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



A Plague On Those Who Brought Us Here

Brexit Win

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown


On Wednesday morning a talented young, black musician was beaten up in a park in South London and told to ‘get back on the boat’. He was born here, so too his parents, my friends, both of whom worked for many years in the NHS. On Tuesday an email arrived from Albert Persaud, director of a prestigious psychiatry research centre. Doctors in his team are concerned about the breakout of racial hostility and it effect on black and Asian patients. In another email, Sheila Melzak, a consultant child psychotherapist who works with young asylum seekers and refugees, claimed the children have been severely bullied in the last four months. I was recently spat at and abused on a bus in High Street Kensington by a woman in her fifties: ‘ Fuck back off Paki. This is my country’. This squalid referendum campaign has released the stench of chauvinism, the germs of infectious bigotry.  Prejudice is irrational and intoxicating, emotive and powerful. Throw in introverted nationalism, nostalgia and reassuring lies and you get a seriously potent narcotic. Farage et al cynically doped millions of voters and here we are, a small, mean, nasty, divided, vicious, boorish and also deluded Britain.  

In 1963, In Smethwick, Tory Peter Griffiths overturned a massive Labour majority by repeatedly using one simple slogan: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.  Lamentably, we have returned to those dark old days. The unspoken Brexit slogan was ‘If you want a migrant for a neighbour, vote remain’. Those trapped in austerity poverty, many working class grouches, middle class jingoists and  anti-elite, anti-intellectual populists all ganged up against the hapless, hard working EU worker. I doubt they really believe that once this lot has been seen off, jobs will go ( or be taken up) by the true-born, hearts of oak men and women. But realism has no place in this fantasy land.  

They say they want their country back. Which country would that be? Not the one that was reflected in the upbeat, optimistic Olympics. As A.A Gill observed in a magnificent tirade: ‘ We all know what they mean. Back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future…’ Even though it smelt like, looked like and sounded like racism, Brexiters insist that the vile anti- immigration rhetoric reflected genuine, nativist anguish. On Friday night, even Ukip’s Douglas Carswell expressed his dismay at the way refugees and migrants were demonised by his party.  I share his dismay. Worse still, many of those who turned paranoid and xenophobia had once themselves been refugees and economic migrants. I am an exile, forced out by Idi from my homeland Uganda. Thousands of my people voted for Brexit, some because they are obnoxiously selfish, others because they pathetically think this gives them brownie points for patriotism.

On Friday morning my working class English husband and I said we both felt sorrow, terror and shame. Is this what we have become? Has Nigel Farage replaced Jessica Ennis as the face of Britain? Yes. A plague on those who brought us here.

 Published GQ magazine 25th June 2016



Brexit, White, Black, Shades of Brown


The EU referendum has ruptured political parties, families and communities, lacerated national cohesion. Black and Asian Britons have gone through the same upheavals and anguish, and more. And worse. The vote was a test of our integrity and identity, political fidelity and pragmatism, personal concerns and wider loyalties. We made choices that will forever mark us CUT HERE.

survey carried out by Lord Ashcroft found that around 70% of  non-white Britons and 46% of white Britons voted to remain. The majority of Brexiters are native whites and a third of them are of  various other backgrounds.

I voted to remain, as did both my children and most of my most trusted colleagues and friends.  In my circle of fervent pro-EU activists are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Africans, Arabs, South Asians and East African Asians. We cherish the European human rights laws and admire the idealism of the EU post war dream. We empathise with maligned EU immigrants because most of us walked through the same fires of rancour and animosity, sometimes still feel the burn on our skins. More importantly, we feel European and cosmopolitan, part of a connected world. Most of us lived circumscribed lives before moving to Britain. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where I was born and raised was CUT HERE a stifling TOWN. Our British children, in contrast, have grown up to be  global citizens. Some of them will try to leave and go to more open societies in Europe. Several successful Asian and black entrepreneurs have expanded into Europe. There is an indisputable business case for staying in this vast marketplace. High flying investment manager, Miss Renu Singh, is contemptuous of Brexiters: ‘They are like a village farmer in the Punjab, scared of the outside, without any courage or imagination. I will move to Frankfurt. They can go, but they won’t take me out of Europe’     

The EU gave us equality, real equality. After the empire ended, British passports were handed out to previous subjects to create a virtual overseas kingdom. My father wrapped these precious documents in velvet and kept them in a bank vault. They turned out to be worthless.  After Uganda became independent, Asians, a defenceless minority, were persecuted by black politicians. They tried to move to their Motherland. In 1968, the Labour government passed the jus sanguinis law, which affirmed bloodline citizenship.  Colonial subjects who had a UK born parent or grandparent – Australians, New Zealanders, white South Africans etc-  could come and go freely. Darkies like me needed visas even though we were British. Our blue passports had the letter D stamped on it. I went through decades of humiliation at British airports until I got my red passport, identifying me as a British and EU citizen. The EU has been good to us, good for us.

