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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition