Reflections on being voted out of Europe, on being an immigrant, and on why we campaign.
Walking in early morning light … Facing up to the fact that we lost – that just over half the voters in Britain are happy with the referendum result that will take us out of the European Union. They’re not the half I know or whose judgement I can trust the future to – and that says something about how divided we are. The tasks ahead are huge.
Now, as things begin to fall only too predictably apart, some of those who voted to leave are saying, ‘I didn’t actually mean it, it was just a protest vote’. I am seldom speechless, but at this words desert me.
On referendum day our home was a campaign hub for the Remain-ers. From before I was up volunteers were arriving to collect stickers and leaflets, and they kept on coming until polls closed – fifty volunteers – people of all ages, backgrounds, political affiliations. After the first few we just left the door open. Through the day they came back in to refuel, to take the weight off their feet for a short while, then out again. I found my vocation as a tea/coffee lady, and I loved the vibe – all of us energised by the set of shared values that grows out of the kind of society we were voting to keep – broad-minded, outward-looking, tolerant, interested in others, confident in our shared humanity. I listened to the stories they brought back. A couple of young women were accosted by heavies as ‘traitors’. To value being part of a wider community means you’re a traitor?
The leaders of the Leave campaign had no idea what would happen if they won, and lied consistently – deliberately misled the voters about cause and effect. A million words have documented this – I won’t repeat them. Now while they squabble about who is going to take the flak for the mess we are in, the immediate outcome is a sudden rise in openly expressed hostility to anyone seen as ‘other’. An anti-immigrant campaign won – ‘Leave’ to their supporters meant that immigrants should leave. School children taunt a Polish child – hate messages are scrawled on doors – teenage yobos tell a black man on the metro to go back to Africa. ‘Immigrant’ means anyone who is different. It’s the Other. The ‘not us’.
Who is ‘we’ ?
‘We want our country back,’ the Leave slogan said. And who exactly is their ‘we’? For the racist right across Europe, ‘we’ is those who are white and born in that country, to parents (maybe also grandparents?) who themselves were ethnically and culturally part of the majority. London – wonderful multi-cultural London, with its 100 mother tongues and endless permutations of mixed marriages – is foreign territory to them. Yet the spurious logic falls apart as soon as you try to define it – just look at the UK’s two most prominent leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Boris Johnson had a grandmother who was half French and a grandfather half Turkish. And Nigel Farage – the UK Independence Party’s fiercely anti-immigrant leader: his first wife was Irish, his current one is German.
People who voted to stay part of the EU have a concept of ‘we’ that goes beyond embracing anyone who lives in the UK, regardless of race and religion, and British citizens anywhere. We are also and will remain emotionally – whether officially or not – part of Europe. Having a multiple identity is normal. Each of us is defined by layers of belonging which may or may not overlap – family, friendship group, workplace, town, language, ethnicity, religion. In today’s mobile, globally connected world, it’s hardly a surprise that nationalities too can be dual.
The shock of having their European identity threatened is pushing people back into narrower nationalisms. There’s been a run on citizenship applications to Ireland by people of Irish descent in the UK. In Scotland there’s talk of a 2nd referendum on Scots independence, so they can stay part of Europe. So what about London?
Nearly 70% of us voted to Remain, and our mayor Sadiq Khan keeps posting things to keep our collective morale up – like this photo of sharing his evening meal at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, London’s chief Rabbi, and a crowd of every religion and ethnic group. Perhaps we should go independent too, become an island within an island, floating down the Thames into the channel – the Multicultural Republic of London.
Fantasy aside, hold on to the fact that along with the growth of anti-immigrant feeling – in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – there has been a rush of people looking for ways to counteract it. A friend of mine gave up her 3 weeks annual leave to work as a volunteer on the island in Greece which is receiving refugees who arrive in boats. Stories of what was happening to people fleeing from Syria led to towns all over the UK putting up banners saying ‘We welcome refugees.’ They’re up again now, as people demonstrate to challenge this Brexit-inspired outbreak of racism. In my own part of London there’s a meeting tonight of our local Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees group, and the lead speaker is our ex-MP Alf Dubbs – he himself was an unaccompanied child refugee from Nazism who arrived on the ‘Kindertransport’; and a man who has contributed hugely to society.
I too am an immigrant into the UK – 40 years ago. I am also the child of a long line of immigrants from Europe to the southern tip of Africa. Between the different strands they exemplify all the possible reasons people might have for migrating. My father’s ancestors fled religious persecution in France, and wars in Germany. They crossed borders into Sweden and the Netherlands and from there eventually found passage on ships across a dangerous ocean to an unknown, far-away land. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine what it’s like doing this from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya.
A great-great (and possibly another great) grandmother was a slave from Batavia (now Indonesia), taken by force across the sea into who knows what situation. The genealogical records gave her no name. A great-great-grandfather was a Scots church minister, answering a call by the British governor at the Cape to serve in the far flung Dutch settler communities, and hopefully get them to use English. That ploy failed – like most immigrants they learnt the language of their new community while continuing to use their own language at home. In the small highveld village where my grandfather was the minister, Dutch farmers made a minimal living, African workers lived on even less, and all of them struggled to survive the privations of the Boer War. My grandfather didn’t. He died young from the damage to his health of constant moving around on horseback, to minister to the men in hiding, while women and children were herded into the world’s first concentration camps. My father was three when his father died. The impoverished community did what it could to support them, and the older children went out to work young. My father – the youngest – hardly wore shoes till he was fourteen.