Clearly a good many voters who share our life experiences and cultures were unmoved by these arguments.

Hundreds of thousands of them backed Brexit. Some because they are savvy and self interested, others because they are selfish, scared, or sadly simple minded. I can understand the first type, hard core Thatcherite operators who detest regulations, fear new tougher EU tax regimes, and want a completely laissez- faire economy. Mr Ram, ( not his real name), for example, imports clothes from India for the lucrative bridal market. He started with a market stall in west London and now has a turnover of millions: ‘Listen, Yasminji ( a respectful address) you have never run a business, don’t understand these things. This EU just wants to hold us back, tie our hands. Look at India- no stupid rules, see how far up it is going. We want to be like India and China. They don’t have unions and very (sic) interfering bureaucrats. We must be free.’  What about Eastern Europeans who work hard for low wages?  ‘Yes, of course. My cousin has restaurants and all the waiters are Polish. But they cannot be really be British like you and me. Better to get our own people from India’ I went to see the cousin, also a millionaire Brexiter. ‘Yes it will be difficult to get the staff, the English are bloody lazy and our young people don’t want to work in the business. But these East European people must be sent back home. Maybe I will have to close the restaurants. ’ So not that savvy or smart then, these Asian masters of the universe.    

The selfish ethnic Brexiter wants to pull up the drawbridge, is dead against admitting any more enterprising or desperate humans who want a chance to make or remake their lives. They have no conscience, no empathy with those who are exactly like they once were. Tough right winger Priti Patel, of Ugandan Asian heritage, is their poster girl. She will now go places. So too expedient immigrant politicians such as Gisela Stuart and Kwasi Kwarteng.

Many immigrants and their families voted for exit because they want to be seen as established Brits, as one of ‘us’ and not ‘them’. With the national mood so hostile, they seek to distance themselves from the story of migration. I do feel for them. They don’t yet realise that xenophobes do not distinguish between Poles and Pakistanis. I come finally to the most pitiable Britons of colour, those who fell for big fat Brexit lies. They really do believe that if we end the EU free movement of labour, their uncle from Trinidad, or in laws from Kashmir will sail in and claim their place. As Trevor, a plasterer, puts it: ‘My girlfriend, she in Jamaica. Mr Farage promised black people will get visas if we stop them Europeans. Brexit is good for us’   

The EU political quake has opened up new schisms between races and ethnicities, and also within races and ethnicities. I have fallen out with a  dear childhood friend and also a distant cousin over this. They voted Brexit and I will not forgive them. Things can only get worse after the effects of Brexit are felt in households and communities. These cuts and wounds may never heal. The nation is broken into many parts.    

Blog 25th Jne 2016




Remain – why are we stuck with such duds?

We may, probably will, leave the EU thanks to jingoists,  xenophobes, clueless millions who think their country was great when it way grey and mingy and the most dishonest, self serving, cynical pack of anti-EU politicians we have ever had to suffer. Though it hurts to admit so, the brash, confident, persuasive Brexiteers are good at selling their pernicious promises and falsities- as good as those who sold us PPI. Only if they take us out of the EU, there will be no investigation, no compensation for the citizens who were mightily duped.

These political merchants who will say anything to win, are also enthusiastically helped by right wing newspapers and journalists. The wind fills their sails and  they are puffed up, ready to go. And then there is the pathetic, weedy, inconsistent, ineffective, lazy and inept opposition, the Remain lot, who do nothing while our nation heads for the wild seas of economic ruin, racist discourse, and isolationism. Few trust or like David Cameron, who now comes across as a tired conjurer with his heart in the wrong place. Jeremy Corbyn is treasonably indifferent and is showing up on mindless Friday night TV shows as if he has all the time in the world. Tim Farron? Nice guy, No presence. Eddie Izzard? It’s all flashy pink lipstick and verbal incontinence . On Question Time, at times, he  sounded madder than Noel Edmunds. The ITV debate with all women MPs and Boris did have its moments. On the Remain side, Amber Rudd was passionate and strong. Nicola Sturgeon was, as ever, the perfectly dressed assassin, but the focus was Boris ( how he loved all that female attention) and will not have changed many minds.

