Downing Street celebrates Britain's diverse talent, but not its diverse opinions

Progress is about more than ticking demographic boxes

At a British television awards dinner some years ago one of the speechmakers offered a surprisingly direct attack on the then BBC Director General, John Birt. Donald Trelford, the editor of The Observer, one of Britain’s Sunday newspapers, wanted to make a point about how business leaders must encourage creativity through diversity. He attacked John Birt’s managerial style as dependent on employing people of a similar mindset to himself.

Mr Birt had an engineering background and Trelford suggested that Mr Birt surrounded himself with those who had an obsession with measuring and counting things and this narrowness stifled creativity. Trelford insisted that a leader who employed only those who echoed the leader’s views ensured that the organisation could only be as good as the leader. Wiser leaders, however, tolerated constructive dissent and that allowed more flowers of creativity to bloom.

Diversity also means leaders have to listen to constructive dissent as well as tolerate it. A woman friend, in a senior business position said to me – in words familiar to many women in business – that at the top executive level when she or another woman came up with a good idea, that initiative is sometimes only adopted after a man repeats the idea. This trope is so familiar that women stand-up comedians tell jokes about it, but the joke is not amusing. On the bright side, change is coming.

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Diversity also means leaders have to listen to constructive dissent as well as tolerate it

From personal experience I know many businesses which recognise that they often fall short of recruiting the best possible talent because they do not cast their net widely enough.

One of the UK’s biggest accountancy firms, KPMG, announced it wants to recruit more people from working class backgrounds into senior positions. KPMG defines “working class” as those who have parents with "routine and manual" jobs, such as drivers, cleaners and farm workers.

They plan to have 29 per cent of the firm’s partners and directors from working class backgrounds by 2030. At present 23 per cent of partners and 20 per cent of KPMG directors are from those backgrounds.

Another big accountancy firm has committed to recruiting high flyers from schools rather than from universities, again to widen the pool of potential recruits. The UK Foreign Office – once a bastion of white male Oxford and Cambridge graduates – has recently given its most high profile postings to women ambassadors. These include Washington, Paris, Beijing, the United Nations, Rome, Berlin, Moscow and Tokyo.

The success of Emma Raducanu, Britain’s new tennis superstar, is being hailed by some as proof that a different kind of diversity encourages fresh talent. On social media and elsewhere commentators have pointed out that immigrants to the UK, like the Raducanu family, can often become the best of British, and in Emma’s case, the best in the world too.

She has a Chinese mother, a Romanian father and arrived in England as a two year old, growing up in Kent. In winning the US Open she has received a warm message of congratulations from the Queen. Undoubtedly numerous big businesses will wonder how they can sign up such a stunningly successful living example of diversity to promote their products to their diverse customers worldwide.

But among the more pointed political comments about Raducanu have been those directed against the British government and in particular the Home Secretary Priti Patel. Ms Patel and other government ministers have shown very blunt hostility towards asylum seekers who come to Britain despite the fact that Ms Patel is the daughter of migrants who came to the UK from Uganda in the 1960s.

And this is where diversity of background, class, race or gender does not necessarily lead to diversity of thought. Prime Minister Boris Johnson deserves great credit for appointing a number of people of colour into a racially diverse government with a few women, including Ms Patel, in top positions. But unfortunately making government more diverse on race or (to an extent) gender has not led to a notable diversity of ideas. Quite the opposite. From the start Mr Johnson made clear that every member of his Cabinet has to march in lockstep and be prepared not only to implement Brexit but also to embrace, if necessary, its most radical form.

One early Cabinet meeting was filmed to show senior government members all chorusing in agreement that everything was to be sacrificed to leaving the EU. The Trade Minister, Liz Truss, has been congratulated in Conservative party circles for how successfully she has abandoned her former pro-EU stance to become, miraculously, a staunch Brexiter.

Less charitable commentators note how easily she changed her principles to keep her job. But Donald Trelford’s point was broadly correct. A more diverse workforce expands a businesses’ pool of talent.

Perhaps the way in which Britain has taken that living emblem of diversity, Emma Raducanu, to its heart might encourage some to see immigration as an opportunity rather than a threat. But diversity also must mean diversity of opinions. Leaders who silence critics in the boardroom or around the Cabinet table are not showing strength. They lack confidence to convince colleagues and defend their own ideas. It’s weak.

Published: September 14th 2021, 5:00 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National