A Tale of Two Britains.
I recently performed a show on Shakespeare and Diversity at the Belfast International Arts festival. Through some of his plays, I examined Shakespeare's profound understanding of the stranger, the migrant, the dark skinned and non western "other", assimilators and cultural protectors, of racism and the human urge to know and touch difference. A few black and Asian individuals who had been in the audience came to talk to me afterwards. The population of Northern Ireland is slowly becoming more diverse and some indigenous folk are resisting the change. A Nigerian university student asked me: "Is it true that it's so easy to be black in England? That racism won't stop you? Over there you can be anything you want?" Hard questions. I cannot give straight answers, partly because I see contradictory evidence, ambiguities, a shapeshifting picture.
First the bad news: The debates around Brexit let loose some nasty, deep buried racist attitudes and behaviours. Even in integrated, previously harmonious neighbourhoods, unease, mutual suspicion, racial, ethnic and religious tensions are rising. Too many white Britons now feel at liberty and indeed, entitled to express racist views.
Some go further and openly discriminate against or physically attack people of colour. They want to grab "their" Britain back. Young people of colour spoke up at the UK Youth Parliament on 11 November. They described the everyday racism they suffered and the effect on their self esteem. The British Youth Council will launch its disturbing report on "normalised" race and religious prejudice this Wednesday. On the same day, Labour MP David Lammy has organised a meeting at the House of Commons to discuss this surge. Tory David Davies, journalist Nick Cohen and others are part of the impressive line up.
Some of us saw this new racism coming. The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2014, found an unexpectedly large number of native Britons admitting they did not like or trust those of other racial and ethnic groups. That incredible spirit of the 2012 Olympics had vapourised; immigration debates were getting more ferocious and polarised. Regressive forces were pushing out the progressive values which seemed unassailable until the financial crash in 2008.
As ever (and this happened in Shakespeare's day too) all troubles were blamed on incomers and outsiders. Britishness became an exclusive "native only" identity. As it was in the fifties and sixties. Only now, the media and various politicians, justified the unjustifiable narrow nationalism of resentful white Brits. To complain about racism was, we were told, "racist". Race discrimination laws – passed by enlightened politicians in the sixties – were allowed to wither on the vine. Black and Asian Brits were expected to put up, shut up or get out.
The formidable black actor, David Harewood asked on a recent BBC TV programme if there would ever be a black PM in GB. No, was his despairing conclusion. A black child has a one in 17 million chance of getting to No10 compared with a one in 1.4 million for a white child. For the foreseeable future power will be held mostly by white, privileged, Oxbridge men and women. Those of us who have beaten the odds, still face daily racial abuse and know that barriers will try to stop our aspirations, keep out our talents.
There is some good news to keep us going. A new report, Bittersweet Success? By the Policy Exchange think tank has found that Britain's ethnic minorities have broken into managerial and professional jobs and become fully fledged middle class people. Their parents toiled in low paid jobs or all night corner shops so their children could fly. That is the immigrant promise.
In my mosque, you do not find young people who are on the dole. Internal surveys show that the majority are doctors, accountants, techies, lawyers and entrepreneurs. They found success in this country where they were freer to dream and be what they wanted. Most would not want to move anywhere else because, as one female city solicitor said to me: "Our parents suffered so much when they first settled here. But they weren't beaten even when they did not know the language or system. We are born here, we will not be beaten either. This is the best and worst of times. But it is our country. We will belong. And not all white people are racist."
The millions of Brits who are expansive, fair and internationalist will be by us through this dark patch. We will indeed belong. A reader of this column sent me this quote by the great writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731): "Had we been an unmix'd nation it had been to our disadvantage. Those nations that are most mix'd are the best and have the least of barbarism and brutality among them." Perhaps I should send a copy to Nigel Farage?