Britain’s Horrible Histories

 

The Viceroy’s House, a feature film by Gurinder Chadha, director of the joyous Bend it like Beckham,  is out on general release in March. It is a beautifully made, devastating expose of Churchill’s dirty tricks as India gained independence in August 1947. The country was partitioned, millions displaced, and countless murdered, as folk, who had lived peacefully, turned on each other. Ever since then our historians and film and TV programme makers have framed this  savagery in religious terms: intemperate Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims  slaughtered each other because they could not share the land. Using newly discovered documents, Chadha shows how Churchill had well set plans to scythe through India because he was worried about the influence the USSR would have in that region. Lord Mountbatten sent out there to organise British withdrawal had no idea about this dark  plan. Nor do today’s Brits, Indians or Pakistanis. This state guards its wicked deeds and noxious secrets. Always did. Always will.

Those of us who were raised in one of the many lands of the old British Empire were not only subjugated and make aware of our lowliness, but well brainwashed. The history syllabus was tightly controlled. Inscrutable inspectors in hats came in and sat at the back of classrooms to check orders were being followed. Mr Kavi, our history teacher, was often taken away and questioned sternly because he was suspected of being an ardent admirer of Gandhi and Nehru. They were right. He was subversive. After class he would sit with us in the grounds and tell us about British political cunning and the undeclared colonial strategy of divide and rule. He reminded us that nations taken over by Europeans had been great civilizations, that we weren’t congenitally weak and childlike, or irrecoverably tribal. Did his pupils believe or trust him? Not really. A few of us were budding liberationists, yet along with more pliant schoolmates, were swept away by the epic saga: Empire was a wondrous achievement – plucky small islanders took over most of the globe! Brought railways, legal systems, police forces, flushing lavatories, capitalism, Dickens and Shakespeare, Cliff Richards, Ovaltine, tinned cheese and pink blanc mange!  We yearned to please Britannia, to be her adopted children.

After independence, the whitewashed past was reassessed in previous colonies, but there were few books providing counternarratives to the great Imperial myths. In 1972, I was one of those Ugandan Asians exiled by the dictator Idi Amin. In Oxford, where I was a post-grad student, that past was still being spun. At one posh college dinner, a senior lecturer loudly proclaimed : ‘You overseas students are all the beneficiaries of the greatest empire in the world’. My children, born in London, were also, sadly, taught about British glories and victories, hardly anything about the ignoble past . I read the great post-colonialist writers and also Marxist historians, but it is only in the last decade or so, that ugly truths about British rule have been exposed. ( Over this same period ‘patriotic’ historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts have produced thunderous revisionist tomes for those who still cling to the moribund idea of the great  British empire)

Among the hidden horrible histories, is the role played by our government in the coup that led to Idi Amin gaining control of Uganda. President Obote, the first elected president of Uganda was threatening to nationalise British companies, including Barclays bank and Dunlop. Together with the US and Israel they welcomed Amin. As he started killing opponents and terrorising the people, one Foreign office bureaucrat observed: ‘we are close to Amin and are known to be close to Amin and some of the [international] odium may well rub off on us’. Richard Slater, the High Commissioner wrote in a private missive: ‘ We cannot tell him to stop murdering people…my plea is for business as usual’ And so the tyrant carried on killing and British businesses carried on making profits until the expulsions of Asians which that special relationship collapsed. In Jeremy Paxman’s candid book on Empire( Penguin,  2011)  he describes both the brutal Indian uprising against the British in 1859 and the appalling revenge of the rulers who flayed, impaled and beheaded culpable and blameless men, women and children. It was only in 2013, that Kenyan resisters, members of the Mau Mau won their case for compensation against the government. They had been subjected to torture and had their human rights violated in colonial Kenya.  So much for the civilized occupiers, so much for accuracy and truth telling.

If the nation is to free itself from delusions, it needs a more honest engagement with the past.  As Paxman writes: ‘ If only the British could bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world’.

