What does Britishness look like from the outside?

For those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality, to be born in Britain is to be born powerful.

I was born in 1980s Britain and went to school in Kent. At school there were only one or two other brown faces. My dark skin bothered some people. They would - inexplicably as far as I was concerned - yell words like “nigger” and “Paki” as I played in the street. Such incidents left me baffled, certain that I did not quite fit in. At that stage, I do not think I would have called myself British. Yet I knew I wasn’t quite Nigerian like my granny, because I didn’t speak Yoruba and pronounced my uncle Gbenga’s name like an English person.

My confusion deepened when I moved to London and started secondary school. There in a colourful sea of faces and cultures, I was told I was not black enough. “You don’t talk like a black person,” my friend told me once. Black was a powerful identity at my school, and everybody, Muslim, white, Indian, wanted to be “black”. It was not political, it was not gang-related, it was just cool. If asked at that time if I was British, I probably would have said, “No, I’m black”.  

As I became more politically aware, my confusion over my identity hardened into irritation, and anger. Irritation, because public discussions about the supposed failure of multiculturalism often feel like an entire generation being told go home, except that I was born here. Anger, because it is difficult for a child of the Commonwealth to think about being British, and not think about the brutality of empire.

It is only now, having worked as a journalist interviewing undocumented migrants desperately trying to reach the UK, that I begin to understand what it means to be British. Faced with a wretched migrant who has risked death to find work, I feel less turmoil over my identity; which is unambiguously British. Why? Journalist Gary Younge puts it well in his brilliant book, Who are we - and should it matter in the 21st century:

The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all. Those who have never been asked, "How do you balance childcare and work?" or "How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?" are less likely to think that their masculinity or western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.

Because their identity is never interrogated, they are easily seduced by the idea that they do not have one. Strip them of their citizenship, recategorise their ethnicity or put them in a place where they become a minority, and see how quickly they will cling to attributes they have inherited.

I am one of those people. I never truly considered the privilege of my identity as someone born in the west, till faced with those without it. They leave all that is familiar to find work, to study, to escape war.  I wake up each day without these worries. At home in Britain, I am a minority and my navigation of identity is wrought with all that that entails; but away from home, in the minds of those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality - to be born in Britain is to be born powerful. Or perhaps privileged is a better word.

Meeting migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to find a better life, and choose Britain as their destination, forced me to think about their notions of Britishness.

The UK’s global relevance and power is diminishing, but the idea of "Britishness" remains attractive to the undocumented migrants I met in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Their views of the British are tied to their perception of Britain as a liberal, fair minded country committed to human rights. Take the Iraqi interpreter I met shivering in a muddy forest in Dunkirk, waiting to smuggle his way into Britain. While working for the British army in Iraq, he made friends with several British soldiers and developed a profound respect for the British. One solider had given him his mobile number, he told me proudly, and said to call if he was ever in the UK.

The glitz and glamour of the premier league is another indicator of Britishness for many. Outside a prison-like holding centre in a tiny border-village in northern Greece, I tried to communicate with some Afghan teenagers waiting for a bus to Athens. We had no common language, but when I said I was from England, their faces lit up. “Manchester United”, they said. I responded with, “I live in London. Arsenal,” I said. Enthusiastic nods and smiles. Chelsea, they said. Thumbs down.

In the novel Hinterland, journalist Caroline Brothers’ tells the story of two children seeking asylum in Europe who look forward to arriving in London because there they will go to school. Their dreams tally with the real life hopes of the teenagers I met, giddy with the excitement at the prospect of education. The power of this idea was strong enough to inspire many undocumented migrants to keep moving; through the mountains of Iran, forced to work like adults in Turkey and Greece, to live in destitution in Italy and France, till they reach London, and the dream school.

The migrants I met held semi-religious ideas about Britain and the British. As they experienced more and more hardship in other European countries, they developed a zealous faith in Britain, as a place apart from Europe, a place where “they care for the humans”. In Greece, an Afghan fearful for his family’s safety with increasing attacks on dark-skinned migrants by fascist gangs, said he would try to get to London, where finally they would be safe and he could work. Europe had quickly become as merciless as the continents they had left behind. But in their minds, Britain, with all its cultural associations, remained intact, a more liberal prospect than its European neighbours. Chatting to a group of migrants at a Calais soup kitchen, I expressed doubt about the streets of gold they dreamt of in London. A tired Eritrean man turned to me angrily and said, "of course this would not happen in the UK, we would not sleep on the street". The rest nod in agreement: the general consensus is that they can find work and sanctuary in Britain.  

