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Why I joined the protest at the Churchill-themed Blighty Café

We chose to question the narrative of history by simply quoting words which Churchill used himself.

At a glance, Blighty Café appears to be another one of those trendy and sophisticated coffee shops that offer the terribly appealing combination of tasteful beverages, off-beat music and the inviting aroma of freshly-baked sourdough bread. As a university student living in the area, of course, I couldn’t resist. Sounds perfect, right? Except, sitting in the mock air-raid shelter, drinking my flat white, I couldn’t help but feel ever more uncomfortable.

Blighty Café is located in North London and is not your average hipster café; Churchill memorabilia abounds, the outside area is modelled as a Second World War air-raid shelter, and there is even a life size model of Churchill so you can sip your coffee in the company of the revered wartime leader. Harmless? Chic? Unfortunately, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was deeply disrespectful to glorify Winston Churchill, without mentioning those who truly suffered at the hands of colonial rule.

Being of mixed Pakistani and English descent, colonial history has always been very close to home, and uncovering the horrors of British imperialism was a deeply upsetting experience. Churchill cannot be disentangled from this bloody colonial history. His instrumental involvement in the Bengal famine, his blasé attitude towards South African concentration camps and declarations such as “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” have understandably lead me to question his heroism. With all this in mind, when my flatmate invited me to attend a surprise performance protesting against the café’s decor, I felt my presence would be justified.

“CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST!” Fifteen of us visited the packed-out Blighty Café on a windy Saturday morning. A silence fell amongst the customers as we recited Churchill’s racist outbursts; people were listening quite intently. Our performance lasted no more than five minutes. There was surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) little friction; except for one member of the cafe’s staff shouting at us as we left: “Churchill fought for all of our freedom!” I felt such a response rather confusing after we had just quoted Churchill as saying: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” I pondered on the man’s retort on the way home; yes, Churchill did fight for all of our freedom, but he also hated South Asians and said that they followed a beastly religion. Should I then be content with businesses in my local area celebrating his legacy?

The coverage of the protest by The Sun and The Daily Mail in the days following our performance have triggered a racist backlash, with one member of the group singled out for character assassination. We might have intended to make people feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the end of the day it was a peaceful protest. Rather than personal attacks, the newspapers could engage in a debate about our historical narratives. The coverage also noted that, like many young people, some of our group supported Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Yet we did not choose to involve Corbyn in our performance, and of course he is entitled to his own opinion on these matters.

On the café’s website, it is stated: “Blighty’s mission is to make the world a closer place by celebrating and improving the relationships between the people and nations of the 52 members of the commonwealth.” That sounds wonderful. I just don’t believe that glorifying figures of history with racist views is the right way to do so. The owner of the café told The Sun that Churchill did “some racist and ignorant things” but his flaws “showed he was human”. If I could ask the café owner to do one thing, it would be to read more into the darker side of Churchill’s legacy, and its effects on colonised people.

We chose to question the narrative of history by simply quoting words which Churchill used himself. It seems ludicrous that the press are so keen to shut us down. One has to ask whether they are silencing a group of students or the words of Churchill which they would rather forget.

The Blighty Café did not respond to a request for comment, but the owner has written an article about his establishment here

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.