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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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.