Mary Seacole, in an illustration from Punch in 1857. Photograph: Getty Images
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Michael Gove is air-brushing black people out of history

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states.

Black voices are rarely heard in classroom history lessons. Now, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to eliminate the few last visible narratives of black people in British history taught within schools.

According to newspaper reports, Mary Seacole is to be dropped from the national curriculum so history teachers can concentrate on Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell. Tellingly, teachers themselves have not been coming forward to offer support for this move. The idea that schools must silence black voices so teachers can talk about Churchill, Cromwell or Nelson is one that barely merits serious argument. But bearing in mind that the abolition of slavery occurred during the lifetime of Mary Seacole in 1840, and the gigantic military presence in the British West Indies – 93 infantry regiments serving between 1793 and 1815 – not to mention her own crucial role, Seacole is ideally placed to mark out hugely significant historical events.

Michael Gove must trust teachers to decide what is in the best interests of children, instead of air-brushing black people out of history. There is no question that historical black role models such as Seacole give children of all races important tools in overcoming racist assumptions about black and Asian peoples’ contribution to Britain. Knowing about black history educates all of us, promotes respect and helps to inculcate shared multicultural values.

Mary Seacole was a woman famous mainly because of her services during the Crimean war when she nursed British soldiers. Her story is remarkable not because of the countless lives she saved, or, for the valour with which she served her nation. Of much greater significance is the immense white privilege and patriarchy she fought just to get to the frontline, struggling against resistance from the state. When the war office rejected her appeal to become an army assistant in the Crimea, she decided to come to London anyway. Even though she was rejected by Florence Nightingale, Seacole spent every penny to risk life and limb so she could heal wounded British and allied soldiers. Forced to take loans in order to make the 4,000-mile trip, she travelled on her own, in dangerous times.

Known as “Mother Seacole” by the British military who loved her, 80,000 people, including Major General Lord Rokeby, who commanded the 1st Division in Crimea, turned out to a fund-raising event for her when they heard she was short of funds. Clearly, Seacole had the adoration of several tens of thousands of people during her lifetime, if not more.

Compare this to the current state of affairs. Although the department of education currently seems to be experiencing something of a “Little Britain” sick scene, it was only last year when Seacole was held in great esteem by the Department of Health. In February, the department invited applications from nurses, midwives and health visitors in England to participate in a “prestigious Mary Seacole Awards programme”. The aim, of which, was to carry out health care and educational projects to improve the health outcomes of people from black and minority ethnic communities.

Maybe Michael Gove didn’t get the memo, but last week David Cameron called for greater respect to be shown towards black and minority ethnic communities. Surely, this is not what the PM meant when he said MPs should “increase their presence in the ethnic minority press.” In making these curriculum changes, Gove is out of touch with modern voters, giving the PM a proverbial middle finger, and seriously putting in danger current work to encourage diversity.

As a patriot, Micahel Gove should honour the memory of Britain’s war heroes. In 1856 William Howard Russell, special correspondent of the Times and influential journalist, wrote: "I have witnessed her (Mary Seacole) devotion and her courage...and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead".

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states. The sooner black and Asian history is told loudly and clearly, the more quickly we can all benefit as a united nation.

Imran Khan is an executive member of Conservative Muslim Forum and a former Conservative councillor

He writes in a personal capacity

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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