What’s wrong with the Remain bunch? Can they not see how they are failing to win the arguments and look credible and inspiring? Have they no courage, no imagination, no basic political skills? On Newsnight last week, Anne McKelvoy said- and she was right- that the big names and performances are on the Brexit side.  Labour party grandees spoke up this weekend and asked their smartest MPs to step up. Of course too many of those are still in a big sulk about the Labour leader election. Get Chukka out, give Alan Johnson a big role, Theresa May has been in purdah, bring her out, Andrew Mitchell would be far better than John Major, yesterday’s man. Then there is Sadiq Khan of course, newly elected, internationally respected now, youngish and impressive. He could take the role on and carry it off, if only Cameron didn’t show up on platforms with him. Finally lock up and muzzle Tony Blair. He took us to an illegal war, fabricated reasons, has no moral or political capital.  Every time he speaks for the EU, hundreds probably go to the other side.

If the Remain team don’t shape up, all is lost. And as ever it will be the poorest and most powerless who will suffer for the next fifty years.

Our Poor Wretched Strivers


The Tory MP, Lucy Allan, has been tied to the stake and burnt by online flamethrowers after some of her aides accused her of being a bully and making them ‘feel inadequate’. When one of them wanted time off to see her terminally ill granddad, Allan allegedly admonished her: ‘I don’t give a shit about your dying grandfather’.  At the weekend more such grievances were aired by named and unnamed sources. This month Mike Ashley, millionaire bossman of Sports Direct also found himself in the hot spotlight after an undercover investigation found that exhausted workers were underpaid and terrorised by the company. A BBC investigation in October found ill employees who were too scared to take time out. At one depot, paramedics had been called out 76 times over a two year period. The media, union members, web vigilantes and MPs have damned the abrasive Ashley, who denied the charges and is now heading a review of agency worker terms and conditions.  

 These two just got unlucky. Some celestial forces led collective ire to them. Throughout history and across the world, people have found and vented their furies on chosen individuals- witches, adulterers, sinners, paedophiles, deserters and so on. Tribes and societies feel cleansed after these punitive, diverting, intoxicating dramas, but the bad stuff goes on, sometimes gets worse, after the orgy of rage has come and gone. Does anyone really believe that no other MPs treat their teams as badly as Allan allegedly does? Or that Ashley is a particularly hideous capitalist? That these two are bad fairies in a world full of lovely, charming, caring politicians, royals, journos and businessmen? The truth is that Allan ( if her accusers are telling the truth) and Ashley are archetypes, representatives of contemporary Britain . More people are becoming selfish, greedy, hard, demanding and anti-social. Admittedly some still hold on to good values such as mutuality, kindness and generosity. But they are an endangered species in the fast changing habitat.

The gods of consumerism have vanquished Jesus, painted adverts and mean graffiti over his messages. Christianity has fallen before these forces. Too many of us on the left have rolled over, stopped fighting back, no longer think too deeply about the massive social and economic shifts and implications. Instead we go shop. This may be the most irreversible change of all.

I was ill for several weeks and then felt low and tired through most of December, so am now rushing around buying, buying, buying for Christmas. Like most migrants, I have learnt to love the festival but hate how it is now almost all about presents. But in the name of integration, I join in with the rest of the madding crowds. In a vast mall  on Friday at 8.30 pm, in a reputable high end shoe shop, a sweet, exhausted looking Italian assistant was helping me. She would be there till 11, she said, back again the next day and then working till midnight till Christmas eve. Back again at 8 on Boxing Day. Will they get overtime? I asked. She didn’t know what the word meant. Turns out they get no extra money at all, but their shifts are adjusted, though over this hectic, festive period , staff are also expected to generously give extra time for no cash. Her manager came up because he recognised me and said:  ‘You should write about this new cheap labour. But please don’t name the shop or the place. I agree, we are really suffering and nobody cares. All I want for Christmas is sleep’.

At another shop we heard one assistant consoling another who was in tears: ‘ Look, it is not about you. Managers come and shout at all of us because they want us to be scared so we work harder.’ In the toilets some customers were shouting at the young Rumanian cleaner, because she was, well, cleaning while women and children rushed in and out. I thanked her and apologised on behalf of the ignoramuses who were making a tough job unbearable. Do these workers not celebrate Christmas? Are they just worker bees without rights, joy, family life or dreams?

Supermarkets this week will stay open till midnight in some places, just to squeeze more out of their workers and our purses. The most successful cheapo outlets must pay suppliers and workers abysmally. There have, for example been many complaints made about working conditions at Lidl. One manager told a newspaper he had had to work 75 hours a week and to sign away his rights under European law. The company denies any wrong doing. The stories keep on coming, but the company gets bigger and more popular. Why even the middle and even upper classes turn up now seeking out low priced lobsters and Prosecco.

Remember the Tories and their slogans on the ‘skivers’ and the ‘strivers’? Well look what is happening to the wretched, exploited strivers working in retail. The same is happening to agency workers in the care sector, to farm and factory workers, the those toiling away in the service sector. Unions have been castrated and can only yell impotently. So yes, Mr Osborne, employment is rising fast, but men and women are doing the sort of jobs that make them feel subhuman. This is why productivity is so low in GB.

