Let us now praise the surprising successes of multicultural Britain

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIFTY YEARS ago this month, on 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush brought to this country 492 Jamaicans, the first batch of post-war black immigrants to this country. Most were young, dressed to win and full of aspiration. The Evening Standard greeted their arrival with the big bold headline: "Welcome Home."

Those who survive, many of their descendants and other black and Asian Britons would question if this country has been "home" to them. Evidence daily emerges of how much racism, discrimination and racial violence still blight the lives of black Britons.

We are in the middle of the heart-rending enquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence whose parents did not even bury his body here, but took it back to the Caribbean where in death he would be safe. Today thugs daily despoil the stone marking the spot he was murdered. The conscientious MP Keith Vaz last month produced a dossier revealing how Whitehall remains true to its name, and this week Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, called for a radical shake-up of the race laws to broaden their scope and make them more effective against powerful institutions. Many of the original arrivals interviewed on a BBC series on Windrush express movingly how their dreams turned to ashes.

But like most things in life this is only part of the story and while it is right that we should constantly highlight ongoing racial injustices, the extraordinary advances that have occurred merit pride of place too. And the symbols of that progress are everywhere, even in the most unexpected places.

The death of Enoch Powell was announced on British television by two black broadcasters: Trevor Phillips on one channel and Trevor Macdonald on the other. And properly measured and stiff upper-lipped they were too. Poor Enoch. His fantasies fade as we move towards becoming one of the most dynamic multiracial societies in western Europe.

And yet, like many others I spend most of my time pointing out racial injustice and fissures, perhaps because I fear that good news will somehow dilute these messages, or that I will thereby join right-wingers who endlessly proclaim how supremely tolerant Britain is. I think now that I have been wrong about this.

If we never applaud and celebrate any progress, why should people carry on striving for change at all?

Is it not important for our national self-esteem to notice and applaud the fact that this spring in one of the greatest cricket matches ever in Trinidad, the two heroes of the game, Mark Butcher and Dean Headley, were both black Britons? Or that Bill Morris has joined the prestigious Bank of England advisory group? Or that some talented people like Valerie Amos, Patricia Scotland and Navnit Dholakia, John Taylor, Lord Paul and others are now in the House of Lords?

These days so many black and Asian people receive honours that we hardly notice any more, not even within the communities. The black British poet, John Agard, gets to be an in-house poet at the BBC, and two of the main anchormen on BBC 24-hour news, Matthew Amroliwala and Krishnan Guru-Murthy, are both highly talented Asian men.

Add in Lenny Henry and Meera Syal in comedy; the writers Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips and Ben Okri; actors like Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets and Lies, Cathy Tyson and David Harewood, the first ever undyed Othello now at the National; Lisa I'Anson, the Radio One DJ; news readers Zeinab Badawi and Moira Stewart; Ozwald Boateng the Savile Row bespoke tailor, poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The list goes on and on.

Pop music, business and food have been transformed by immigrants and ethnic minority Britons. In fact it is a sign of the (relatively) good times that a photographic exhibition of famous blacks at the National Portrait gallery left out Trevor Macdonald because planners were spoilt for choice.

It could of course be argued that in any society those with star qualities will rise anyway. But there are other indicators showing we are moving in the direction of a truly multicultural society.

Inter-marriage here is higher than almost any other western country. In some areas six-out-of-ten black men have a white partner. The terrible racial divisions in the United States has not been replicated here. Geographical apartheid is impossible to find in any city. And when I return from some European countries, where what ethnic minorities wear is considered the business of the state and where I have been spat upon (because to the French I look Arab), I want to kiss the airport tarmac here.

Research backs these impressions. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that a higher percentage of black and Asian Britons have degrees than do whites. Black women are more likely to be in full-time work than white women. Our top public schools have basketfuls of high-flying minority children. When my son was at St Paul's, three of these pupils had already established themselves as international scientists, winning prizes in the US. So it is with the universities. A quarter of our doctors are from the ethnic minority communities.

Other signs indicate a profound change for the better. Who would have thought that the Daily Mail would take up the cause of the Lawrence family? And although he was derided, William Hague is the only political leader ever to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. Tony Blair feels passionately about a Britain based on fair opportunities for all.

And then there are the changes nobody notices because they involve ordinary British people. Recently, as I watched the footage of white people out in the streets when I came here in 1972 as a dispossessed Ugandan Asian, I realised how impossible such scenes would be now. This is because so many white people have a personal investment in multiculturalism.

My mother-in-law Vera, who has lived all her life on the South coast, has learned to accept me, a Muslim divorcee with a son; and she has done it with all her heart. Three white men have married into our family and it is they who take care of my mother who barely speaks English. Of such things come hope and change.

So am I saying that the glory days are here? No. There are still many problems. Too many black men are unemployed and as a result drawn to criminal activities that destroy them and theirs. We are not in the upper echelons when it comes to real political power and influence. Not one newspaper commissioning editor is black. All 54 advisors to the Labour government are white.

There are too many cases of racial violence; too many deaths in custody of back men; too many excluded ethnic communities. But fifty years ago the picture was very different and we would not have had, within a single year, three British prime ministers, the Queen and Prince Charles describing this country as a proud multicultural nation. That must count for something.