Shaping Brexit Britain From Our Shared Recent Past

Brexit has highlighted that Britain is a divided nation. Having voted Remain, I was shocked and saddened by a minority of powerful metro-elite pro-EU supporters who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the result. It was their vitriol against working-class voters that has led me to rethink many of my previously held assumptions.

This article is published in the Windrush 70th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine 2018 

Brexit has highlighted that Britain is a divided nation. Having voted Remain, I was shocked and saddened by a minority of powerful metro-elite pro-EU supporters who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the result. It was their vitriol against working-class voters that has led me to rethink many of my previously held assumptions.

It was the direct attack on “uninformed” voters that provoked my soul-searching. I know who they meant, it was poor white Britons. But what they had failed to take into account is that many first-generation immigrants would also fit in that category. People like my parents who came here to work in the steelworks and textile factories. The obvious course of action would have been to point this out, but I already knew the response would be “of course I don’t mean your parents”.

This is a response I might have accepted 10-15 years ago as a recent graduate making my way in New Labour’s promised “we are all middle class now” Britain. What had changed for me in that time was my experiences as a teacher in Birmingham, London, and Leicester, where I served the Pakistani Muslim, Black African-Caribbean and White working-class communities. My decision to become a teacher had been the result of one factor alone: I wanted children from disadvantaged backgrounds like mine to succeed.

Just before Thatcher’s election, my parents had bought a house on the edge of middle-class suburb in Leicester, under the mistaken belief that their jobs were secure. The intake in my state school was a microcosm of British society: multicultural, racially mixed and with children from both working and middle-class backgrounds. Thus, the scene was set for a childhood divided – a home life dominated by the harsh realities of deindustrialisation dealt to the working class and an educational experience that gave me every opportunity in life.

Yet it was what I took for granted that now seems remarkable. The Leicester I grew up in was one where I and the people I knew were free of racism. Racism existed as a few bad experiences that my parents had faced in their early days in the country and a moral bad that did happen but occurred elsewhere to other people. Leicester’s initial hostility to immigrants and a brief flirtation with the National Front in 1974 subsided as quickly as it had arisen, giving way to a city at ease with a range of different cultures. This was no accident either. People in the city had looked at London and other cities where racial tensions were high and tried their best to take a different approach so that they could avoid descending into rioting and worse. To their credit, they have so far succeeded. The penny dropped for me over this last Christmas: Leicester was a city dominated by the industrial working class and how they behaved to each other in their factories all day spilled into our everyday interactions. Ours is a society based on treating each other as human beings, joining in each other’s festivities as much or as little as we wish and acting in a reasonable, reciprocal manner.

As young people, we usually assume that the world we live in basically reflects that of the rest of the country we live in. It’s an easy mistake to make and it’s only by interacting with others and the wider world that one can gain greater knowledge and make the revisions to one’s thinking that are necessary. My time in Brixton was a reality check which showed me that racialised thinking and race politics, that I had assumed was a thing of the past, did still exist in the present in the hearts and minds of different communities. Moving back to Leicester was a secondary reality check. The areas seemed more segregated than the ones I had grown up in, as were the schools I taught in. But my experience of being back predominantly among the working-class communities of Leicester made me realise that for us “more in common” is not just a hashtag to be tweeted out.

If the current crop of identitarians are to be believed, there is no escape from our collective colonial and racial past. Yet both my childhood and adult life in Leicester shows that not only is this possible, it is necessary if we are to move forward together as a nation.

To that end I support the teaching of British values in schools as a means of exploring our past and present honestly and openly, looking at what we can learn from when Britain has met those values and when it has not. This would enable us to place our ancestors’ experiences during slavery and colonialism as part of a wider British history. My parents’ choice to move to Britain cannot be understood through the prism of race which caricatures them as mere victims and cuts out their positive experiences in this country.

During the EU referendum campaign, it became clearer to me that there were vast differences in opinions within each of the communities. We need to better reflect these divergent ideas. While a simple multicultural model may have worked in the past, it cannot explain the multiplicity of experiences that exist within our society.

My parents’ story can be told in many ways but to me, they are part of the last generation to have understood and experienced being part of the industrial working class as a mass movement and as the bedrock of British society. It was in finding their common focus on family, neighbourhood, duty and sacrifice that the factory workers in Leicester were able to unlock the way to coexist through all these decades.

I have come to embrace the opportunity that Brexit will give us culturally to renew our nation, ourselves as people and it is for us who have lived the most peacefully together to step up and help shape the way ahead.

  • I lived in Birmingham during most of the 1970s and the early 1980s, and coming from Michigan–where there was alway an undercurrent of tension in inter-racial friendships–I was amazed to find how little ethnic origin mattered–except perhaps as an opportunity to learn about other cultures. Working as a jobbing builder, my brickie was Jamaican and we virtually adopted my labourer, a lad from St Kitts who was orphaned at the age of 12. I still keep in touch. When we were working anywhere near Ballsall Heath, we usually had curries for lunch in Ladypool Road. My builder’s merchants were the Manjit brothers, and they too became close personal friends, even to the point where we were invited to family function. When the youngest brother got married, they invited all of their customers to a fantastic bash at a massive community centre, where builders of every imiginable race and ethnic origin got happily pissed. When my wife died some 8 years after we moved to East Anglia, there were as many black and brown faces at her funeral as white.

    Sadly, we’ve lost a lot of that, even if we haven’t descended to anywhere near the levels of paranoid and hostility that still exists in the US. To a large extent, I blame the Guardian, which does far more to fan the flames of resentment than the Daily Mail. Sometimes it seems that every racial incident is dug up and polished for all it is worth: no grievance is too small.

    The fate of our Phoenix Free School proposal is instructive; it was proposed by Affan Burki, an Army Captain who was born in Pakistan and raised in Manchester. After he read my policy paper advocating that England adopt a programme similar to the US ‘Troops to Teachers’ initiative, he proposed starting a free school in Oldham staffed by former service personnel, with the express purpose of creating a common British ethos that would unite the Muslim and white communities and heal the scars of the earlier riots. Gove backed our proposal and offered all possible assistance, but it wasn’t enough to overcome official hostility (which, in fairness, had a lot more to do with our military ethos than anything else).

    I still keep in touch with Affan, who now works for NATO in Poland. When I saw him last weekend, he hit the nail on the head. After I mentioned my opposition to ‘Black Lives Matter’, he said “Damn it, ALL lives matter!”.

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