Many right wing politicians and business people want us to get out of Europe because the EU gives workers protection, a fair deal, respect and entitlements. This government is determined not only to slash all state safety nets, but to become a mini US, where workers get few holidays or basic employment rights and citizens pay for healthcare or die. That is the big Tory idea. They don’t put the details in their manifesto, but by stealth and non-intervention, European social democracy is being pushed out by American social Darwinism.  Is that what you want? Think about that while you shop till the sales people drop.

The Independent, 21/12/2015





Not All Tories Are Bastards

Five years. Five years of Tory hubris and callous, divisive policies. After this government is done, Thatcherism will seem compassionate and benevolent. We social democrats are left with deep grief and psychic wounds. Labour’s internecine quarrels and stagger to the right makes the desolation worse. Alan Johnson, poor boy made good, mainly by selling his poor boy made good story, now says his party failed to win over ‘aspirational’ people. Peter Benjamin Mandelson, AKA Baron Mandelson, Privy Councillor, reiterates the message as do other Blairites. Does the word describe the lone, Labour voting mum who wants better for her kids? Or is it the pushy Tiger Mum from the middle classes who wants to maintain generational status and privileges? 36.7% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives; 66% turned out to vote, so, in fact 24% of all those who could have voted put the Tories into power. Yet the main opposition party offers not a positive alternative ( As Sturgeon did) but shoddy, unprincipled, derivative politics which strive to please that 24% and disregard the millions who have either given up or who voted against a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

Osborne never even pretends to care about the bonds of society, or equity and mutuality . He is cold, instrumental, powerful and on course to serve his class  (and those above) and waste the hopes and lives of those who do not matter. Ian Duncan Smith appears to enjoy humiliating and punishing citizens who depend on the state. John Whittingdale, ( who voted against same sex marriage and Equal Pay laws) now in charge of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is determined to bring the BBC to its knees. Oh and to remove cumbersome regulations on gambling. It is truly SCARY.  

We could give up altogether, those of us who want a fair, equal, just society. Or we can become less tribal and try to listen to and support ameliorating influences within the Tory party.  No I am not turning right, like many do as they get older. I am going the other way. But sulking or sniping for five years would be self-indulgent and worse than useless. Not all Tories are bastards. There are MPs in the winning party who don’t want benefits cut further, others who believe in the European Union and are stanch defenders of the Human Rights Act. David Davis and Dominic Grieve will fight hard against plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a more tepid British Bill of Rights; Ken Clarke will do the same to stay in the EU. I can’t say I like Boris and Michael Gove, now the Justice Secretary, but that hardly matters. What does matter is that both are calling for a proper living wage and other measures to shift perceptions of the Tories as distant toffs. I know two women who run small businesses who could not bring themselves to vote Tory this time. One of them told me: ‘ Of course they are good for me. Who, in business doesn’t want a free hand and low taxes? But I didn’t like the way they were attacking people on benefits. I had to ask for housing benefit when my husband died and left behind big debts. I was lucky. Many people are not. They don’t understand that’.  

I suggest Cameron himself is aware of and possibly slightly troubled by the discordance between his fine postures –  the Green warrior, the caring conservative, jogging metro-man, modern husband and dad- and the brutish, iniquitous laws his hardline cabinet is set to pass. That must be why his post election speech seemed conciliatory and righteous: ‘ We must bring our country together. We will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom…it means giving everyone in the country a chance.. no matter where you are from, you will have the opportunity to make the most of your life’. Did that come out of guilt and shame or was it slick PR? Don’t know. But hark, here comes one of his most trusted friends and ‘blue sky’ gurus, Steve Hilton, who has written a book, More Human, which in parts, is bolder, more unabashedly moral than any written by Labour insiders. Hilton went off to the USA in 2012 when his wife got a top job at Google. Until then he advocated savage cuts to the civil service and welfare budget. Now he sees the path to true enlightenment, repudiates his own previous self . I confess I was both startled and then seduced by his words and ideas. My husband, in turn, was startled by my enthusiastic yelps as I read an extract. He remains cynical and probably thinks post election blues have weakened my political resolve, made me susceptible to smart Tory talk.  

