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Welcome to Militant England

A few years ago Ukip was seen as the by-product of a Tory split. But now it appeals to disillusioned voters across the political spectrum and of all classes.

Seeing red: the flag of St George has become more than just the mark of football supporters. Photo: Magnum Photos

The Palm Bay estate in Cliftonville is a picture of English respectability in white paint and red brick. Detached bungalows with modest front lawns stretch inland from the Kentish coast in neat rows. It is not a wealthy area but it projects a doughty resistance to the decay that is visible elsewhere in Margate, the resort of which it is a suburb. These middle-class homes stand in prim Edwardian rebuke to the grimy Victorian terraces and crumbling Regency façades of the town centre.

Cliftonville worries about encroaching decline and has expressed that anxiety in recent county council elections by voting for the UK Independence Party. At a sedate meeting in a seafront hotel, an audience of mostly grey-haired and exclusively white-skinned residents listens politely to an address by a local Conservative MP, Laura Sandys. The most contentious issue to arise is housing – not the shortage that exercises Westminster policymakers, but the opposite. There is fear of construction developments and suspicion that refurbishment of derelict properties (of which Margate has a surfeit) will benefit undesirable newcomers.

“You can make the properties as nice as you like,” says a woman in her fifties. “The problem is the quality and calibre of people going in them.” Another resident explains afterwards, over tea and biscuits, that Margate has been overrun by “the dregs from London” – a category that captures immigrants, benefit claimants and drug addicts believed to have been dumped on the coast by councils in the capital.

Sandys is a popular MP but she is standing down at the next election. An opinion poll by Survation last year put Ukip in second place in her constituency, South Thanet, with 30 per cent of the vote – 5 points behind Labour. It is one of the seats that Nigel Farage is rumoured to be considering as an entry point to parliament in next year’s general election.

Like many coastal towns in eastern England, Margate has an immigrant population. There are Slovakian, Czech and Roma communities, although it would be a stretch to say they have drastically altered the complexion of the place. It is no inundation. Resentment here is about something more profound than fear of jobs being taken by outsiders or distaste at the sound of alien consonants in the bus queue. It expresses a feeling that all the important decisions are being made elsewhere; that someone in the capital has decided what kind of town this should be and that dissent is ignored or, worse, belittled as the mark of backward provinciality.

“People feel they’ve lost something,” Sandys tells me as we tour her constituency. “They may not be able to pinpoint what it is, but they don’t think they’re getting it back.”

A defining feature of Ukip’s presence in the area, according to Sandys, is the way it feeds on and fuels pessimism, especially among her older constituents. They have worked hard throughout their lives and find as they reach retirement that they are worse off than they expected to be. They cannot go on holiday or provide treats for their grandchildren. They struggle to heat their homes in winter. These indignities provoke shame and rage. Financial precariousness that was exposed by the Great Recession combines with longer-standing feelings of cultural disorientation to produce a dread of abandonment. Politics in Westminster is judged to be for the benefit of someone else – migrants, welfare recipients, bankers, Brussels bureaucrats.

This is how Farage has been able to position himself as the anti-politician threatening to storm the wicked bastion. In the second of his recent televised debates with Nick Clegg on European Union membership, the Ukip leader issued an extraordinary call to arms: “Come and join the people’s army. Let’s topple the establishment who got us into this mess.”

The rise of Ukip has been the most dynamic political element in the current parliament. Opinion polls show little exchange of voters between Labour and Conservative. Ed Miliband’s support was bolstered by left-leaning Liberal Democrats, but that defection happened almost immediately on Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with the Tories. Thanks to the perversities baked into our electoral system, Ukip’s surge could easily put Miliband in Downing Street, by taking votes from David Cameron in key marginal seats. For that reason, Labour is largely silent about the party that threatens to win the European parliamentary elections in May. “I’m not that interested in Nigel Farage,” Miliband said recently when asked about the Ukip leader. He should be.

