Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are a podcast exploring some of the lesser known stories of British citizenship. I’m Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and your host, join me over the course of the series, as I debunk some of the taken for granted understandings of citizenship, and examine how this changes our understandings of some of the most pressing issues of our times.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown [YA-B]: It’s essentially about how we still don’t talk to each other, you know, that we are still whatever, even in London wherever we lead separate lives. Most of us not all of us. We all have whoever we are in Britain, we have common experiences and common worries, which we do not yet share with each other. We never have. We don’t know how to. Yet many of the feelings being experienced by the English today, the loss of their cultural roots have been our fears for decades. By our I mean, immigrants, minorities, whatever you want to call them. The fear of loss of connection with the past of who we were. I have this impossible image in my head. A group of Sikh, Muslim, English, Irish, Afro Caribbean pensioners, us ruminating in a park in Southall that discussing the erosion of the old ways, and the careless young, who have foolishly cast off so much of value. They might laugh ruefully. When they don’t understand they lean towards each other, and try again. They touch the old odd elbow in an act of natural intimacy. The Sikh war veteran opens a Tiffin and brings out some pakoras. Drinks appear from another bag. The women talk to each other about the rising cost of M&S cardigans, maybe somebody shuffles up backup cards. Why does this seem absurd even to imagine? Why is it so much easier to conjure up pictures of white elders sitting stiffly, fearfully, clutching their belongings tight when they find themselves next to their Black and Asian compatriots on buses and park benches? It’s been thus since the different races met on this soil. But we can no longer delude ourselves that we can carry on living as islands within a too small island.
MB: That was journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reading from her book, Who do we think we are? We’re halfway through season two of the podcast. And I’m working hard on new content to bring you later this year and early next year. And while all of that’s in the works, I thought it might be a good time to bring you something a little bit different. And that’s where Yasmin’s book comes in. ‘Who do we think we are: Imagining a New Britain’ challenged public and political understandings of race and migration in Britain, and called, I think really persuasively, for a new imagining of Britain that overcame the racist status quo.
When I was reading the opening pages a few weeks ago, I was immediately struck by deja vu. What Yasmin described there sounded so familiar that she could have been writing today. And yet, she was writing in the early 2000s. The political context was quite different. After the long conservative rule, the New Labour government had come into power and was in its early years. So I found myself asking, what does it mean that Yasmin and I were asking the same question 20 years apart? I reached out to her, and to my delight, she agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. In this episode, you’ll hear our conversation in full. I hope that you find it as interesting as I did.
Like so many of my guests on the podcast, Yasmin has her own history of migration that brought her to the topics that she explores. I started by asking her to introduce herself through that biographical story.
YA-B: Well, I’m Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I came to this country exactly 50 years ago, in 1972, from Uganda just before actually, Idi Amin expelled all Asians from that country. Asians had been there for almost two generations brought there by the British as part of their ever expanding imperial ambitions. And so I came here. And actually, to be honest, I wasn’t sorry, to leave. Because I’d been so enticed since childhood, by the idea of this country, you know, that it being the heart of greatness, that the kind of mayhem of Africa is what I was leaving behind, and I was coming to this old, steady, virtuous, incredibly stable democracy. And, you know, they had strawberries. I’d never eaten strawberries. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to eat strawberries from the age of four. Because there were in all the picture books that the Colonials were using in our schools. And so I didn’t feel actually a sense of loss at all at the time. But it wasn’t long before reality kind of slapped you, slapped me in the face, as it did so many others. I then I went to Oxford and did my postgraduate degree and then worked in different jobs, further education, working with migrants and refugees, so on, and teaching English as a second language, and then became a journalist at the age of 37. So now I’m a journalist, a broadcaster and author, and also a professor, a teaching professor, a kind of Marmite character, I suppose people either like me or hate me, and that I think that will be ever that.
MB: So you were reading at the outset of our conversation from a book that you published in the early 2000s, which was called Who do we think we are, which, of course, is the title of this podcast, too. And the subtitle was imagining the new Britain. So I’m really delighted that you’ve come on to talk about this, because of that the fact that we both seem to have been asking that question you then, and me now quite naively, not realising that you’d already asked that question 20 something years ago? So I suppose an opening question to you is, in asking you why the question, Who do we think we are was an important one for you to address at that time?