My mother’s family were pure Scots, from Cupar and Achtermuchty in Fife – but ‘we’ even there almost certainly included a good measure of Scandinavian genes through the Vikings. Her father was a child of agricultural labourers, born after the early death of his own father, and had to leave school at eight to work in the fields — another story of extreme poverty. Others in the family emigrated to where they hoped it might be easier to survive. He was self-educated and stayed to follow his dream of running a bookshop. My mother’s first years were spent in a damp basement in Edinburgh, and by the time she was five both her mother and only sister had died of TB. So she and her father too joined the emigration trail and sailed for the Cape, where she was left with a series of housekeepers while her father moved around the country looking for work.
When I see what happens to children of migrants caught up in crises they did not create, I think of what my mother’s early years must have been like. Yet she never told us hard-luck stories – the stories I know, I got out of her later. She and my father gave us the kind of emotionally secure childhood one would want every child to have. I want the society I live in now to provide that possibility for today’s children.
Learning to look away
Growing up in a society as starkly unequal as apartheid South Africa laid bare for me something more universal – the extreme inequality of life chances, and how people react to it. Almost everywhere today children in middle class, comfortably-off homes take for granted their own privilege, and the inequalities that surround them. Harsh Mander, an Indian social worker and journalist, called his recent book about this Looking Away. You cannot grow up in India without seeing terrible poverty, but we are socially inducted into looking away from what ought to shock us into response.
Some of my earliest memories are of going with my aunt in her small battered car on her journeys into the African part of town, some miles distant from the one we lived in. She was an unofficial, self-appointed social worker there, and I and my brothers were the only white children I knew who ever went there. I only realised years later how much I owed her for giving me that exposure. Growing up in a small town, the only Africans we met were domestic servants or manual workers. Our family values taught us that the racism and inequality that underpinned our small world was wrong, but there was little we could do to break out of it until we became adults. Those journeys in Auntie’s car – and their legacy – crept into my first novel, A Shield of Coolest Air. It was forty years before I had attempted to put any of it into words, yet still it burned me as I wrote, like trying to wash out the stain – that I had so much, while they had so little.
Once we have classified people as ‘not us’ – different in race, religion or culture, different in privilege, in access to what makes life more than mere survival – we block off empathy, accepting as inevitable levels of suffering that would be intolerable if they happened to those we think of as our own. A recent foreign minister of Pakistan – the first woman and youngest person to hold the post – has said that Pakistan’s children have been taught for 60 years that ‘national identity is to hate someone.’ The same is true of children who have been fed the RSS/Hindu chauvinist view of history in India, which fuels adults to regard Muslims as intrinsically anti-national. Hate, said the husband of British MP Jo Cox after she was murdered, is poisonous. It is the ultimate form of rejecting another’s humanity. And hate leads to killing. Terrorists of all ideologies only kill people they have defined as ‘not us’.
It’s a huge failure in society that these things happen. As Nelson Mandela said, no one is born hating others – it’s something children are taught; and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.
Why we campaign
In another life I might never have been an activist – I just happened to grow up in a situation of such extreme injustice that my antennae were alerted early, and have never switched off. Temperamentally I like to get on easily with people and am a peace-maker. I’ve had to learn to be assertive – and what taught me was outrage.
The first time I wrote about this was in a story in my collection, A Language in Common. The stories are fiction but this incident is straight autobiography. It describes what happened when I saw racist grafitti on a street where some of my South Asian friends lived, and knew I’d feel a coward for life if I didn’t do something about it. So I bought a pot of paint and a brush from the nearest hardware shop and painted it out. That’s all – but the real story, and the reason for telling it, was how nervous I was – that my heart was thumping as I did it – that I felt like a criminal who might be caught in the act. Just for stepping that tiny pace beyond convention.
I learnt to campaign for the rights of refugees through knowing people whose lives had been messed up by civil wars and persecution, and finding it impossible to look away. And that too is what led me to work for Save the Children – to ally myself with others who were trying not to look away. It did not take long to discover that, like any organisation, it is far from perfect, but the fundamental fact remained – its purpose was to do something for children made destitute by war and trapped by poverty. In all the thirteen years I was there it always felt a privilege that my work might contribute to that in some small way.
And that leads me back to Uncertain Light, which was conceived when Save the Children sent me to Tajikistan. When I’m talking to groups about it people often ask what it was about the place that made me want to set my novel there. I tell them about my first visit there, in the wake of a four year civil war that had devastated the country. The Soviet Union which for 70 years had dominated all the institutions of society had suddenly imploded. The economy had collapsed. The people who had demonstrated for democratic reforms and freedom to practise their religion had been turned on by a government that armed its supporters. In the face of extreme insecurity, people retreated into clan and regional loyalties, and the killing of the ‘other’ began. Save the Children was working in the districts which had suffered the worst violence. Hundreds of thousands who had fled were gradually coming back, many of them widows with children – the men had been killed. The programme supported them to begin rebuilding their lives. But what moved me most was the Tajik women who ran the programme – all themselves widowed by war, and from both sides of the conflict, now working together to prevent more children from becoming destitute. One of them was challenged by a man from her own clan, for working with families from the other side of the conflict – ‘Why do you help these people? It’s they who killed your husband.’ She said, ‘We’ll probably never know who killed my husband, but I know it wasn’t these children.’
We belong to each other, as people in a small boat out at sea belong. Whatever mess the world is in, we’re in it together. The wider we can stretch our definition of our own identity, the safer we will all be.
Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, by Harsh Mander, is published by Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi.
The Kindertransport photo is from a YouTube documentary, published on 9 May 2012 by Ann and Analisa.