Only a few years ago, Ukip was widely seen as a Tory schism – a secessionist republic of Little Englander reaction against Cameron’s efforts to modernise his party. That view no longer holds. While Ukip still takes more votes from the Tories than from anyone else, it plainly appeals to disillusionment from across the political spectrum, irrespective of class and region. Farage’s popularity is a symptom of something more potent. Little England is the retreat of the besieged; Ukip is animating a spirit of resistance.

“So many people don’t feel they have the power to change things,” says Sandys. “So they devolve their power to Nigel Farage.” The Ukip leader’s beer-swilling, cigarette-puffing indefatigability offers the vigour of defiance.

Farage makes no secret of his view that Ukip has already taken about as much support as it can expect to poach from the Tories before a general election and must now pick off disaffected voters in Labour’s heartlands. The nature of that pitch was summed up by Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, at last year’s party conference. “The Labour Party has abandoned its working-class roots,” Nuttall declaimed, in his broad Merseyside accent, to an auditorium packed with southern ex-Tories. “In the days of Clement Attlee, Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines, the factories. The Labour MPs today follow the same routes as Conservatives and the Lib Dems. They go to private school, they go to Oxbridge, they get a job in an MP’s office and they become an MP . . . [they wouldn’t] know a council estate if it fell out of the sky.”

The accusation is unfair but accuracy wasn’t the aim. Nuttall wants to reinforce a suspicion in many voters’ minds that Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, became a vehicle for slick career politicians who despised the party’s core supporters. At its more extreme end, that resentment mutates into a belief that New Labour pursued a policy of deliberate ethnic dilution and wage suppression, opening the borders in order to flood Britain with cheap workers.

Ukip has a credible claim to have supplanted the Tories as the main challenger to Labour in parts of the north. So far in this parliament, the party has come second to Labour in by-elections in South Shields, Middlesbrough, Rotherham, Barnsley and, in February this year, Wythenshawe and Sale East. Reporting on that most recent contest, I met people who would reel off a list of complaints that tally exactly with the issues on which Labour campaigns – job insecurity, zero-hours contracts, soaring energy bills, the “bedroom tax”, cuts to public services. They would then declare an intention not to vote at all, or to support Ukip. When people did say they planned to back Labour, the reason was most often ancestral loyalty. (“We’re all Labour round here.” “Always Labour.”)

Ed Miliband held the seat thanks to a strong local candidate with a ground operation that knew where Labour supporters lived and made sure they voted. The potential for a better-organised Ukip machine to win over areas that were once dominated by the traditional left is beyond doubt.

“If you look at the Labour Ukippers, some of them are the kind of people who might once have been shop stewards,” says John Denham MP, the former Labour cabinet minister who served as an adviser to Ed Miliband. “For them, trade unionism was a defensive thing economically, and a defensive thing in terms of ‘our people against the bosses’. Those people feel they’ve lost that power to fight against unwelcome change and defend their interests.”

This view is supported by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, of the Universities of Nottingham and Manchester, respectively, whose study of Ukip’s rise, Revolt on the Right, was published in March. The book identifies the potency of the new anti-politics radicalism in social and demographic forces that have been building for generations. The authors chart the creeping monopolisation of centre-left politics by a middle-class, white-collar, university-educated elite whose lives are remote from the concerns of the old industrial working class. Civil liberties, environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and European integration became the emblems of moderate left opinion, when the most pressing matters for historically left-wing voters were low wages, a lack of social housing and job insecurity – all of which could be filtered through suspicion of immigrants.

During the boom years, the benefits of open borders and market liberalisation were obvious to a skilled, affluent and mobile elite. They were less clear to those at the sharp end of competition for work and housing (although everyone enjoyed budget holidays and cheap manufactured imports). In reality, there was less divergence of economic interest than there was cultural polarisation. The liberal determination to expunge prejudice from public discourse was interpreted as denial of permission to be cross about immigration. That feeling seems especially strong among older, low-skilled, white men, whom Goodwin and Ford characterise as feeling “left behind”: “Already disillusioned by the economic shifts that left them lagging behind other groups in society, these voters now feel their concerns about immigration and threats to national identity have been ignored or stigmatised as expressions of prejudice by an established political class that appears more sensitive to protecting migrant newcomers and ethnic minorities than listening to the concerns of economically struggling, white Britons.”