YA-B: Well, it didn’t was the kind of spell of spell and hold of Thatcherism had finally been broken in 1997. And remember, dancing, actually literally dancing in the street. And just a few years on from there, one had to ask the big questions, we have a new government, is it finally going to address these long, deep anxieties of the nation as defined by natives? And also as defined by those who have been coming here since the 1500s? You know, immigration goes back to the 1500s. Are we going to just have labour doing slick stuff with Peter Mandelson, and his rich friends? Or are we actually finally going to come to the point, which, for example, like Canada, embraces the idea of a nation forever changing and unchanging, and a nation being made and remade by incomers, which is what this country is? It’s so interesting to me how even today, intelligent people recoil if I say, Britain, like the US is a country of immigration, they can’t even think about that. Because it kind of shakes their innards in some way. So I thought, if Labour is going to do anything meaningful, it needs to be addressing who we are, and who we can be and who we want to be. And use its period in power, not to social engineer, but to tell a proper history, for example, to educate our children differently, maybe to get sections of the media to reflect the country we are, not the country they wish we were. And I’m really talking about the right wing press. So I suppose it was a kind of book both of quite deep analysis, but also kind of a manifesto for sort of that let’s let’s do this. It’s been too long.
MB: Yeah, I mean, I think that you’re talking about a very particular period in time, as you said, you know, you’re at the end of that long conservative rule, and you’re heading into New Labour, essentially. And this was, dare I say it, a moment of hope. I mean, I was I was a teenager at the time. So, you know, I do I do remember that that sudden sense of everything was changing. But what would you say was going on at the time in respect to that question of what it meant to be British?
YA-B: Well, again, you know, I got my first nerves about this, when the manifesto 1997 manifesto was published. And there was Peter Mandelson with Bulldogs, and wearing … with a union flag in his hand or on his dogs or don’t know what. And I suddenly thought, okay, you know, don’t be that optimistic because there’s always been in Labour, a disgraceful strand of white nationalism, if you like, always been there. And the worst immigration law that was ever passed in this country, which was a racist law was passed by Labour in 1968, not by the Tories, you know, so I was always aware of it. But Tony Blair, had lifted all our hopes, he was such a great orator. And so I began to fear that they would succumb to the pressures. I mean, of course, he was representing Sedgefield in all of this. And I do understand that certain concessions have got to be made if you want to win elections. And so I fear that we were in that same place now. We’re Kier Starmer dare not, Kier Starmer and his advisers dare not say what I said some of what I said in my book, because they want their traditional voters back. And so there is a kind of parallel here that, you know, if if and when Labour wins again, there might be the same failures of the imagination and duty, actually, duty to the nation that we saw with Tony Blair. Having been out of power for so long, there’s a there is a genuine risk, a serious risk, that we will see a much more retro nationalism coming out of Labour than the positive, inclusive, diverse, ever changing nation, that we really are. I mean, that’s what I’ve said in the book, what we are and how we understand ourselves and see ourselves couldn’t be more different. The mirrors we are made to look through are distorted whether it’s the media mirror, or the education mirror, the history mirror. So this dissonance between how we all live. And by we I don’t just mean cosmopolitan Londoners, or, you know, people in Manchester, you know, you can go to to the smallest place, which was previously probably very settled in its population. And all kinds of people have come in and changed the place. You know, there’s so it’s a nationwide story, I think.
MB: I think that you’re absolutely right. I just wanted to go back to that moment in the early 2000s. When you were writing and ask what your hopes were for the New Britain?
YA-B: Well, my hopes have always been … the day my son was born in 1978, the very day, the 30th of January 1978, Margaret Thatcher said on television, that the country was already was too swamped by other cultures, I had just given birth, full of hope, you know, as you are as a mother. And this woman said, what she did, and I you know, and I suppose when labour won, I wanted not to live in a country where the prime minister would make such a crass brash comment, which showed her to be a complete little Englander. Not even in a good sense, you know?