Here is what Hilton has to say: ‘…our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges. ..At least in America, economic, cultural and political power is dispersed. In the UK, centralisation is a gift to the vested interests. When the corporate bosses, the MPs, the journalists- and authors of books such as mine- all go to the same dinner parties and social events, all live near one another, all send their children to the same schools ( from which they themselves came) , an insular ruling class develops…It is a democracy in name only, operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome. I know because I was part of it’ He goes on to argue for decent wages, for people to be protected from ugly human impulses such as ‘avarice, malice and intolerance.’  This globally respected thinker may just move and affect the right wing cabinet and PM. He will, for sure. inspire younger. Idealistic Tories. Labour movers and shakers, at present muddled and craven, should support fair minded Tories, and welcome Hilton’s intervention, learn from him, admit that real progressive thinking can sometimes come from the enemy. Will they? Some hope.

The Independent 18/5/2015




The Many Faces of Liberalism

Liberal Values?

Nick Clegg was grief-stricken as he delivered his valedictory statement. It was both personal and burningly political. His leadership had been bullwhipped, the party roundly thrashed; voter fears and grievances had been encouraged and exploited, ‘liberalism’ was waning, possibly expiring here and across Europe. A worthy speech, I thought, genuine, and, as ever, well enunciated. But his views on liberalism are, frankly, bunkum. 

This weekend, Tories and their many journalist chums, gloated and sneered at ‘leftie liberals’ who do not understand the needs of ‘the people’. So are the Tory leaders and their supporters illiberal? No, No, they would say. Old and new conservatives fought ( and would fight) wars for liberty, for the right to live as one chooses, not to have an interfering, domineering state. These days they even tolerate gays, don’t you know.

Liberalism is like a beige scarf which can be worn with any colour or outfit, to make different, sometimes contradictory statements. I put it to you readers, that one version of liberalism, ardently supported by the LibDems, gave the Tories their victory. That far from dying away, it has been renewed in this savage election, polished up, and sold to millions. Britons were told over and over that under the Tories they would have fewer rules and laws stopping or tempering what they wish to do. The exit from the EU that so many seem to want comes from this desire. No more planning permission, no more industrial tribunals, no more political correctness, no more anti-discrimination laws, no more human rights laws, down with health and safety. What bliss awaits them. The rewards for all this deregulation would be piles of cash. Think of Mr Cameron, pumped up and full of puff, promising low taxes, more money in all our pockets, so we can spend, spend, spend. Mr Osborne, similarly, enabling pensioners to cash in their pensions instead of buying annuities, so they too can spend, spend,  spend. In Toryland, there is no such thing as society and citizenship has become obsolete. Economic liberalism casts Britons as consumers, money-makers or losers and scroungers. 

One online business dictionary provides this useful definition of liberalism: ‘ A concept that government should not try to control prices, rents or wages, but instead let open competition and the forces of supply and demand create an equilibrium between them, that benefits the vast majority of citizens’. So when the hapless Ed Miliband announced rent controls and mansion taxes, it was spun by the Tories into an assault on essential, nay, defining British rights and liberties. Liberty has tremendous resonance for most Britons. It is their identity, a deep folk memory of the Magna Carta, resistance to tyranny, the small person against the big state. Modern Tories cleverly use liberty and liberalism to justify unbridled capitalism:Go aspire, make profits, the government will not bother you, it is your birthright in this free and liberal nation. 

Some aspects of social liberalism are also alive and doing rather too well. Society has become more permissive. Sex toys and underwear are sold on high streets and nobody cares or minds. Commuters read Fifty Shades of Grey without any embarrassment and the objectification of females is now seen as smart, cool advertising. Young feminists are skilfully using online networks to protest and stop such adverts. In the last fortnight they got a company to withdraw pernicious billboards showing the perfect ‘beach body’ . Those enraged by the campaign accused the feminists of Stalinist tactics and crimes against a liberal society. Voters who abandoned Labour and the LibDems included millions of such economic and social liberals.

These same liberals, I reckon, are wary of an entirely different brand of liberals who emphasise the greater good and campaign to protect equality and civil rights, a tradition that arguably goes back to the anti-slavery movement and is based on sound political and  philosophical theories. This liberalism is an optimistic creed. It enhances human generosity, virtues and tolerance, tempers Darwinian behaviours, expects the state to protect vulnerable citizens and to respect autonomy. Our anti-discrimination laws would not have been passed were it not for that greatest of liberal politicians, Roy Jenkins, a committed, true egalitarian, an ardent European and human rights champion.  That benign, corrective, caring, sharing liberalism may indeed be dying. If that was Clegg’s warning, it wasn’t clear and, in the end not persuasive. He is partly responsible for what has happened.

Edmund Burke – philosopher of ethical conservatism- warned that when the fabric of a state is ripped, society soon gets disconnected ‘into the dust and powder of individuality’. Selfishness has been embedded now in British society; the rich live by their own rules while the poor are reduced to subhuman status. The revolution started by Thatcher was completed by the coalition. LibDem figures who had been in government, viciously attacked Tory policies during the election, policies that were patently unfair. We saw this turnabout and laughed bitterly. Vince Cable confessed it bothered him that new regulations and charges made it much harder for workers to take up cases against bad employers. Why did he not speak up earlier? Nick Clegg similarly could have but didn’t leave the government when Tories decreed the state could spy on us all, have secret trials and stick innocent migrants into detention centres. Liberalism for Nick and Co was a flexi loan.