International Business Times, 17/2/17

White and Black Working Classes

 

Not a week goes by without some right wing British politician or pundit bewailing the lot of the ‘left behind’ white working classes. Most of it is bogus sympathy. Most of them have never cared about those beneath them.  Particular identity politics are cynically stimulated by people of power and influence, most effectively by Nigel Farage, the most successful travelling hawker of white victimhood.  Depressingly, genuinely concerned men and women are also now caught up in this social panic. Nicky Morgan, previous education secretary, usually measured and thoughtful, this week warned that white working class boys were outperformed by ethnic minority pupils, ‘whose families are aspirational and value education more’. ( http://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2017/03/nicky-morgan-its-time-to-focus-on-white-working-class-boys-whose-needs-are-neglected-in-too-many-schools.html)

In truth the government’s own research shows that Chinese and Indian British children are top achievers while white and black working class kids as well as Pakistani British pupils are low down the table. Class has been racialized, I suspect, to divide and rule those who did not fare well under globalisation. Brexit deepened the chasm

A persuasive new investigation exposes the fallacies of the current discourse. Minority Report, jointly published by the Runnymede Trust and Centre for Labour and Social Studies ( CLASS), challenges the prevailing narrative and leading figures who have bought into Ukip nativism. Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust,  points out that pitting white working people against those of other ethnicities provides no solutions for the disadvantaged. Also, that white and non- white working classes have more in common with each other than they have with middle and upper classes. This is the first salvo in a nasty propaganda war and very welcome it is too.

It all started way back in 2008, when Labour’s Hazel Blears started speechifying about disenfranchised white working classes. At one debate organised by the Fabian Society she droned on and on about the ‘ambitions’ of these people who wanted good schools and good jobs and good universities. ( As if black and Asian working classes had no such ambitions). In the same year the BBC, controversially, broadcast White Season, a series of ‘frank’ programmes on the lives and thoughts of indigenous Brits. Frank Field, Ian Duncan Smith and others took up the theme with gusto. Munira Mirza, one of Boris’s deputy mayors, opined in 2010, that race was sorted, class was the problem. No evidence was provided.  Soon these mantras became trends. At almost all party conferences myriad fringe meetings would discuss the exclusion of the white working classes from opportunities and either blatantly or subtly blame ‘multiculturalism’ for this injustice.

As Robert Yates astutely pointed out in The Observer this February: ‘ The ‘left behind’ are, it is said, profoundly at odds with liberal metropolitan types. In fact, this theory has now hardened into received wisdom…politicians, academics and journalists have chosen to run with [this] culture clash’ At a dinner party I recently clashed with an English ex Labour politician who was churning out platitudes about the divided kingdom. I asked him how many unemployed or non- professional white mates he himself had and whether he would rejoice if his daughter married a part time road builder. That, he shouted, was not fair. Isn’t it? Why not?

According to these pernicious myths, we black and Asian Britons, are responsible for low white working class educational qualifications, their bad accommodation, poor health, perhaps divorces too? . We are portrayed as grabby villains who steal the good life away from those with hearts of oak and roots deep in the soil. Oddly and contradictorily, minorities are also lazy bastards who drain the benefits system. Thankfully, lived experiences do dispel many of these perceptions.

On Monday  I went to a large London hospital and met casual staff- cleaners, trolley pushers and auxiliary nurses. Some were English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, others were Ethiopians, Somalis, Nigerians, Poles, Rumanians, Portuguese, and Bangladeshis. NOT ONE white Brit said to me publicly or privately that ‘foreign’ colleagues were the real problem.  There were tensions. For example, the Bangladeshi cleaners did not like to be supervised by females  and a Scottish nurse objected to the hijab. But their primary concerns were about wages and conditions and underfunding. Bad news for those who want to think that humans are designed not to share but to compete savagely.

All those who make up the British working and workless classes are suffering deprivation because of poor employment prospects, bad housing and education. Furthermore, they help each other. On one housing estate near us, for example, Miriyam, a refugee, looks after Welshwoman Patti’s two children. In exchange Patti buys her groceries and cheap clothes. Tony, a disabled English builder is helped by Tariq, a part time butcher. They are very good friends in need.

