Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Ethnically cleansing working class history: my Guardian article

Photo: Great Western Hospital workers have been on strike against Carillion for a year.

My article in the Guardian today

People of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history

It's shocking how even voices on the left mythologise the history of Britain's labour movement as an all-white affair

Black people have lived in Britain at least from Roman times, and some historians claim that north Africans were here as much as 3,000 years ago. We know that Indian people were here as far back as Shakespeare's time. The first Chinese visitor we know of was the Jesuit priest Shen Foutsong, who communicated in Latin when he worked at Oxford's Bodleian Library in the 17th century. His portrait still hangs in the Queen's collection. People of colour have been part of the fabric of British society for centuries, but you won't find many in official histories – either from the right (look at Michael Gove's draft national curriculum) or, more shockingly, from the left.

Ken Loach's feature-length documentary, The Spirit of '45, is one recent example. A documentary about the creation of the welfare state and its legacy, it presents us with Loach's vision of the British working class, united in the struggle for a better Britain. And though it covers the period from the 1930s up to the Thatcher era, everyone featured in the film is white – it's as if people like me have been bred out of the working-class gene pool.

In this Loach is swimming with the tide. Both Maurice Glasman (of Blue Labour fame) and David Goodhart, the former editor of Prospect magazine, are very influential in Labour's thinking – and both nostalgically emphasise the importance of continuity and community values in the British working class, as against immigrants, who threaten that continuity. While the working class is rarely discussed in mainstream left circles these days, the "white working class" is endlessly debated. "Working class" becomes indivisible from "white" in such debates. ...

... Examples of cross-race class struggle are many: so why impose such a filter? Who gains? Constructing a narrative palatable to a constituency increasingly susceptible to the dishonest blandishments of the right is a divisive and dangerous game, especially in the current atmosphere of immigrant bashing and fear of the other. Harking back to a fictitious golden age when everyone was white represents surrender to an antagonism stoked up towards "outsiders", with polls showing that increasing numbers of us blame immigration for dwindling resources, though facts prove otherwise.
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Clarification: although the Grunwick strike feels in retrospect like a victory because of the massive support received by the strikers whose struggle became a cause celebre, it actually ended in a defeat for the courageous women who stuck it out. I should have called it a "famous strike".

Liverpool and its Chinese seamen — history of the forcibly repatriated Chinese.

Chinese mariners forcibly sent back to China leaving families behind.

Blood and Treasure: not quite the Spirit of '45.

Guardian Black History month timeline.

Wilf Sullivan on black workers and the trade unions.

Dr Evan Smith with an illuminating response to my article: the British left and BME workers.

Indian suffragettes march for the vote.

Carillion hospital strikers out for over a year so far are mostly South Asian women.

Ken Loach talks about Spirit of '45 on BBC R4 Night Waves.

Ian Bone: That John Rees correction in full.


Cornelius said...

Anna, this is a brilliant article, and I have recommended it to my friends. Thank you for sharing it.

Evan Smith said...

Thanks for the linkage to my post.

Steve said...


Have a rose. You choose the colour. I'd hate to get it wrong. It would just expose me as the uncaring racist imperialist that you probably wish I am...

I despair. It depresses me beyond tables and sends me beyond pills...

my youthful optimism for the left now strikes me as that of junk mail addressed the dead.

Even Ken Loach is proto-fascist after all.

Madam Miaow said...

Steve, we need a debate and an understanding about how working class people and proletarianised middle classes can offer some challenge against the war being waged against us. Giving in to a sentimentalised image of an all white Britain and thereby setting up non-whites as outsiders and potential scapegoats by excluding them doesn't help.

We complain about the Labour Party triangulating its position using focus groups, and yet this is how the left is looking as well. Are the polls ringing loud for them? Are they throwing non-white ethnic people out of the back of the sleigh to carve out a position for themselves?

The film is about 1945 and its legacy. It takes us up to the Thatcher years. To fail to include, for example, even one Caribbean person whose forebears probably came over in the Windrush wave of migration to work for our NHS and transport system, is to make a statement in itself. If he really couldn't find someone of colour from the Year 45, then why not one of the younger talking heads?

It's sad to see a prominent socialist filmmaker being pulled away from his political roots, even if it's unconsciously. And it's important to ask him to come back home.