This election showed something precious has ( ITLA PREV WD) gone or may be going from our now atomised and volatile nation. Not liberalism- some species of which are overactive- but social democracy which had moral purpose and was, for decades, the basis of the state’s obligations to the citizen. It tamed the market, strove for equality and a just society. Even Adam Smith, guru of the free market, saw the need to offset self interest with benevolent instinct which would ‘produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety’.  There is no harmony of sentiments any more. Divided we are and divided we will fall.

The Independent, 11/5/2015



Shame the Rich

In the eighties I wrote articles on ghastly yuppies, effervescing with expensive champagne and inflated egos. One of them poured his bubbly over my blouse when I tried to interview him. How they all laughed. In the nineties I met incredibly young dotcom millionaires, bright but vacuous. That was also the time when, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, the middle classes suddenly wanted to be shareholders. Those were early signs of a major cultural and economic shift. But not even the great prophetess of the free market could have predicted that GB would become the epicentre of global greed and vicious inequality, a modern Herod’s Temple, where profiteers gather and lucre is worshipped. Christ drove out the money makers from the old temple in Jerusalem. Here, they are welcomed, given free rein and warm hugs by HMRC and our governments. Now the London Eye has been taken over by Coca Cola, the final insult.

These indulgences are, we are told, essential, because without profit makers economies would collapse. Their extreme wealth leads to better living standards for all. That, it turns out, is a myth or illusion or downright lie. Bankers, investors, the upper classes and big businesses rake it in while the rest of humanity is damned.

Last December the BBC brought us 3 programmes on The Tatler, the rag read by those who spend ten thousand pounds on a pair of cuff links. This week the broadcaster gave us The Super-Rich and Us, written and presented by the astute Jacques Peretti, who previously made The Men Who Made us Fat and The Men Who Made us Spend. The documentary exposed the wolves and their pampered families, their sense of entitlement, self pity and disdain. The Countess of Bathurst, a landowner who organises polo matches felt severely misunderstood by the hoi polloi: ‘They don’t know what it means to be people like us. We do work incredibly hard’. Then there was Tony Fernandes, who owns the QPR football team and Air Asia. No, with 650million pounds, he was not as rich as some. I know what he means. A millionaires school mate of mine who has a beautiful house in South London weeps because she can’t afford to buy a house in Holland Park. A distant relative who owns seventy five posh properties is furious because he can’t buy his son a job on the media: ‘ What good is this money if I can’t get him his dreams? We people suffer too you know’. He offered me £50,000 to see if I could pull strings. And then accused me of hating the rich. True, I do hate the rich who think they are the chosen ones, who think they can live by their own rules, pay no taxes, who feel no obligation to those who have less.

Back in Uganda, several of my uncles, now dead, were millionaire businessmen. But their employees were paid a pittance and their own families were torn apart by feuds. That was in the sixties. Today employers have the same mean spirits. Workers are denied a living wage because the shareholders and directors must have more-  their next big car, yacht or mansion. We now have companies– Vault Couture is one such- which manage the possessions of men and women who buy too much and then feel lost in their forests of plenty. Here, take the sick bag…

Half the world’s wealth – 110 trillion dollars- belongs to the top 1%. Eighty five of the richest men and women own as much as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. In the next decade, those who have too much will get even more, that is according to Oxfam. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are both men of the establishment and of the wealthy Church of England. They warn that economic growth pursued maniacally has increased  inequality, an ‘evil’ which must now be tackled. The warning appears in a new collection of essays, On Rock or Sand, published this week. Cameron rejected these calls and then ‘urged’ employers to pay their workers more than the bare minimum wage.

Don’t tell me governments are powerless. Japan and the Scandinavian nations have maintained relative equality through these hard years and since rabid free marketers took over the globe. Japan was once a feudal society and still retains deference, but its leaders understand how fairness makes for a better society for all.

Some powerful voices in the most cutthroat economies are now speaking up. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts  senator, for example, told Rana Foroohar, a Times magazine columnist: ‘ I’d lay [wage stagnation] right at the feet of trickle-down economics…We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked’.

Democracy will collapse and aspiration will die unless we turn back from this disastrous ideology. Our leaders won’t do that. But when the masses have nothing left to lose, they may rise and light a bonfire of vanities. As they have done through history. This may be a seditious thing to say, but it is what billions of people worldwide are thinking.

