We still have a race problem

Finding a shared British identity is vital to overcoming racial tensions.

My parents came over from India in the late 1970s in response to the calls from the NHS for skilled clinicians and in the hope of better opportunities for their family. Adapting to life in the UK was far from easy – South Shields is far less sari-friendly than Calcutta – but they persevered, worked incredibly hard and are now very much part of the communities they migrated into, my father a GP and my mother a social worker.

I owe my schooling, subsequent entry into a decent university and anything I’ve done since entirely to their struggles and sacrifices. They were relentless in giving me a strong sense of Indian heritage; language, food, Bollywood et al, whilst encouraging a firmly colour blind and unequivocal acceptance of my Britishness and all that it entailed. This was far from easy for them, as they themselves were learning an entirely new culture as they went along – but they adapted, tolerated and challenged where appropriate and as a result gifted me both passionate patriotism and a solid connection with my roots. They are delighted that I’m marrying a girl from the Welsh Valleys, a joy only heightened by her ability to handle spicy food.

The cosmopolitan experience suggests that most children of immigrants (how I wish there was another word to describe my parents, so sullied has it become!) have grown up in a similarly open-minded households, proud to be British and aware of their heritage. London in particular is populated by a jumble of colours and dialects, seemingly happily co-existing with one another, intermarrying, playing social snakes and ladders and getting on without reference to skin tone.

Unfortunately, across the country (and even in the capital) the reality is somewhat different, at least in two ways. Prejudice against people of different colours hasn’t gone away. The Ministry of Justice just published a report describing attitudes to race in the North of England as stuck in a “time warp”; with physical and verbal attacks commonplace. In London there have been 1,400 complaints of racism made against the Metropolitan Police in the last three years. On average, approximately five times more black people than white people are imprisoned in England and Wales. Last season two Premiership footballers were accused of racially abusing fellow professionals, with one found guilty and the other awaiting trial. Racist language continues to be picked up in our streets, police stations, football pitches and across the internet, and is just as vile as ever.

Further, large groups of us live in racially segregated enclaves. London has mini-towns populated by people of the same origin, Bangladeshi to Somali, Caribbean to Chinese. Of course there is mixing in between, but in many of our towns and cities there is still remarkably clear separation in schools, leisure and location between those with brown skin and those with white, particularly in some poor communities where the BNP or EDL hold currency. The state even inadvertently encourages segregation through faith schools, which can often proxy for ethnicity. Race riots in Oldham shocked the nation; yet we hardly debate that some people born and brought up and Britain still choose to live, socialise and marry within (self?) imposed ethnic ghettoisation. In a modern society this is undesirable for all sorts of reasons, a scandal that we have nervously swept under the carpet.

I don’t want to write about race. I’d much rather it didn’t matter, and that I could focus on trying clever prescriptions for Europe or acerbic indictments of education or healthcare reform. But those ranks are swelled; discussing race and colour, on the other hand, is unfashionable, a relic of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Things may have improved since then, but the problem hasn’t gone away. We have found euphemistic ways to skirt around it: gangs, radical Islam, forced marriages, asylum seekers – even the term immigrant. Race, culture and religion are understandably complex, confused, and often conflated, but some sections of the press deliberately stoke the fires of discontent without ever really letting them ignite; others are simply lazy, using terms like ‘Asians’ (placing the subjects in one of approximately 50 countries of origin – not politically incorrect, just imprecise) and talking only to self-appointed, self-important ‘community leaders’ for the low-effort minority representation voice. Meanwhile parts of real Britain smoulder with a tension that mounts by the day as the economic situation worsens, a trend seen across Europe and beyond.

Many will think this is hyperbole. It isn’t, and it is important. There are lots of cleavages in society, but race is instantly identifiable, historically more prone to violence; and a mistrust of the ‘other’ has serious consequences for all that depends on a sense of national unity – democracy, welfare, taxation, shared public goods. On a personal level I had my fair share of name-calling, beatings and graffiti growing up, and I don’t want my children to have to go through the same. So I ask that we do two things, as befits 21st century Britain:

First, accepting we have a problem, we need to create platforms that allow the people of this country to complain, argue and discuss race – part of, but nevertheless distinct, from immigration -  without constraint or fear. Legitimate worries around language or cultural assimilation must be both aired and distinguished from attitudes towards colour, exposing stupidity and prejudice, guided by a confident and unapologetic media and leadership that in turn take on the responsibility for emphasising commonality. Rather than trying to deal with racist language only on occurrence, schools must proactively educate their young people early as to where racist language comes from, how it might feel to be on the receiving end and why casual use is simply unacceptable. When politicians talk about immigration, they must make extra efforts to not conflate it with colour. ‘Respect’ within football is all well and good, but confining an anti-racism campaign to the stands ignores the fact that racism there is symptomatic of a broader malaise in society. We need to use all our channels - schools, social media, television, comedy, news, music, sport – to elevate the problem from its current mistaken categorisation as both niche and largely addressed.

