As the UK hurtles towards an unknown future as the Brexit palaver totters on, the reaction from a deeply divided country, including its Black diaspora, is angry and confused. Writes Clayton Goodwin
Shortly after the British people had voted to quit the European Union, back in the summer of 2016, I chanced to meet a young African lady in Lewisham, south-east London.
She was articulate, vivacious and intelligent, and seemed to have a grasp of the issues of the day. After a few comments about the situation in her South African homeland, she shocked me by saying that she had just voted for ‘Leave’ in the referendum.
Although Loretta knew and accepted the arguments that the country would be better-off remaining inside the EU, she thought that as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and other advocates of Leave, seemed always to have a quip and a laugh, it might be rather jolly to travel with them on their adventure.
Two elderly ladies of my acquaintance, both born in Jamaica and now in their 90s, were inclined to vote the same way. They did so because they wanted to “keep out the immigrants”. These ladies were of an age to have come here on the Empire Windrush – the first ship that brought West Indian immigrants to Britain following appeals from various UK departments that were short of qualified labour – and to have known the difficulties of the struggle for survival and recognition.
Surely, they could have more compassion for their successors. That was the point. After a life-time of working towards acceptance within the national community they felt they could share “traditional” British sentiments – such as being hostile to immigrants. They were now among the ‘haves’ who had something they could deny to others. Yet these were kindly people who in their personal lives would not dream of being hostile to anyone.
Hardly anybody wanted the nastiness that has come into the national body politic. With the entry into the fray of right-wing agitators, the press (accurately described by my colleague Baffour Ankomah in the February 2019 edition of the New African) and those bent on violent comment, if not quite yet violent actions, the “usual suspects” – ethnic minorities, women and those of cosmopolitan outlook (“citizens of nowhere” as Prime Minister Theresa May scoffed) – have found themselves in the firing-line. It will get worse as the wreckers seek scapegoats to blame for what they themselves have brought about.
Deplorable treatment of Diane Abbott
The treatment of Diane Abbott, the long-serving Shadow Home Secretary, on the BBC flagship television programme Question Time was deplorable.
The credibility of this once-treasured institution has been creaking for some time. Instead of promoting intelligent discussion, as hitherto, it has descended into a gladiatorial show with baying sections of the audience apparently goaded into confrontational behaviour that would disgrace a bear-pit.
This practice provides sound-bites which keep the show in the press headlines and is as edifying as seeing a once-favourite aunt drunk and disorderly on the public highway. Witnesses to the event allege, and it has not been effectively counter-argued, that in the warm-up to the programme Fiona Bruce, its first female presenter and recent successor to the iconic David Dimbleby, baited the audience into adopting a negative attitude towards Ms Abbott which included impertinent implication of how she may have attained her position.
During the broadcast itself Ms Bruce interrupted Diane more often than she did the other panelists and once told her that she was wrong when, in fact, the politician was proven to have been correct. It was difficult to see the neutrality of the chair.
The gaffe-prone Ms Abbott receives a disproportionate amount of media and social-media abuse, much of it racial: she is perceived as being the weak link in the Labour line-up because she reacts emotionally to criticism and shows when she is hurt. Not without reason Diane blamed Question Time for a “horrible experience” and “whipping up a racist and sexist atmosphere”. London-born to Jamaican parents, she is the last serving member of the House of Commons from the first intake of African/Caribbean MPs in 1987.
In contrast, Gina Miller, the Guyana-born lawyer who has become figure-head of the Remain cause, is composed and hardly puts a foot wrong but she still attracts threats to her life as well as routine abuse.
At a time when politicians are noted more for their pusillanimity than their principles, Gina has been only too effective by her legal intervention in ensuring that the role of Parliament is not trampled under in the rush to the exit.
Those who may mock Abbott are frightened of Miller. The on-line call by a right-wing extremist that Gina should be decapitated and her head left outside Buckingham Palace is indicative of the trend of traduced patriotism that has gripped sections of the country. I fear that lights are going out which we may not see lit again in our lifetime.
Looking for a new role
Admittedly, politicians do not always do themselves any favours. Fiona Onasanya, who was born in Cambridge to Nigerian parents, was a surprise winner in the 2017 general election. She has now become the first female MP to be imprisoned, and stripped of her Labour Party membership, on being found guilty of perverting the course of justice by lying to the police to avoid a speeding fine. She should have learned from the example of Chris Huhne, the high-flying Liberal Democrat, whose Parliamentary career was ended by the same charge.
The current controversy is not so much about the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe and the outside world as about the United Kingdom’s view of itself. Dean Acheson, the former US secretary of state, commented in 1963: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. That role was found in membership of the European Union. Since its rejection, some politicians and commentators have tried to revert to the “age of empire”.
Maybe Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, would not be so confident in his insistence that the UK could prosper after Brexit by returning to the former trade arrangements which the country had enjoyed with the erstwhile Commonwealth and Empire if he had been following the recent cricket series between West Indies and England.
The former’s unexpected and overwhelming victory has been greeted with something approaching rapture by not only fans of the Caribbean diaspora on either side of the Atlantic but also by a substantial number of England’s supporters, commentators and former cricketers.
Patronising advance remarks by some pundits were seen as being disrespectful to the West Indies team, earning England the name “world champions of arrogance”. The imperial attitude does not go down well with everyone!
I am not sure that my casual acquaintance from Lewisham still considers the journey to be jolly, with a quip and a laugh, or that those elderly ladies continue to welcome the restrictions on immigration now that it could well limit the health and social services on which they, and their families, have come to depend. Nevertheless, there are more than enough people in the country willing to dare the unthinkable – they know that their future will be hard but they still want it.
In 1914, on the outbreak of a war of unparalleled destruction, and knowing that it would mean the devastation of all they valued, the poet Rupert Brooke spoke for millions of his countrymen in writing “Now, God be thanked who has matched us with this hour”. Within a few months Brooke, himself, was dead – from the effects of a mosquito-bite.
When his country rushed into a popular – though ill-advised – 18th-century war with Spain, Sir Robert Walpole, the first UK prime minister, declared: “Now they are ringing the bells, soon they will be wringing their hands.” Well said, Sir Robert.