The Independent, 19/1/2015

Educating White Working Class Kids: The Immigrant Example

White boys and girls from poor or working class families are attaining lower grades in school than are those from immigrant households. Those of Chinese and Indian backgrounds are at the top, followed by Bangladeshi, African, Pakistani and Caribbean pupils. The Education Select Committee, in a report published today, confirms these findings. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted finds this gap intolerable and indefensible : ‘ [Immigrants] have added value to this country’s performance…where families believe in education, children do well…There is absolutely no excuse for any parent, whatever their ethnicity, for not protecting their children’.  

He is right. Why are British kids who most need to break out of the cycle of deprivation still unable to do so, after major government reforms and hopeful initiatives?  How can this be acceptable? I am an immigrant whose children have done as well as I wished for them and better. But I am not gloating, not triumphant at all.  As someone of the left, I find this research data depressing and troubling . Poverty does make some difference to how a child does- not eating properly, for example, affects concentration. But, as Wilshaw emphasises, non-white families still seem able to get their children  to strive and get good results. Some highly successful black and Asian pupils went to large comprehensives and made the best of what was on offer. Aspiration lifted them, made them fly. BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed and Steve McQueen the academy winning director of 12 Years a Slave both went to Drayton Manor High school, close to where I live. I know several high achieving Caribbean men and women whose single mums taught them to work hard and be the best. Bangladeshis were near the bottom of the list but ten years ago, and now the children of waiters and those running takeaways are entering Oxbridge and parliament.

Our family was economically insecure, dysfunctional and unhappy. My mother was determined I would have a better, brighter life than she’d had: Education, she used to say,  is a passport. You cannot carry your money and things with you if you have to move to another country. But nobody can steal your brain, what you know, your exam results, your certificates. Though she didn’t speak good English, she would turn up every month at my school in Kampala, Uganda, to talk to teachers about how I was doing, my best and worst subjects. I was rubbish at maths and physics so she got me extra lessons and paid for them by sewing shirts and dresses for teachers of those subjects. Of course it was embarrassing, but I know her fervour drove me. About ten years ago, a neighbour, a mother of Pakistani origin begged me to teach her English and her son too in the evenings. In exchange she made me lovely food and even offered to clean my house for me, an offer I declined. She was a fast learner and her son, Akil, is now studying medicine.

We migrants are these days resented by many in this country, but as Wilshaw says, we do have so much to offer this nation. I have mentored white working class children from families where no one had faith in schools. They didn’t see the point. I can’t understand this indifference, this inability understand how learning- not the lottery or lotto- delivers real winnings, the way to a better life.

Teachers,  with some superhuman efforts, can manage to get white working class pupils up to speed. We saw the idealism and commitment of  such educators in Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex on Channel4. A number of schools that years ago were written off as ‘sink schools’ have been turned round by heads who saw potential instead of irremediable failure.

What are the underlying causes of this persistent underachievement that seems unresponsive to policies, inspiration and excellent educators? Fatalism about class may be one factor- the embedded notion that no one should get above themselves. Another reason could be suspicion of success. Some working class families fear that their children will be lost to them if they become middle class. I am guessing here and trying hard to empathise. But if I am honest, I can’t understand these anxieties and attitudes, and nor would most of the poor of the world. 

The truth is that parents of white children lagging behind need to be more engaged, more proactive, more interested and properly pushy. Wilshaw is suggesting fines for those who don’t read to their kids, don’t ensure homework is done and that attendance is good. I can see why he thinks it’s time to get tough. But punitive measures could backfire. A far better idea would be to educate parents so they are up to the job. After all they are just repeating the patterns of their own upbringing.

About ten years ago, I was invited to talk at some community schools in west London about my career, life story ambitions and all that. Two of them in west London were trying out what they called ‘family learning’. The schools were open in the evening and mums and dads were encouraged to come in to study the same subjects as their kids and to understand the importance of active parenting. Children did their homework in one corner and at times helped parents to solve maths and science problems. Most of the school intake was from a large housing estate, which had severe social problems and ethnic tensions. But in a quiet classroom with dedicated teachers, tensions seemed to subside and all parents, including those who were white and disadvantaged,  seemed to develop essential parental skills in the process. Some had brought their infants in buggies. I sang old nursery rhymes to them and some of the mums asked me to write them out because they didn’t know the words. I found that truly sad.  I don’t know if family learning still goes on. I hope it does because it was making a huge difference to the community and to the pupils’ results.