Race, religion and ethnicity have too long been used to divert attention from class analysis and neglect. It is time to fight the peddlers of lies, lies and fake statistics and to demand a better deal for all those at the bottom of our cruelly unequal and unjust nation.

International Business Times, 29/3/17

 

 

Emma Watson and Women Today

 

Having followed the Emma Watson furore, what I would really, really like is to go out on a sisterly date with this amazing young woman who ceaselessly examines and tests the meaning and perils of modern feminism. On the cover of Vanity Fair she wears something that barely covers her boobs. This provoked ridicule and vilification from some female hacks.  Julia Hartley Brewer – someone I know and like and is enviably bosomy herself- was the cruellest of Cruellas in a tweet: ‘feminism, feminism…gender gap…oh why am I not taken seriously…feminism, oh and here are my tits’ Unnecessarily unkind. Watson did respond, with spirit and genuine emotion: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick to beat women with. It’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it’. She confesses she is stunned by the reactions and confused. As are many other females. Feminism is more complicated and tortuous than they know.

Let’s take the point about feminists beating up women. We should never only praise and revere other women in the name of solidarity. That would mean repressing all criticism of, say Theresa May or Sarah Vine aka Mrs Gove or Cherie Blair or model Naomi Campbell all of whom have been egotistical and morally flexible. On the other hand, we weathered feminists need to stop being self righteous. We are not purist, eternal keepers of sacred tenets. Our younger sisters are more savvy and smart than we ever could be.

Watson is a celeb who depends on millions of adorers. Yet she uses the media not simply to publicise her latest movies or keep her name up in the lights, but to get serious messages across. I know, my daughter is less fearful of the word ‘feminism’ because Watson gives it cachet. Others who grew up on Harry Potter books will be similarly encouraged. Just as impressive are other young activists- Laura Bates, Emily Reynolds, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Kat Banyard, Nesrine Malik, Reni Eddo-Lodge and so many others- have the kind of poise, commitment and deep awareness I never had. ( Look them up if the names are unfamiliar. Never again will you think or say sexism is unbeatable) Moreover, they are unafraid of social media, even when they are confronted by grotesque abuse and threats. ( I still avoid Facebook) Back in the old days, I burnt my lovely black lacy bra on a pyre, read the great feminist texts, went on marches, but really, inside I was a domesticated little wifie who wanted to please men too much. Compare that with the ease, skills and elan of teens, those in their twenties and early thirties.  Heck they even ask for proper equal pay, which I never dared to.  If we weren’t so often disgruntled, we oldies would see the awesome skills of those who have come after us.

But we are wiser when it comes to men and self- preservation. I get it when young women say they claim their sexuality and the right to choose who they want to be.  You should be able to be sexy, pretty, fashionable and still be intellectually serious and a proper feminist. That’s the hope. Maybe a day will come when they can have it all: sex appeal, respect, equality, autonomy and safety. Not yet though. In our ‘liberated’ times females are unsafe in the most advanced democracies, in civilized institutions – big companies, universities, even Parliaments. They can be harassed, blackmailed, abused, molested raped and destroyed. Too many males expect sexual gratification and too many females feel too frightened to resist them. According to the NSPCC over 40% of teenage girls feel pressured to have sex and some have been raped. Boys are influenced by hard porn online and want what they see.

It’s extreme naïvity to think images can be owned and controlled in our culture. How many men will have had horrible, dirty fantasies looking at Ms Watson on the cover of Vanity fair?  Will some of them think she is asking for it?  Yes. They shouldn’t, but they will. Young girls and women to whom she is a role model, may emulate her too. Clothes give messages, both intended and unintended. An intelligent feminist must be be pragmatic and realistic as well as demanding.

Old and young feminists need to understand better what feminism was and now is. Divided we stumble and fall. Together, as we saw on the women’s marches, we can shake up the world. It’s time to talk.