This anger extends beyond race. It includes a range of prohibitions, some real and some imaginary, imposed by faceless, arrogant officialdom. It covers the ban on smoking in public, “political correctness”, a “health and safety” regime that is caricatured as banning children’s play, “human rights” distorted to mean pampering convicted criminals and, of course, “Brussels”. This edifice of indignation was captured in a 2012 focus group of Ukip supporters conducted by Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative financier and former deputy party chairman. He typified their mood as follows: “They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. Ukip, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them . . . [They are] part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold Nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.”

Mistrust of our national politicians is nothing new. Even in times of economic buoyancy, there is a curmudgeonly strain in British culture that thinks the country is going to the dogs. What seems different today is the tendency to see politics itself as not only disreputable but an organised conspiracy against decency.

That jaundiced view owes something to the parliamentary expenses scandal and a lot to the financial crisis. But its roots are deeper. Recession brought on a fever that was incubating during the boom. It flourished in the climate of political stagnation created by a hung parliament.

In coalition with the Lib Dems, David Cameron was able to cobble together an economic agenda but the two parties were too dissimilar to agree about the kind of society Britain should be. The new government had policies but no coherent set of shared values. Even without Nick Clegg complicating the picture, the Conservatives were divided between “modernisers”, who wanted the party to look and sound more like 21st-century Britain in all its polyglot diversity, and the “traditionalists”, who felt that Cameron was marching them into a dead end of faddish metropolitan liberalism.

That fault line describes the Tories’ ongoing confusion over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. The Conservatism of the Eighties failed as a national project because it was socially and geographically divisive. The industries that Thatcherism treated as relics of a moribund economic order had sustained communities. Their collapse inoculated swaths of the population against voting Tory. Even in areas that benefited from Conservative rule, the doctrine that promoted competition and individual self-reliance as the motors of progress came to be associated with greed, selfishness and contempt for the poor.

Many Conservatives still struggle to see Thatcherism as anything other than a triumph. In this view, the country was saved from death by state suffocation. Yet even if that argument can be sustained as macroeconomic history, it fails as a story of national redemption because it lacks the unifying ingredient of collective participation. Twenty-four years after Thatcher’s downfall, the Tories still have not found a way to talk convincingly about solidarity.

The Conservative argument did succeed in forcing Labour to jettison its own language of class-based unity. Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 felt like a mass mobilisation but it was without foundations in shared identity. There was a pent-up appetite for change – any change – after 18 years of increasingly derelict Tory rule. New Labour’s courtship of the southern English middle classes reached people who, in the Eighties, would never have described themselves as socialists. Blair cleverly associated himself with a cultural current of the mid-Nineties that blended social liberalism and rock’n’roll permissiveness with contempt for the crusty old idioms of traditional Conservatism. This was the age of “Cool Britannia” and it was unfashionable to be anything other than Labour.

Or, at least, that was the mood in the capital among the creative and media class that manufactured the roaring Nineties zeitgeist. The moment is captured by Martin Amis in his 1995 novel The Information as one author broods on the success of his rival: “Of course Gwyn was Labour . . . Gwyn was . . . a writer, in England, at the end of the 20th century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, equally obviously. It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the government.”

Once the glamour of the New Labour project faded, it turned out to be not much better at nurturing community and a sense of belonging than Thatcherism. Blair’s critics on the left attribute that to his embrace of free-market economics, admiration for the City of London and acceptance of socially corrosive levels of inequality. Conservatives accuse the Blair-Brown government of inflating the size and reach of the state, above all through the welfare budget. This, they say, led to a dependency on government that left civic bonds to atrophy. Such was the thinking behind Cameron’s “big society” project. It was meant as a Burkean rebuttal to the old accusation that the party of Thatcher didn’t believe in society and as a rejection of the New Labour instinct to treat every social ill with a multimillion-pound government taskforce.