The reality is darker than this, but still, strangely for the first time, I felt proud to be British, and proud of the society I live in. The migrants I met left their homes, and the countries they loved deeply, often risking their lives on the way, to access what I have because I am British. A society where there is universal education, a national health service, and a society where people are free to fight inequality and seek justice.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist. She writes mainly on social inequality. Her blog, covering the stories of undocumented migrants in Europe, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize.
 

Refugees living in Britain celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at a street party in Brixton organised by the Refugee Council. Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Jamie Reed: What it's like to stop being an MP

As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

Leaving parliament was never going to be easy. Having entered the Commons at a relatively young age – I was 31 – I knew that a parliamentary existence would be strange, even weird.

I knew that I would never be a “lifer”. A long Commons career followed by a sinecure in the Lords was never for me. This was informed by an aversion not to prolonged public service – the career in the nuclear industry for which I have departed parliament is just as dedicated to public service – but to the culture in which politics in Westminster is undertaken. There is a lot wrong with parliament. I arrived with a healthy contempt for its culture, behaviours and practices; I leave with the knowledge that this contempt was correct.

As a young MP, I felt like Carraway, never like Gatsby. Still, leaving the Commons has taken a huge mental and emotional effort.

21 December 2016

The news of my resignation breaks a few hours early because of a leak. The ­Guardian’s north of England editor, Helen Pidd, brings forward the publication of our interview as a result. Within minutes, my phone explodes. Twitter is unusable. My email server begins to creak. I watch with mounting ­anxiety. Ignoring calls from journalists – many of them friends – I talk instead with my fellow MP John Woodcock.

In politics, you acquire a sixth sense for who would be with you in the trenches at the worst moments. John is such a person. I don’t remember the conversation; I just remember hanging up and crying. I ­shower, dress and head for my in-laws’ farm. When I open the door, there are bottles of champagne on the step. That night, trying to avoid the news, I learn that I was young, popular, brilliant and talented. It’s like being at my own funeral. I drink the champagne.

24 December

I receive a text from Jeremy Corbyn wishing me and my family well. I thank him for his warm words on my resignation.

9 January 2017

I’m en route to the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Atlanta, Georgia, as a guest of NuGen. At Vogtle, Georgia Power is building two AP1000 reactors – the same type as will be built in Copeland. This is a project to which I have devoted 12 years of my life – from writing nuclear policy with the Blair government to making sure that Copeland was chosen as a nuclear new-build site and working to ensure that successive governments maintained the policies underpinning the nuclear renaissance that the Blair-Brown administration began.

Clement Attlee’s Labour government created the nuclear industry, the last Labour government created the nuclear renaissance and I am leaving parliament to return to the nuclear industry – yet Labour will be forced to fight the by-election in my former seat amid allegations of being anti-nuclear. There is nothing new in post-truth politics. Lies have always had the power to seduce.

23 January

It’s my last week in parliament and I’ve made arrangements to see the whips. As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

1 February

I leave my home in Whitehaven for Sellafield at 6.45am. As I drive through the frost, an iridescent light appears on the horizon: a new dawn has broken, has it not?

I collect my pass and enter a whirlwind of meetings, inductions and instructions. Everyone is generous, welcoming and warm. It is at this point that, for the first time, I am faced with irrefutable proof that I am no longer an MP. I am reminded of my parliamentary induction. Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong told us, “Get in the chamber . . . Don’t hide . . . Sink or swim . . .” New Labour was no place for a snowflake. I am reminded, too, of my induction by the House payroll and expenses administrators. A year before the expenses scandal shook Westminster, they informed me: “All we ask is that you don’t buy any antiques . . .”

2 February

As when I entered parliament for the first time, I don’t have a desk. I’m hot-desking, or hot-podding, or hot-cubing. I remind myself that, for now, I remain the Crown steward and bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

I bump into a colleague from my first time in the nuclear industry. “All right?” he asks.

“Getting there,” I reply.

“You know what they’re saying, don’t you?” he continues.

“No. What?”

“‘The bloody ego has landed.’”

I walk away wondering if it’s now my role in life to remind people of films set in the Second World War.

3 February

It’s a Friday and it strikes me that I have no constituency surgery. Everyone around me has their head down, meeting targets, solving problems. This is a £2bn-a-year operation. There’s no room for Gatsby here. This is why my new role excites me.

The self-immolating stupidity of Brexit, combined with the complex and growing needs of my family, contributed to my decision to leave parliament. Most of all, though, it was the opportunity to work in this organisation and help to drive change within it and my community that caused me to make the switch. My former constituency can and should be at the centre of one of the fastest-growing parts of the UK economy in the years to come. A changing Sellafield and a dynamic industry will be at the heart of this, and time is of the essence.

20 February

The by-election in my former seat draws near and my time as the Crown steward is running out.

I am repeatedly approached by the media for comment and I duck every request. This is for someone else now and I wish my successor well. None of us is indispensable. 

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit