Last week, the Government created (yet apparently independent) Inquiry on race came up with a new political line on the experience of race in this country. There are many – better qualified than myself – that will rebut this new approach; what I want to do today is explain why – at this moment in time – the Government have developed this particular line.
Tomorrow I want to explain its intellectual underpinnings (weird though it may be to many) and after that suggest how I think the NHS should respond to it.
We need to appreciate that the Government is taking on an enormously ambitious task – and one that I think it will fail in. This is no less than an attempt to create a new national narrative about how the nation sees itself and its problems.
For 70 years there have been strong debates about race in this country. Over the last 30 – 40 years, various institutions have tried to develop a storyline about how a country faces up to the way in which discrimination has taken place against people who are not ethnically English.
These attempts have been sharply contested from both left and right. But through it all part of the centre of British politics has been trying to come to terms legally and institutionally with the reality of institutional race discrimination.
Since the 1960s, usually every decade, this recognition has been reflected in legislation which has tried to legally take the edge off some of the worst of these discriminations. I am old enough to remember both the landlord’s signs in windows proclaiming “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs and the passage of the law that made those signs illegal. These laws have been limited and have had only a patchy impact but have recognised the significance of the experience of discrimination and tried to use the law to limit it.
There have also been significant reports – Scarman on the Brixton riots, the Metropolitan police report on the failures of the Lawrence murder – where the white establishment has recognised the power of racism within our institutions and have developed analyses and policies to combat it.
So for 50+ years part of the middle ground of politics in this country has been trying to find ways of challenging the discriminatory way in which society treats a significant number of people within it. For much of that period there have been some very sharp political arguments about this.
During those years of action there have been many saying that this has taken too long; that it has left generation upon generation of minority ethnic people with lives limited by the way in which institutions stop them from progressing. In the last few years numbers of younger people with these views have been growing within black and minority ethnic (and white) communities. In my view they complain with cause. There is still strong institutional racism, and it needs strong national action – now.
On the other side of the argument a group of white people start their personal narratives with the sentence “I am not racist…” and are puzzled what the fuss is about. I get the feeling that, in the last few years, the number of people in this group has grown too.
They now have a Government that represents them. Its ambition is to say that this whole period of argument that has developed a national narrative about racism in the UK has now ended. They argue that we have come through a difficult period of trying to come to terms with our past and present. It may have been hard but ‘that was then’ and now we have to recognise that as a society – institutionally – that period has passed.
We must learn to view this as part of this Government’s much wider international narrative of a new, confident and Global Britain. Whilst new for this decade of the 21st century, this new story yearns to draw some of its contemporary strength from past narratives of Global Britain.
And this is where part of the problem the Government is urgently trying to solve comes into play. If the bold Global Britain of the past – with its flag, navy, and brave international trade – is meant to reflect the flag, navy, and brave international trade of tomorrow, the Government will have to keep seeking echoes from the 18th and 19th century.
But unfortunately some of that brave historical narrative elicits some awkward international echoes today.
In the 18th century for example one of the main components of that ‘bold international trade’ was people. And one of the main aspects of that trade in which a bold Global Britain took part was slavery.
In that same century, the East India Company developed a private army that subjugated the Indian sub-continent and allowed the ‘Company’ to pillage what became India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka of billions and billions of pounds of resources.
One of the problems affecting the development of an upbeat narrative about contemporary global Britain is that over the last 70 years descendants of slaves have come to work and live in Britain. And they have not been treated well.
At the same time descendants of the people of the Indian sub-continent whose nations lost all those resources have also come to work and live in this country. They too have not been treated very well.
So when you’re trying to develop a populist upbeat story about the opportunities for a contemporary Global Britain trading nation, you not only have to gloss over the historical past of slavery and their stolen national resources – you also need to change the narrative about their descendants.
Ignoring real British history is not too difficult. (Defending a colonially based curriculum is a major part; defending some statues and street names is one method of defence). But the daily discriminatory experiences of millions of real people can’t be just wished away. Especially as it looks like this younger generation are more vocal and angrier about it.
Contemporary national headlines brought about by Black Lives Matter protests, cut across this new optimistic boosterism of a Global Britain.
That is why a new narrative on race is so important to the Government. They need the British story on race to be one in which discrimination has ended. One where whilst it’s true we once had some problems with racism, we have worked our way through them. Now we are dealing with it better than most other countries.
The Government wants us to stop apologising for how we treat people in our country. And to do that it needs a new upbeat national narrative.
Government wants a new narrative that emphasises our success in dealing with racism in the UK so that new period of Global Britain – complete with flag, navy and trade – can begin with a good heart. And no apology.
This is a really ambitious political project. To change the way in which a nation thinks about itself and how it treats its citizens.
It seeks to redefine nothing less than who we are as a nation and to change the stories we tell about each other.
How this all pans out will determine how we see ourselves for the next couple of decades.