MB: Yeah, I mean, looking back now, I mean, obviously, we’re switching a lot between the past and the present and the bits between. Looking back now What do you feel about those hopes? I mean, you know, I mean, it would be easy for me to jump in and say that, you know, well, given the sense of deja vu that I get when I read your book, that actually those hopes have been dashed a little bit, but I’d like to hear from you a little bit more about that.
YA-B: Well, I think I feel utterly hopeless at the moment, I must say, far worse than I did, even in the end, sort of fag end days of Thatcherism because I think Brexit and I actually do bring in the attitudes to the European Union in the book. Brexit, UKIP, the kind of Tory governance we’ve had, which is very different actually, because for all her ills, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a hoodlum. She wasn’t a wild … how do I even describe Boris Johnson in his cabinet, Liz Truss in her Cabinet and the Cabinet we have at the moment? They are people without any sense of real responsibility to the whole nation. They’re just in it for themselves, number one, and then number two, for their party, and the only thing they want is for their party to be governing forever. I do think that people like Ken Clark, previously, Jeffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, more than anybody else were conservatives, so they were my political enemies if you like, but in terms of how they thought and what they did, I could respect it. And things have got so much worse now that I, you know, I cannot see how we will ever recover. I really don’t know how you recover when a nation has been led by people who have broken every rule of governance, who have been, I think, as near as corrupt as one can be in this country, by giving contracts to your mates by lavishly promoting those who give you money into the Lords, I mean, all of that. How do you ever recover that sense? I mean, one thing colonial people like myself always said, we did not want to be ruled by the British. But boy, they knew how to be good statesmen. And boy, didn’t they have a good system? Well, that’s shattered, isn’t it? So I almost think we it’s like the, the house built by, you know, with the tiniest Lego, and was beautiful. And it seems so stable has not just crashed, but we can’t even find the pieces anymore. So whoever comes in next, will they have the courage to say we are absolutely going to impose the rules, parliamentary rules of conduct. We are going to pursue those who break it. We’re going to re-establish standards in public life. And we’re going to govern for the whole nation. Are they even going to be able to do that?
MB: It’s a really big … that’s your challenge to them is that?
YA-B: Yeah. So in terms of then governing for a citizen, a citizenry of multiples if you like, which is you know, now we have Ukrainians. I mean, and we’ve got I think 217,000 Indians, who have nearly arrived or recently arrived last few years. And yet there is this posturing going on and then these new challenges. What do you do when you have people like Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman children of immigrants, Kwasi Kwarteng, who have become the front people, Kemi Badenoch, front people for the most kind of anti diversity, anti justice, anti fairness, anti equality values in the kingdom. How do we how do we then how do I argue that we all need to share power. When I look at these people who have all the power doing people like us, you know, especially migrants, such cruel damage. These are not challenges that existed when I was writing the book.
MB: So this is the major shift really, in terms of, you know, that shift, first of all, both in terms of what is their project, and where is the responsibility, but also the fact that it’s in the hands of people who have, who are themselves, the children of colonial citizens essentially, actually handing out dealing out these very, extremely damaging and violent policies that impact disproportionately, as we know, on people of colour in the UK.
YA-B: And also rejecting the idea that racism is damaging people, rejecting the idea that we need to tell more truthful stories and histories for all of our sakes. You know, James Baldwin said about white Americans, they are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. And that’s the problem here too. And now we have these people, you know, the Black and Asian people, Britons, with immense power, actively can kind of wanting to stay with a fake history that has been sold to the nation for how long? And I just don’t buy this idea that this, you know, they’re they’ve been put up as front people know, they genuinely seem to believe this. I don’t think anybody is, you know, is behind them. They’re not puppets of anything. They’re driven by ambition. They want to belong, to want to belong so much, that they want to disappear into a kind of, I can’t even define it, a blobby identity, which has no past and which appeals to the most extreme Torism, Conservatism. It’s it’s something I did not expect.
MB: And I think it’s I can, I can tell from, from the from what you’ve said that it’s something that you’re kind of struggling to, to think about how we collectively could navigate actually, in the face of, of this kind of behaviour in the face of this kind of self belief as well, I think. So I think that there are those big questions around how we, how we mobilise, actually in respect to that?
