Talking Point

12 Diverse Days of Christmas #5: Born to Rule the World?

Peter Holt LLB (Hons), Chart. PR, FCIPR, FRSA is assistant chief executive at South Northants Council.  He’s worked all round the U.K. and all round the public sector, from Parliament to the NHS, and policing to local government.  In what he now considers his ‘misspent youth’, and uniquely amongst council chief officers, Peter was formerly the leader of a London borough council.

I first met Peter when he was leading communications for Bristol City Council and I was doing the same for University Hospitals Bristol; we bonded from the get go and I am privileged to call him my friend. Peter writes today’s blog.

“As a kid, I never really imagined I was born to rule the world – no ‘World King’ childhood fantasies for me, a la Boris Johnson.

“But it didn’t take me long growing up to notice the advantages I enjoyed that others didn’t. 

“Growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, my playschool and then school classes, my friendship groups and birthday parties, were of very mixed ethnicity.  I only really reflected on that when I moved to Britain for the first time in 1977 and suddenly the one or two kids in my class who weren’t white were treated really differently by the others – at first, at least – in a way I’d never seen before.

“I went to a public school too – founded in 1407, and therefore older than Eton, but much less posh.

“Looking back now, I can see the advantages.  We were expected to all go to University – not a Poly, mind – at a time when only I think around 20% of school leavers went into higher education.

“We’ve got words for it now: privilege, entitlement.

“Growing up gay in that environment was no fun – but it was easy to be invisible to avoid the prejudice that my women or ethnic minority or disabled peers lived and breathed 24/7/365.  I didn’t enjoy my childhood closet for one moment, even if it helped me avoid black eyes.

“Since coming out, it’s the occasional career opportunity I’ve lost out on (and my god – did that sting!), but at six foot and with what I might charitably describe as ‘a rugby build’, I’ve at least avoided being gay-bashed.

“So now I’m 51, and am an assistant chief executive of a council, and a Fellow of my professional body, the CIPR.  I get to employ people, set policies, and run services that people rely on.  Somewhere along the line (without noticing, nor explicitly consenting) I seem to have become a grown-up.

“We’re all shaped by our life experiences, and especially the inspirational role models we’ve come across (in my case, none more inspirational than Mo Mowlam, who I worked with in the early 90’s).

“In my sector – local government/the public sector generally – we have a statutory duty under the Equalities Act 2010 (thanks Harriet Harman!) to carry out ‘equalities impact assessments’ – checking how each of our services or budget decisions impact differently on the range of ‘protected characteristic’ communities.

“Where my mum probably thinks of this as ‘political correctness gone mad’, I’m actually a big fan.

“So now as a professional communicator, and as a leader in a big organisation, I understand it’s my and our job to understand the way that different audiences communicate and engage and experience, and to target appropriately, informed by these considerations.

“We’ve come a long way.  I think we’re heading in the right direction.  But the facts and figures show we’ve so, so much further to go, and we all have our role to play.  For me, that just starts as a middle-class, privately-educated, middle-aged, well-fed white bloke remembering from time to time to reflect on my privileged experience, and then do the right thing.”

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