Parris come up with some barmy ideas but this takes the biscuit. Typical limp wristed wishy washy liberal. He isn’t a conservative at all.

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