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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle