The dynamic diversity of our history should give us courage

During the election, right-wing politicians, hacks and proprietors divided Britons so they could get to rule over us

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The Independent Online

I had been feeling sad and hopeless, but a letter from an 87-year-old and a musical rekindled my optimism this week.

Mr Albert Drew, of Loughton, Essex, responded to my last column in which I tried to understand the rich: “[They] are not just satisfied with their money. Once greed kicks in, it is like a disease without a cure. I hope this helps,” he wrote.

Albert helped more than he knows. He didn’t see me as a “coloured” stranger but a kinswoman, who, like him, cannot accept the proposition that some must make and keep billions so the rest can get to pick up crumbs from under their tables.

On Tuesday, we went to see Bend it Like Beckham, the musical. The film was released in 2002 and became an international hit. It is an affecting story of two ordinary teenage girls, one white, one Asian, who want to be football stars. The writer and director Gurinder Chadha, was a local Southall girl, who too had big dreams.

This version is joyful but more political, responding perhaps to Ukip and those who bemoan diversity. In an early scene, men and women of all ethnicities, including Polish plumbers, dance lustily, defiantly. Though they face racism, migrants are robust and determined and the locals accommodate them and sometimes love them.

At the Stoke Newington Festival, where I spoke, these same messages came through, strong and clear. Inequality, bigotries and twitchiness make Britain look and feel less great than it could be.

During the election, right-wing politicians, hacks and proprietors divided Britons so they could get to rule over us. They pitted the poor against the poor, white working classes against minority working classes, the disabled against the able bodied, the old against the young, neighbours against neighbours, settled migrants against new migrants, whites against blacks and Asians, middle classes against those below them. That GB, which at the start of the millennium projected itself as a confidently cosmopolitan country seemed to die in May.

It was the nastiest, most-dishonourable election I can remember. I wasn’t here in 1964 when the Tory racist Peter Griffiths took the seat from Labour in Smethwick in the Midlands, with the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.”

In those days white barbers would not cut African or Asian hair and pubs had signs saying: “Indians not allowed in the lounge”. Enoch Powell was a hero then. Devious Ukip too used immigration to attract Labour voters and Powell has returned as a hero for diehard nativists. Despite these setbacks, the Olympic spirit lives on. It must.

There are many more of us who believe that than those who don’t. Oh don’t start sneering about the “metropolitan elite”. Oligarchs aside, London is left of centre and its dynamism comes from diversity and mutuality. New research by Ludi Simpson and Stephen Jivraj shows that diversity spreads far beyond the capital. Reading. Oxford and Cambridge are now multifarious, global hubs. And even those who voted for small-island politicians don’t actually live like small islanders. 

Britons have become culturally European without quite noticing it. Wine, cappuccino, croissants and baguettes are loved by all classes. Spain, France and Italy are our local neighbourhoods and the old communist regions have become playgrounds for our young – pub crawls in Magaluf, hen nights in Prague. Rafal Trzaskowski, Poland’s secretary of state for European Affairs, warned this weekend that our citizens needed to understand the consequences of Brexit. He is right. Are Britons prepared to forgo holiday homes in beautiful places in mainland Europe, visa-free travel across the continent, wine and beer shopping trips to Calais and the right to retire to Spain? To lose fundamental entitlements – paid holidays for part-time workers, high safety standards for those working in mining and hazardous occupations, the right to religious belief, gender equality and free expression?

Europe stops our own government from becoming too invasive or autocratic. It ensures justice when our own system fails. A young woman used the Human Rights Act and won a case against Hampshire police in May. She was raped in 2012, aged 17. The police had accused her of lying and did nothing. We take all this for granted. From John Milton who wrote in English, Italian, Latin and French to our Germanic Royal family, Europe washes through and fertilizes these isles. Our story is a European story and no rewriting can change that truth.   

The same is true for the rest of the world. Britain, England most of all, has been open to international influences since it first imagined and named itself. While researching my book, Exotic England, I learnt mixed marriages here go back to the mid-1500s and that Christopher Wren thought Gothic architecture was really Indo-Saracenic style “refined by Christians”. The Crusaders brought back cloves, almonds and saffron and Elizabeth I emulated Istanbul fashionistas. Black and white activists fought for equality, freedom and dignity.

In May 1820, William Davidson, a Jamaican – married to a widowed Englishwoman – and his four white comrades were hanged, then beheaded. They had joined the Cato Street Conspirators, working men, who like the ANC in South Africa, plotted violent insurrections against the powerful. Multicultural Britain existed long before the Empire Windrush arrived in 1947.

We cannot excise this extraordinary history or shake off its essential nature. We must reclaim diversity and equality and save the future. It won’t be easy. Xenophobia, white flight, ethnic and religious separatism, anti-welfare attitudes have built a formidable fortress. But millions of us are not isolationists, political or social conservatives. And we can’t simply cower or roll over when the stakes are so high.

@y_alibhai

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