YA-B: Well, I think the only way to deal with it, and I’ve done a lot of writing and talking about it, is to be as hard on them as they are being on us. Make no allowances. You know, I think it’s absolutely legitimate to say to Suella Braverman your mother and father game here as economic migrants, okay, and if you think you can treat desperate asylum seekers and people who have nothing, nowhere else to go, like the vermin, then we have the right to say to you, you are a brown woman, you have a history, what makes you think that your parents were more, had more human value than these people? What gives you that right? When you are one of them. And I make no allowances for them. And it’s very interesting how woke the right wing becomes when you say things like that saying, Oh, you’re being so racist. They suddenly discovered what racism is. And racism is when people like us, like me, and you know, say Nesrine Malik and The Guardian and others say You are betraying your history. Sadly, that’s racist. It’s very interesting to me how woke the Tory party becomes when we attack these brown people and Kwasi.
MB: that’s I think that’s a great soundbite there how woke the Tory party has become and I can see how that suggestion would rile them up endlessly. But I mean, we can focus a lot, on the politics and the politics and the politicians are pretty dia— well, completely diabolical at the moment. I don’t know what they’re going to do next, or when we’re going to get another home secretary. I suspect it won’t be too long. But But yeah, but I suppose if we could turn back to this question of hope, and I know that you feel quite hopeless at the moment. But maybe a way into this might be to think about what shape your alternative imaginings of Britain and Britishness would take at this moment.
YA-B: Well, I think one of the things is that this politics has created the kind of fear that used to exist in Eastern European countries once upon a time, among artists, free thinkers. And it’s happening in a very British way. So the way the BBC, for example, is not standing up for good liberal values, which was its purpose when it was set up. Yeah. One purpose was to keep people in the colonies happy with soft power. Purpose number two was to stand up for good liberal values, because this was post fascism. It has given up that mission, quite deliberately, actually. Partly it’s fear, but partly because it thinks it’s a it makes them relevant. If you look at the arts organisations, how they are being pushed and bullied. And trustees are being thrown out and brought in, entirely unworthy trustees, who just happened to be Tory donors or sympathisers with this brand of conservatism. If you look at libraries, look at what they talking about in terms of education. And what worries me is that the hope that can exist has to be in these spheres. And, and it is still going on, I mean, you know, thank God, the National Trust is fighting back against a quite an overt assault on its independence, as is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. These unlikely organisations.
I just went and saw day before yesterday, Simon Schamer has got a very interesting new series coming out on the BBC called The History of Now. And the first programme which I saw was about how, in Czechoslovakia, in Hong Kong, in China, the artists and journalists kept the light burning, and it was very moving to watch. And then I think about us today. Yeah. It is so hard now. I mean, I’m completely ignored by the BBC now, at one, you know, I just get one or two tiny bits of appearance, and never appear on Question Time. I was always on Question time, it’s because of the values I hate the world, the position I hold on Brexit, I’m a Remainer. I’m on the left, I’m a liberal, I’m anti Tory, all of that. So many of us are coldly being removed from that space. Okay, so I don’t know where to find this hope. There are a few people who are bravely standing up and saying … it was interesting at the filming, how many people spoke up about what was happening to this country. But I think we have to be very careful that in the places where we could have hope, like the theatre, or art or free debate and all of that are shrinking spaces. But I also want to hope that when Kier Starmer takes over, he doesn’t do what, for example, David Blunkett did when he was at the Home Office, he was one of the worst, most ruthless home secretaries we ever had. And the second was John Reed. They were like Suella, in some ways, coming in from the left, they wanted to show the right that they could be more right than the right.
MB: Yeah. Under Blunkett, this is when we introduced all the new security oriented immigration legislation. So the nationality immigration and asylum act of 2002, which was apparently brought in on the back of 9/11. But we all know that it was in the making a long time before.