I newspaper 8/3/17

 

Lies and Hypocrisy Over Asylum Attack

 

Witness the rank British duplicity and hypocrisy as various public figures respond to the mob assault on a blameless teenager on a street in Croydon, outer London. Rekar Ahmed, a 17 year old asylum seeker was at a bus top opposite a pub with two friends when they were allegedly set upon by around 30 people.  Oh my. The great and the good can’t believe it happened. They are truly ‘appalled’, terribly ‘outraged’. This just isn’t very British. Maybe Croydon is a badland; the assailants must be ill bred ruffians . Have these moralists been asleep for the past few years? Do they not know anti-migrant feelings are spreading through all classes and some minorities too,  like a wild fire in a dry forest? They do know. This is fake shock and it is as bad (if not  worse) than the savage, unprovoked violence.

Remember Stephen Lawrence, killed by a gang in April 1993, as he and a friend were waiting at a bus stop in Eltham, South London. For a while the nation went through soul searching and changed. Things did get better. The 2012 Olympics celebrated that enlightened Britain and also marked its end. Ukip came along and shattered the liberal consensus on equalities, civil rights, justice and immigration. Good people did not fight hard enough for those shared values. And so the precious tenets passed away and the result is a brutish, broken country.

Asylum seekers, refugees, hard- working migrants, even long time settlers, breathe in the hostility in the air- even in London- and racist hatred burns the skin. And all the while we are instructed not to mention what’s happening because that is ungrateful, unfair or unpatriotic.

The noxiousness didn’t just appear. It is the polluting by-product of hard right and pathetically weak left politics, also flagrantly biased media reporting and yes, the EU referendum. It is treasonable to blame the Brexit lot for the hate fumes, but I do. Not all Brexiters were anti-immigrant and racist. But all those who hate migrants, diversity and cultural mixing voted to leave. ( This astute observation was made by Kevin McGuire associate editor of the  Daily Mirror) A substantial part of the population now believes it is entitled to express hateful feelings openly and without shame. Xenophobia is an undeniable part of the deep history of the UK. Brexit gave it a louder voice and respectability.  Those who almost murdered the teenager probably will never understand why their actions were abhorrent.

Why should they? They have been relentlessly warned about ‘floods’ of incomers bringing a  population and cultural deluge. Ahmed and others who look or sound foreign, are presumed to be dangerous, devious criminals, rapists, drug traders and or benefits looters. They apparently threaten ‘our way of life’. Some may even stamp aggressively on Easter eggs while tearful native children look on. ( I made that one up- though there is a fabricated, frenzied  story doing the rounds about Cadbury and the National Trust banning Easter Eggs in order not to offend minorities. Mrs May, so busy with international affairs, actually made a statement on this spoof panic) Every time a migrant or refugee commits crimes or cheats the system, or turns out to be a terrorist all the rest stand condemned.

Agencies which work with young and old asylum seekers and refugees have told me that verbal abuse and non-serious assaults are now completely normalised in shops, playgrounds, parks, busses and trains.  Campaigners want zero tolerance for such behaviours but realise that there is no political will to protect these lowest of the low. One woman who works with unaccompanied refugee children now finds them gripped by new mental problems acquired here, in a supposedly safe sanctuary: ‘ I have kids from Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, all the troubled hot spots. They used to cry a lot, have problems sleeping, nightmares. Some didn’t like to be touched. But in the past three years,  several have stopped eating, talking or going out. They refuse to go to a doctor or social worker. Most of them have been shouted at on public transport or bullied at school. All their optimism has gone. We did this to them. ’  I promised not to name her or say where she works. They are all too scared to speak up.

There will be more brutality against those seeking new lives. And the powerful will stand by, pretend concern and then carry on demonising the stranger, the outsider and needy.  Reker Ahmed, was, says DCI Jane Corrigan, ‘very, very lucky not to have lost his life’. As he recovers both physically and mentally, he will, one imagines, be grateful to the medical team and God for keeping him alive  But I doubt he will feel in any way ‘lucky’.