Second, we have to ask the unasked (at least beyond the think tanks) – why do some who are born and bred here fail to fully integrate into the society around them, choosing instead residing within sub-cultures that are often even more specific than skin colour or country of origin? Do they identify themselves as British? Multiculturalism should mean a canvas vibrant with haphazard shape and colour, not distinct blocks separated from one another. If we accept this as an unwanted state of affairs, then why does it exist? Whose fault is it? And how can it be addressed? Citizenship classes can’t be the answer when whole towns are divided by colour. For example we must reconsider the impact of faith schools; housing policy that has for decades ended up (on purpose or by accident) grouping people of similar ethnicities together; and the attitudes of particularly the children and grandchildren of immigrants towards Britain.

The two go hand in hand. As long as people of different colour sometimes appear to belong to different countries, it will be hard to forget about their distinguishing physical features, exacerbating both racism and segregation and making it harder for people like my parents to embrace, and be embraced, by Britain. There is much to unite around; the great liberal tradition, centuries of tolerance and integration, an open political system, free healthcare for all, religious and press freedom, a judicial system revered around the world, and much more. Unfortunately inculcating a sense of fellow-feeling built on these virtues requires more than flags, flotilla and fireworks. But we have no choice - little else but a shared British identity can override the basest reactions to superficial differences.

 

Newly-arrived Bengali women on Brick Lane in 1978. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Why we can't let Liam Fox negotiate post-Brexit trade deals behind closed doors

MPs have little control over agreements struck with the US and others. 

Today Liam Fox will start discussing a trade deal with the United States. We don’t know who will attend or what’s on the agenda, and neither do our elected representatives in parliament. Nor do MPs have the power to guide the talks, to set red lines, to amend or to stop an eventual deal.

International Trade Secretary Fox is acting with regal powers. And that should scare us all. 

What we do know is that this deal, if completed, will affect pretty much everyone in the country. Like most modern trade deals it won’t be primarily about tariffs. Far from it, it will be about our environmental and consumer protections, about how we’re allowed to spend taxpayers' money, about how we run our public services and the power we give to big business. 

We also know that those feeding into these negotiations are overwhelmingly big businesses.  

New analysis of ministerial meetings published today by the Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Justice Now, shows that 90 per cent of meetings held by trade ministers in the last six months are with businesses. Most of these are massive companies including Starbucks, Walmart, Amazon, BP and HSBC.

So businesses have nine times the access of everyone else. In fact, it’s worse than it appears, because “everyone else” includes pro-big business consultants from the Legatum Institute and the Adam Smith Institute, together with a handful of campaign groups, trade unions and public institutions.

We can guess from Donald Trump’s approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, which start in a couple of weeks, what the US agenda will look like. Corporate courts – which give big businesses power to sue states for decisions they don’t like – are fine, but state-to-state resolution isn’t. That’s because the US sometimes loses in the latter, but not in the former. 

Trump is also pushing Canada and Mexico for one-sided access for US companies to bid for government spending contracts (Buy America is allowed, but not Buy Canada or Buy Mexico it seems). He also wants better access for US financial corporations and further liberalisation of energy markets.

This is “America First” in practice. With Britain, it’s highly likely that access to the NHS and the UK’s higher food standards will be on the agenda. After all, Fox is likely to agree with Trump on those issues.  

Indeed, this is big politics for Fox. He knows that outside the EU, Britain must choose whom to align itself with – the US or Europe. Fox’s preference is clearly the former, because that would push us down the path of lighter regulation, lower standards, and “the market knows best”. That’s why failure to secure an EU trade deal while agreeing a US deal has enormous implications for our society.  

Finally, we know that this is only the first of ten trade working groups with 15 countries which will meet in coming weeks and months. Others involve Saudi Arabia and Turkey, hardly human rights bastions, where we have a big arms market. It also includes countries such as India, where Britain is desperate to increase intellectual property rules to help big pharmaceutical corporations clamp down on generic medicine provision. 

The long and the short of it is that none of this should be discussed behind closed doors. This is not a game of poker involving tariff levels. Huge issues of public policy are at stake. Yet even the most basic information about these meetings is apparently so sensitive that it is exempt from Freedom of Information laws. And don’t accept the assurance of Fox, who has form in this area. He promised a parliamentary debate on the Canada-EU trade deal last year. The debate never came. Fox simply signed the deal off on behalf of this country with no scrutiny or discussion. MPs should refuse to accept his assurances a second time. 

Anyone who suspects this is a Remoaner making up scare stories about Brexit should remember the process is the exact same one that will be used to agree our trade deal with the EU when we leave. That means our MEPs will have more power over that deal than our MPs. As will the MEPs of all other EU member states, and their national parliamentarians. In fact, the parliamentarians of the Belgian region of Wallonia will have more power than British MPs. Taking back control it ain’t.

But don’t despair. We have 18 months in which the government is not allowed to sign off any trade deals. We have a Trade Bill which will be introduced to parliament in the autumn. And we have a hung parliament. And a cross-party motion has already been tabled calling for scrutiny of trade deals like this. There is every chance we can overturn this archaic method of negotiating trade deals. But the clock is ticking. 

Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now