YA-B: And also then the Iraq War. Yeah, that created. I mean, it’s unforgivable what Blair did and should never be forgiven. But what it did do is show you that you can’t have too much hope in the Labour Party. So I find it hard to be very hopeful. There are some people I really admire on the, in the shadow front bench, I think the person you know, there are some very interesting women there. Lisa Nandy is showing herself to be a very serious politician, Rachel Reeves, Angela Rainer, I absolutely love Angela Rainer. If you want to ask me what my hope is, I hope she becomes prime minister. I think she’s amazing. I really do think she’s truly amazing. So there are people who give me hope. You know, it’s so white, his front bench. He is so completely focused on anti-semitism, and will not talk about racism of other kinds, or the prejudices against Muslims. And how can I respect the Labour Party, which ignored an entire report, the Ford Report on racism within the party, just threw it into the bin. And he doesn’t stop talking about antisemitism. So you’ve created a hierarchy of racisms. I mean, you know, how is that acceptable really?
MB: Oh dear, it just gets … speaking to you, it just reminds me of all of the work to change things that has to be done. And I just wanted to kind of just want to go back to one point, which was to do with where the space, so the space and the arts has disappeared as well. And I think that this is a really important reminder, because one of the things that you said to me when we, before we started recording, was that you’ve remembered by looking back at the book, some of the things that you had done, which I think were more centre, were more mainstream, they were more in the BBC, and that,
YA-B: I mean, I had completely forgotten that they gave me the summer slot, when Any Questions? was off the air. And I got to do and Any Questions? but with a diverse panel each time. And by diverse, I don’t mean people of colour, I mean, truly diverse, white, white people, people of colour are all talking about the same things that worry us. I completely forgot. It would not happen today. They would never give me something like that. So that’s how we’ve gone backwards, I suppose.
But the other thing I remember I was looking at and thinking that the hopes, the hopeful signs are the number of families now, which are ethnically mixed. I mean, I wrote a book about mixed race relationships and families two books, actually, the first one was many years ago, and then another follow up book, and, but what we now have is an explosion. And once you have ethnically and racially mixed families, you cannot introduce, you cannot kind of draw that out and make it pure again. But at the same time, I watched what they did to Meghan, and realised that although the society is changing, the establishment is not changing. But you know, those the prince married a mixed race woman, and then had the courage to say I don’t care, I will leave. I mean, that’s extraordinary progress, and they’re being endlessly punished for that.
The other hope is amongst, you know, I think young people are the most maligned group at the moment in this country, this idea that they are thin skinned and they woke up You know, it’s just awful what’s happening to them because it’s there that I find the values I believe in. It’s it’s talking to the younger generation, you know, that what are generation Zed? Why? I don’t know what they are? But you know, 18 to 26 year olds, and they want equality, they want to save the planet. They do not believe in fixed destinies, you know. They are just they’re trying to create a world where men and women were females and males for are more equal and therefore make, which is better for both all of them. And I just think that’s where not everybody who’s young, becomes that you know, kind of a heavy Tory or right wing as they grow older, I’ve gone the other way. Honestly, if I could, I would put glue on my bum and sit on the you join the protesters—I’ve gone totally the other way as I get older—because they you know, they know they know that when you totally kind of take away all the rights of unions and make them into these you know, powerless units. When you increase vigilance and make, you’re watching everybody. You don’t have the right to protest. You can get arrested for holding a vigil for a woman murdered by a policeman? What are you supposed to do? And the young are right when they do what they do, so I don’t give up hope. I think there are some young people who scare me witless because they’re the kind of they have been to to the madrasas of right wing think tanks, very extreme right wing think tanks. And they’ve emerged like kind of robots, right wing robots. You see them on television a lot, or GB news. But most young people in Britain are more open minded, and porous. And kind of, you know, energetic. And that’s, that’s the hope. That’s the hope.
MB: I’m really pleased that you found some hope. That’s really, really important.
YA-B: I love the young and I’m always going to defend them. Because this idea, you know, I’m a child of the 60s. We were wild, we broke rules, we did terrible things. And now we turn around and say to these people, you’re not supposed to do that. Oh, you’re out of control. Huh? It’s their world, it’s their future. Lay off, back off.
MB: I think that’s a fantastic note to end on. Thank you very much, Yasmin.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Who do we think we are? A podcast series produced and presented by me Michaela Benson. Special thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support. And to George Kalivis as a cover art, social media assets and archival research. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts and links to all our socials. If you like what you’ve heard, take a moment to subscribe on your preferred podcast platform. And you can also find us at whodowethinkweare.org That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another episode very soon.
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