I often wonder how different my view of today's Britain would be if I had not lived abroad for 20 years. Expats often find it hard to resettle in their home country. Sometimes they are not "comparing apples with apples" when reviewing their life in a low-wage country against that in the capital-intensive UK. I went to a retirement party this week at a law firm where I was a partner until 1997. I had not seen some of the people there since before I left the UK in 1992, and almost none of them since I changed firms while abroad. So they were an interesting 'control group' for this question.
Most were initially surprised by my comments about changes in the UK during my absence. The changes had crept up on them over time and had not struck them so forcefully. When they thought about them however, they agreed they didn't like them much. They did not like 'political correctness' and felt particularly uncomfortable with its translation into law.
Someone recalled that twenty or so years ago, the firm's first-ever Muslim partner had asked an Orthodox Jewish job applicant how he would handle closing an urgent deal on a Friday with sunset approaching. The applicant did not get the job and complained - ludicrously - that this then predominantly Jewish firm was anti-semitic. The management had responded by issuing a grovelling apology and taking the Muslim partner off the recruitment panel.
No law was broken at the time. Indeed many of the Jewish partners asked similar questions when recruiting and were both surprised and disappointed by the firm's response. Today HR would have a fit if a partner asked such a question, just as they would if one asked a female applicant of child-bearing age how she intended to fit her career around any plans for a family. There would almost certainly be a claim under equality legislation.
The high proportion of Jewish and female partners in those long-ago days rather suggested there were acceptable answers to be given to these now-taboo questions. An Orthodox Jew might propose to involve a Gentile or less Orthodox colleague in his deal in order to cover for holy days. A female lawyer might say she had a house-husband or other family support, planned to hire a nanny or intended to give priority to child-rearing over competing for partnership. Or she might say she wasn't interested in having children so the issue didn't arise.
Now that the question cannot be asked, the temptation (though no-one would ever admit it) is to assume the worst-possible reply. This cannot be to the candidate's advantage. No-one believes a Jewish, Muslim or female lawyer is intrinsically inferior, so the only question is how to respect their different needs without compromising client service. That requires an honest and open discussion on both sides; now no longer permitted. It's a similar unintended outcome to that created by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. As offenders are legally-entitled to lie about their convictions (and employers are not allowed to check) HR departments everywhere bin any CV that has gaps that might represent time spent in prison.
Honesty really is the best policy. The best way to deal with concerns about race or sex prejudice is to give its 'victims' every chance to show - as I am absolutely certain is true - that it is not a useful guide to performance. I worked in jurisdictions with no such legal restrictions and honestly never asked myself any question about a candidate that did not go directly to the issue of better service to clients. Because that's what I cared about - and what was in the best interests of my business.
There was one person present at the party who strongly disagreed with my views. He denied there had been any chilling of free speech. He was entirely happy with the Equalities Act and with all changes in employment law. Nor had he any problem with the discriminatory concept of 'hate crime.' He felt just as free as ever he had and said I was making 'a ridiculous fuss'. It was a happy occasion so (I am gradually learning to fit in) I passed it off lightly.
When he had moved on, someone commented wryly that this scion of an illustrious legal dynasty (a leading City firm bears his family name) must mainly read his Guardian on the deck of his yacht. Apparently he now spends much of his time cruising the Aegean. It's odd that the Toynbee-ite rich have the most left-wing views, isn't it? But then in this paradoxical country of ours, nothing is as one would expect. The main health problem of our poor is obesity and the main problem of our rich is befuddled Marxism.
Engels and Marx - longtime expatriates in England - never predicted that.