The “big society” failed for many reasons. Traditionalist Tories thought it was a vacuous PR exercise. Cameron’s lack of intellectual application supported that view. In the context of budget austerity it also looked like a euphemism for a neo-Thatcherite assault on the welfare state.

Among the few people who took the “big society” seriously were intellectuals on the left, mostly under the “Blue Labour” banner, who also criticised the Blair-Brown governments for relying on impassive and ineffective bureaucracy to deliver social progress. In 2012, Jon Cruddas, the leader of Labour’s policy review, told the New Statesman: “[David Cameron]’s idea of a ‘big society’ was a recognition of the way our social relationships have become more impoverished . . . Labour made a mistake by dismissing Cameron’s pro-social politics. We now have the opportunity to develop our traditions of reciprocity, mutualism and co-operation. The party grew out of collective self-help and popular movements of self-improvement. Labour’s social alternative must be about rebuilding Britain from the ground up.”

On the left, Blue Labour, with its twin aversions to centralised state intervention and globalisation, leads to uncomfortable terrain for the generation that was steeped in mid-Nineties metro-Blairism. It is more Eurosceptic and nostalgic for class consciousness. It is also explicitly English.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the liberal left came to the largely unspoken conclusion that Britishness was the preferred vehicle for expressing national identity. It was felt to be safer from connotations of ethnic exclusivity because it lumped together the different peoples of the United Kingdom. It was the Union Jack that New Labour waved to project inclusive modernity. (“We are patriots. This is the patriotic party because it is the people’s party,” Blair said in 1995. A year later, Peter Mandelson said: “We have reclaimed the flag. It is restored as an emblem of national pride and national diversity, restored from years as a symbol of division and intolerance . . .”)

The English flag and celebration of Englishness were judged too angry and too white. But English identity was in the ascendant – helped in no small measure by the 1996 European football championship, hosted by England and accompanied by the bedecking of every object with the Cross of St George.

The years of New Labour’s decline and fall coincided with a rise in English self-awareness. In a 2013 survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, 60 per cent of respondents felt their Englishness to be more important than their Britishness, with only 16 per cent feeling the opposite. Some 60 per cent also said they had come to feel this way more strongly in recent years. This was true across social and geographical groups with the notable exception of black and ethnic-minority communities in England, which still prefer Britishness.

There is a number of explanations. Scottish and Welsh devolution and the rise of nationalism in both countries raised the salience of Englishness as the least politically assertive identity in the UK. Meanwhile, the Tories had been expelled from Scotland and most of Wales and proceeded to define themselves by hostility to the EU. So the main political opposition at Westminster was simultaneously nationalistic in tone and English in composition.

It also seems plausible that Englishness came to be a haven of self-identification for people who felt excluded from the New Labour carnival of modish urbanity precisely because Britishness had been
appropriated to that cause. “That Nineties thing was such a small group of people, nearly all of whom lived in London,” notes John Denham. “Most of the country was left outside that dialogue.”

Denham describes himself as part of the “English nationalist wing” of the Labour Party, which calls for an explicit engagement with identity politics. The aim is to mobilise the dissenting, egalitarian strains of English history that can support an open and tolerant progressive politics to rival
the bitterness that nurtures Ukip. “There is no reason why English identity should become an older-white-working-class, racist or xenophobic thing. We have so many other ways of expressing ourselves.”

Yet the myth took hold that the English were the one group of people whose voice was not being amplified in the political choir, pushed as they were to the back of the line-up behind Brussels bureaucrats, Scots and asylum-seekers. Given that Britishness became the sterile label on a bloodless constitutional entity, Englishness was the natural vehicle for cultural grievance.

“During the New Labour years, Englishness offered a language of inheritance and tradition that expressed a deep opposition to the metropolitan hubris and state-led managerialism with which those governments were often associated,” says Michael Kenny, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of The Politics of English Nationhood.

