Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Mr Blunkett has insulted all of us

'You, sir, have opened an important debate in such a crude and ill-informed way, that such acts will be known as Blunkups'
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The Independent Online

Fire and fury erupt again as yet another white British politician tells black and Asian Britons that they must play cricket like Englishmen (who, as we all know, are matchlessly glorious even when defeated) and try harder to acquire the English language and way of life. No, not Tebbit, Powell or Thatcher, but David Blunkett who, in an interview in The Independent on Sunday also said: "We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home – for that is what it is – should accept those norms."

I think I speak good English. At times, with more eloquence and grace than my very English husband, and that is his view not mine. For five years, some at holy Oxford, I studied English literature and read all of George Eliot, Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, Mrs Gaskell, the Brontës, Thackeray, Dickens plus European drama from the Greeks to Look Back in Anger. I have now learnt to eat nicely with all that confusing cutlery they lay intimidatingly at formal dinner tables. Until 1972, I usually ate with my hands and found it hard to use a knife and fork, often sending bits of chicken chops peas flying on to laps. I am passionate about parliamentary democracy and Tom Paine, justice and the rule of law.

What's more, seven years ago, I finally decided this place was my place, and that was because I had a daughter whose father was of these islands.

This did not make me any less black, Asian or Muslim – those identities are in my blood, thick and forever. But it made me kick more vigorously at those stern, steely gates that keep people of colour outside the heart of the nation then blame them for fighting each other in the multicultural wastelands into which the establishment has pushed them.

A number of us broke through. The going was (and still is) incredibly hard but we are in now and, bit by bit, the very essence of Britishness is being transformed. As Benjamin Zephaniah says in his poem "Knowing Me": "I'm not a half poet shivering in the cold/ Waiting for a culture shock to warm my long lost drum rhythm/ I am here and now, I am all that Britain is about/ I am happening as we speak."

So why is it, Mr Blunkett, that every single day of my life, I get abuse from white indigenous people (eight such emails as I write, and it is only 11am) who say they hate me, that I should go, that this is their country and that they wish me and mine dead? African-Caribbean Britons, who are Christian and English speaking, still face deadly racism which destroys their lives and aspirations – how do you explain that?

Life is vastly better for us today than it was when I arrived and it is true that some of what we have seen in Oldham and Bradford arose out of the politics of separation, which have made integration impossible. But you, sir, have opened an extraordinarily important debate in a crude and ill-informed way. All you have done is spark the rethinking so many of us have been arguing for in recent years. You may even have demolished your own excellent policy ideas, which now appear not brave but menacing. Such acts of political self harm may henceforth be known as "Blunkups".

The main presumption of this thoughtless outburst is that people of colour entering this country are coming into someone else's home and must therefore always conform, never dissent from the set norms, and always be grateful. What rubbish, and how devoid of any political understanding. The Canadian government recently decided to change the words on a leaflet for refugees to Canada from "Welcome to Our Home" to "Welcome to Your Home" because the latter gives incomers the message that they can immediately begin to set down roots in their new homeland.

Can we ever imagine this happening here? I am sick of being told that I must be loyal to all that Britain is and was (including its destructive historical role) but that at the same time I must never forget that I am only a guest (unwanted and merely to be tolerated), with such a fragile existence that the bag must always be half-packed. Every time a political leader speaks in this way – and they have done so since 1948 – they take away our right and desire to belong.

If this is my country, and it is, I will criticise what I believe to be wrong, reject "norms" that I find abhorrent, take what I admire, and spend my life helping to make a more inclusive and dynamic new nation, instead of making do with the decayed remnants of a long gone past.

I feel under no obligation to bring my daughter and son up to drink themselves to death in a pub for a laugh. I will not, if you don't mind, go into turmoil every time a white Briton is shown in some foreign prison. And I will encourage my children to question everything the way I never learnt to as a child in a community where we simply had to obey. Finally, I will not rest until we have proud Muslim, Sikh, black and other non-white British ambassadors and EU commissioners and cabinet ministers and all those other transformations my generation has yearned for.

And yet, as I say in my pamphlet, After Multiculturalism, these changes are held back by the kinds of multicultural policies we have had in this country – and yes, mea culpa, I was once a priestess of this philosophy. Learning English is essential if people wish to make something of their lives (and not because otherwise they must expect to be despised and excluded, which is what Blunkett seems to be saying).

I feel ever more strongly that too much power and money has been given to black and Asian "community", and now religious, spokespeople, who only want to create high-pressure ghettos which imprison the young and women in the name of "culture" or, these days, faith. Herman Ouseley's incisive report on Bradford (published in July, and not well received by muttering community leaders) was seriously critical of these policies. Now a government report is expected to go further, saying that these multi-cultural policies have left deprived white Britons resentful.

Our society is fast fragmenting for other reasons too, and again government policies have encouraged the process. Devolution has made the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish unwilling, in growing numbers, to call themselves British. Although, the Home Secretary didn't feel he had to lecture these peoples about nationhood.

The project must be to create a society where all British citizens, however different, can grow a special commitment to each other in this overcrowded, shared space. To do this, politicians need to help people feel attached to locality, to develop commonalities. Local politicians are moving in this direction. Birmingham is one authority to watch. At a seminar on global Britons, organised by the Foreign Policy Centre, participants spoke about this new vision which could help to bring people, white and black, together as modern Brummies.

John Tusa, once said that our breaking, disintegrating country needed to promote the idea of a "good society with a concept of citizenship that relates to others, sees citizens in the round, and adds what they have in common to what they are entitled to have for themselves". Such wisdom is what the whole nation needs to hear from our Home Secretary, not the insulting rush he gave us yesterday.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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