I newspaper, 5/4/2017

 

Misrembering Diana

 

Hear ye all.  Kensington Palace has put on an exhibition titled Diana: Her Fashion Story and, ostensibly, tickets are selling out fast. For a mere £19 eager crowds can see the demure and romantic outfits Diana wore when young and full of hope, and then go all the way on to elegant, glamourous style of her years as a savvy divorcee.  That sweet pink blouse! That blue velvet gown! It will be 20 years this summer since the princess died a horrible death. This show reduces the ill-fated, complex, empathetic and clever young woman to a tightly moderated fashion collection.

Eleri Lynn, the curator, confesses there will be no ‘weaponised’ clothes Diana wore to get at Charles, but many examples of sober garments she wore when doing good works. Alas, visitors will not get to see the stained dresses that show she suffered from bulimia. Or the dress she had on when she learnt that Charles was discarding her. Or the Shalwar Khameez she wore when she went to visit the family of her secret, true love, the British Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, who never betrayed her.

Princess Diana lived in Kensington Palace during the last years of her life. It was here that she had to find strength and remake herself after the inevitable end of her marriage, a marriage arranged by her own hideous family and deviously planned by the British royal family. The king in waiting had to have heirs. She was a damaged young girl from a broken, aristocratic family and, most importantly, a virgin. Perfect really. Camilla, Charles’s long time upper class lover, accepted the deal. As the day approached, Diana, who by then knew about Camilla, wanted out, but was told by her sisters she had to go ahead.  They all used her. Never forget that.

In this palace she suffered terrible loneliness, missed her boys when they were with their father and other royals. Her neediness drew her into affairs, liaisons and also unusual, sometimes highly unsuitable friendships ( she yearned for love, trust and care). And she was mentally unstable. But there were also days and nights of wicked pleasure and happiness with Khan, who, in the end, sadly could not step into her crazy, over-watched world. She got stronger and bolder too. As Beatrix Campbell wrote in her radical biography of the princess  ‘[Diana revolted] against her arranged marriage, the deceit and duplicity of her husband and complicity of his relatives, exposed them as an atavistic family…’

In October 1996, she told a confidante that she believed she would be killed in an accident, that would be arranged by people who did not want her around. She even ordered a sweep of Kensington Palace for listening devices. By this time she was more media savvy and able to be herself.  Then she died, just as she had predicted she would. ( We will never be given the full facts of what happened in Paris that night.)

And it was to the palace that thousands upon thousands went the day she died and for many days afterwards. I am a committed republican yet I came to this place of grief and love over and over again. Diana’s vulnerability and openness had touched millions.  Men and women of every background sobbed loudly around candles. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women prayed and lit incense. Flowers spread across the gardens, more flowers than any of us had ever seen. There were messages of quiet fury written on bouquets, not only about how badly she had been treated, but questioning the Queen and her motley crew, some the monarchical system itself.

Her brother Earl Spencer- who denied Diana a sanctuary when most she needed it- made a stirring speech about how she would not be forgotten. Tony Blair promised ‘the people’s princess’ would be forever in our hearts. But she was systematically and sedulously erased from national memory by the very expensive and excellent palace PR machine with the collusion of pro-royal newspapers.

Camilla is now glowingly praised and totally rehabilitated. Some commentators are slathering her with praise and already suggesting that she would make a jolly good queen. High level public indoctrination has begun as the long serving monarch gets older and succession is on the horizon.

I write this because the royals want us, the people, to forget the real Diana, her empathy, effectiveness, beauty and ultimately tragic story.  And to forget too the way she was treated by Camilla and Charles and the rest of the Windsors. Remembrance is often a political act of resistance and restorative justice. Misremembering is also a political tool.

Diana was far, far more than a womb and a frock. This exhibition is gross and disrespectful. And greedy. Kate and William, who live in Kensington Palace, should never have backed the project. But they did and so showed that they have become part of the Firm’s ruthless PR machinery.

I newspaper 23rd March 2017