Some of that opposition has attached itself to far-right organisations – the British National Party (BNP), which is more English than its name implies, and the English Defence League (EDL). That support has since been subsumed into the growth of Ukip. At a public meeting on 1 April, Farage said he was “quite proud” to have poached a third of the BNP’s support since the last general election, and explained it as a strategy. “What we did,” he said, “is for the first time try and deal with the BNP question by going out and saying to BNP voters: ‘If you’re voting BNP because you’re frustrated, upset, with the changes in your community but you’re doing it holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us.’ ”

Ukip attracts protest votes from non-racists but also gives fascists a route to political respectability. The boundary is blurred. Farage’s rhetoric is potent because it transcends the bovver-booted venom of the far right to mine a richer seam of mainstream English resentment. (Ukip is barely relevant in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is unassailable as the vanguard of anti-Westminster insurgency.)

Cameron poses arguably the greatest obstacle to Tory hopes of recovering ground that has been lost to Ukip. A segment of older, conservative voters who had no identification with the New Labour project could, for a while, expect redress in the event of the Conservatives returning to power. But instead, they got coalition under a prime minister who, in purely cultural terms, seemed to offer continuity Blairism – a negligible shift in attitudes from Islington to Notting Hill. Many old-fashioned Tories harbour the suspicion that Cameron despises them.

In reality he has made considerable efforts to woo back his party’s disgruntled defectors. The Tories could hardly have been clearer in their determination to deprive immigrants of benefits and their eagerness for a referendum on EU membership. That may persuade some waverers, but it isn’t adequate compensation for those who feel that the Prime Minister has been complicit in a more fundamental crime. Cameron stands for the smug plutocracy that has taken away their country. Farage offers himself as the man to take it back.

The kind of Englishness Cameron represents is establishment to the core. The mix of Downton Abbey breeding and west London mores makes him almost uniquely ill-equipped to project empathy with people who feel dispossessed. As the leader of the opposition, Miliband might, in theory, be better placed. But so much of the anger that is now spilling out against politics accrued under the last Labour government. Miliband also leads a pro-European party that is historically (and rightly) suspicious of nationalism and uncomfortable legitimising a politics of white male anger that conflicts with its anti-racist and feminist instincts. In any case, Miliband has no experience beyond politics that he can mobilise to present himself as an outsider.

Neither does Farage. He is a public school-educated (unlike Miliband) former City trader who is spending money running a party financed mostly by a handful of former Conservative donors. Ukip gets away with calling itself anti-establishment because it has redefined “the establishment” to mean anyone who was elected in the era of the Great Betrayal of pro-Europeanism and mass immigration.

Farage is also effective because he appears to say what he thinks. The three main party leaders exhibit a squeamishness in expressing commonality with the electorate, because they have so little shared experience with the people they aim to represent. Instead of empathy, they offer a mannered facsimile of empathy, cobbled together from fleeting campaign-trail encounters with voters.

“Politics is ceasing to offer people a resonant language, a way of orienting yourself in the world and expressing expropriation, disenchantment, and a way of offering a better future,” says Michael Kenny.

Much more is at stake here than the outcome of the next general election. There is a ceiling on the level of support Ukip can reach, set by its own hostility to swaths of modern Britain and its tendency to recruit cranks. The party’s organisation is currently inadequate to the task of reaching its full potential. Farage’s energy may flag. His bubble could burst. The energy that inflated it will not then dissipate. Politics has already been changed by it.

We are witnessing the start of a battle to decide the character of English national identity in the 21st century, and Ukip is dictating the terms. It threatens an inversion of the old liberation struggles, with white men revelling in supposed victimhood and pluralist politics cast in the role of a colonising power to be overthrown. Tolerance and liberalism, both of which have deep roots in England, are on the defensive.

The constituency that feeds Farageism is radical and disruptive. It believes itself to be under attack and it wants to fight back. This is not Little England. It is Militant England and its march is unopposed.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile