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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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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