How’s this for another idea? As most migrants have the work ethic, ambition and faith in education, we should arrange for white working class children to live with them during holidays. A while ago TV programme makers took lazy, unmotivated white kids to live with families in India for a few weeks. Though there were many sulks and tears, rebellions and furies, they came away chastened, serious and more mature. I have sometimes taken on such kids too, usually after teachers have asked me to, and though it was tough, at least three out of five did  benefit from being brainwashed by this immigrant. One is studying to be a TV cameraman, another a teacher. You have no idea how proud that makes me. And here is an offer: I’ll do the same for another young person from a poor white background, hopefully with encouragement from the family. Other immigrant professionals could do the same. Every little helps.

Sir Michael’s passion and mission is laudable. These still excluded children of our nation deserve a better future , a chance in an increasingly competitive world. Their parents need to wake up and step up. And the rest of us must do our bit too. As they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child.

Daily Mail, 18/6/2014





All Political Parties are Killing the NHS


Read all about it! Chronic understaffing is putting lives at risk in the NHS. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence ( NICE) believes there should be one nurse per eight patients, but we have a shortage of 20,000 nurses. And nowadays with anti-migrant feelings so high, importing nurses is, well, politically tricky. Staff cuts are being imposed but 44% of hospital trusts face the worst financial outlook for a decade. Around 800,000 people turned up at A&E departments last year, some because they could not get GP appointments. Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs warns her sector is ‘teetering n the brink of collapse.’  Bed shortages are creating untold humiliation and desolation. The King’s Fund, a politically neutral health think tank, is persuaded that by 2015-2016, money could run out in the NHS. Whistleblowers are still not heard and often punished for speaking out. New research has found demoralisation among staff. One in four of those questioned claimed they have been bullied and harassed. Infection risks are still high in clinics and hospitals. Maternity wards are under severe pressure. Early cancer diagnoses vary dramatically between areas, which means different outcomes too, obviously. A survey by the Royal College of GPs found that the majority of practitioners fear they might miss life threatening conditions because of their impossible workloads. All this has been gleaned from newspapers over the last week or so. Enough to make us all sick.

But two questions need to be considered before the middle classes give up and turn to private health insurance: Is this deluge of bad news part of an ideological war between the centre left and centre right? Do politicians have a vested interest in making people think the NHS is in terminal decline? The answer is yes to both questions. The service is being suffocated by lack of adequate funding, poor management and endless restructuring but most of all by cynical politicking. Expect to hear more rows this week as the Tories and Labour accuse each other of failing to stop the decline.  

For the right, the NHS, now under Jeremy Hunt, faithful friend of business, is a statist monopoly, Soviet style, which must be broken up and sold off.  They call this ‘progressive marketisation’. ( See, for example, Sean Worth on the website of  the right wing think tank, Policy Exchange). To talk down the NHS eases this process by persuading people that privatisation is the only way to secure health care for our population in the future. Newspaper editors who lean that way are banner bearers of this destructive option. They ask if a ‘monolithic system’ is efficient and suitable for our times. Or praise in order to condemn: ‘ The NHS was founded, founded as a noble experiment in compassion. The principle of care from cradle to grave, free at the point of delivery was as revolutionary as it was fair. But society has changed enormously since 1948’. Yes, we aren’t recovering from a world war and are economically stronger than the creators of the service would ever have envisaged.

The left, meanwhile, Labour mainly, repeatedly uses the NHS as a club with which to beat the Tories. So much so, that the club is now cracking and breaking. This week we will get more of Milliband and Andy Burnham going on the offensive. Why don’t they ever defend the extraordinary achievements and resilience of the NHS, the staff and its purpose? I know the opposition must  criticise government policies. But they need to stay balanced, speak with integrity and defend what is easily defensible. A new play, This May Hurt a Bit, does just that with such feeling, audiences weep, for they know there are truths in this dramatisation that rarely are told anywhere else these days. It is by the renowned director Max Stafford-Clarke and his wife, Stella Feehily. He had a stroke in 2006, and this is the story of how nurses and doctors helped him to recover movement, hope and will. It is a thank you note, on stage.  Danny Doyle’s homage to our NHS in his Olympic spectacular did the same. Nurses and doctors full of vim, danced and sang, celebrated the best of British idealism and energy. I hope we never forget that.

Many readers ask me if I ever feel patriotic. Yes. I did when maternity units kept alive my babies during difficult births, when hospital A&E departments saved my life ( I am an asthmatic and nearly died of three times), when doctors and nurses made my mother comfortable and content as she was dying, when doctors patiently tested my daughter over several months to diagnose a health problem and do every time I  go to the GP or hospital. True, the waiting times are sometimes unbearably long, you don’t have your own GP any more, some receptionists are rude and nurses seem indifferent at times. But the service still looks after millions of patients. So whatever your gripes, contact your MPs and tell them how much you value it. Do it or all too soon we will be like the US, where good health is a privilege not a human right. And shareholders will own our precious NHS. 

    The Independent, 12/5/2014