Enver Solomon and Sunder Katwala: Refugees mark 70 years of UK sanctuary

28 Jul

Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council and Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of World War Two, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution.

For the refugees from those seven decades who gathered in London this week to mark the anniversary, that history was very personal. This Treaty was the reason that they had been able to rebuild their lives in our country.

Having arrived across each of the last seven decades the refugees had many different stories of why they had made the journey to Britain – fleeing Hungary in the 1950s, apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, being expelled from Uganda in the 1970s.

Whether escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat, finding sanctuary from the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Syrian civil war, their experiences captured the story of the last century. Each had their experiences of arriving in a new country, and of learning how to settle. What the refugees shared was gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in Britain – and a desire to mark the anniversary by speaking up for why this should now be considered an important national tradition to protect in the future too.

So, what lessons might we take from hearing of the human meaning of this 70th anniversary?

The anniversary should remind us of the importance of protecting an asylum system that is humane, fair and effective so Britain can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it. For Gillian Slovo, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s on her 12th birthday, after her parents were persecuted over their leading role in opposing apartheid, “The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I didn’t have to worry when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa, there had been the constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time”.

That feeling of personal safety was felt as powerfully across the decades later by Aloysius Ssali, who had studied in Britain before being imprisoned and tortured back in Uganda because of his sexuality. He recalled the help and solidarity he had from LGBT people in the UK when securing his refugee status in 2010: “They told me ‘you can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you anymore.’ That was so important.”

That we have had seven decades of refugee protection in the UK shows that this international treaty commitment has been upheld by governments across party lines. Adopted at the UN in the final months of the Attlee post-war Labour government, the Convention went on to be ratified in the UK during Winston Churchill’s final term as premier. Conservative and Labour governments were responsible for giving sanctuary to those fleeing the Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s, refugees fleeing the wars arising from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in this century.

Across those decades, refugee protection has often been contested and controversial. Ted Heath’s courageous decision to give sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians in 1972 came at the height of the fierce arguments about immigration in the wake of the Powellite ‘Rivers of Blood’ argument.

Mukund Nathwani, who had been a 23-year-old teacher in Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the Asian population, is certain that decision saved his life. Arriving at Stansted airport, he says “What we thought was ‘we’ve got a new life’. People were welcoming to us – and we thought, well, we’ve come to the right place”.

Today, as in the 1970s and the 1990s, political arguments rage over asylum and refugee protection, with government proposals for asylum reform that rewrite and resile from some of the key obligations for convention signatories.

So, it is worth recalling that there have been many occasions when there has been public pressure on governments for Britain to do more – as with the Vietnamese boat people, or the Syrian resettlement scheme which arose from public dismay at the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.

Yet the principle of refugee protection does command broad public consent – new polling from ICM for the anniversary shows that six out of 10 people believe Britain’s tradition of refugee protection is something to be proud of.

Arguments about asylum can often see the ideas of control and compassion presented as polar opposites in political and media debates. But that is not how the public see it. The idea that we need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it, secures an overwhelmingly broad public consensus – with 70% in support and just 11% opposed.

The refugees who gathered this week told the story not only of their contributions to British society, and also of the importance of the relationships between the welcomers and the welcomed, between those coming to Britain and the people who helped them to make a new life as they settled here.

Hong Dam, a child when her family fled Vietnam for Hong Kong in an overcrowded fishing boat, is grateful to be among 10,000 Vietnamese boat people resettled in in Britain. It later transpired that there had been a considerable argument inside government over whether Britain would accept its UN resettlement quota.

Now living in Brighton, her abiding memory is of how much her teachers helped her. “I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English – just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgment. My teachers really shaped me into who I am today.”

This personal testimony reminds us of the lives that could be rebuilt even as the political arguments over immigration and asylum have raged.

Saad Maida, a 37-year-old doctor from Syria, now living in Leamington Spa and working for the NHS, secured his refugee status in 2014. “I’ve felt pride in being able to serve the public by working for the NHS. That has been accentuated by the pandemic – being able to be on the frontline. By being able to work and pay back to society, I feel I can complete my cycle of integration”.

George Szirtes, given sanctuary from Hungary as an eight-year-old after Soviet tanks rolled in to quash the 1956 revolution, makes a clear case: “Refugees are people without a home who need help. If you have the ability to help, I do think it’s a moral obligation to do so,” he says. Seven decades of refugee protection is something that we should take pride in. To do so, it is a principle we must uphold in the future too.

David Skelton: The new snobbery. How football fans and Brexit voters were demonised as racists.

22 Jul

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

It seems an age ago now but ,for a brief moment, England’s glorious European Championship run brought the country together in support of our footballing heroes. Almost until the penalty shootout that guaranteed at least 56 years of hurt, the country seemed united and optimistic. This tremendous multi-racial squad, bursting with pride about their country and the honour of representing it, represented the hopes and dreams of the whole country.

It didn’t last of course. As soon as the last penalty was missed, the footballers who had shown the guts to take a penalty for their country in the unflinching all or nothing spotlight of a shootout were subject to vile racial abuse from a few morons.  Harry Kane was right to suggest that the contemptible idiots who abused our heroic players aren’t really England fans.

The abuse from a small minority was a reminder that, as Sunder Katwala emphasised in an excellent article, the UK has made great progress on race, but still has more to do. The fortnight that has passed since the final has given us time to reflect on how to build on the optimism of the cup run, but also to tackle the issues that arose in the aftermath (including the fact that much of the abuse has been shown to come from abroad).

We should look to build on the sense of unity and national pride that we saw during the tournament to build a renewed sense of national solidarity. This means that the identity obsession of today’s Left, as well as the snobbery that has again reared its head in the past week and a half, should be eschewed in favour of a focus on removing barriers, tackling prejudice and focusing on what united us.

The end of the tournament and the return of the sneering

The social snobbery of the progressive left, which had been on hold throughout the tournament was also evident again in the early part of last week. Although clear that the vile abuse came from a small, vile minority, too many modern snobs seemed determined to paint all working class football fans with the same brush.

The Twitter account of Have I Got News For Youjoked” that “amid calls to ban racist football fans from grounds indefinitely, clubs argue that they’d struggle to survive with attendances of 12.” This is the kind of satire that is downright offensive. Multi-racial estates around the country have been covered in the England flag, and the black members of this England team are absolute heroes to most working class football fans.

As satire it was grim, but it was a reminder of the attitude of too many parts of progressive Britain. The tweet was a neat distillation of the snobbery and sneering that has become all too common in the past few years. After the Brexit referendum, the assumption that working class Brexit voters were bigoted or racist became commonplace in politice, progressive society. An example of this offensive narrative was a prominent Corbynista commentator talking about a ”toxic narrative of nativism and xenophobia” in Red Wall constituencies.

The sneering attitude that caricatures working class football fans as bigoted and racist has become commonplace in too much culture and comedy, including the News Quiz and Daily Mash, which have a habit of punching down. The writer of Dead Ringers even said that comedy writers regard condservatism and patriotism as “distasteful” and the comedy writers in London “should be a little more careful about seeing England as “backward and nationalistic… or racist.”  Creating an enhanced feeling of national solidarity is important, but that isn’t going to happen if a progressive elite continues to unfairly caricature large sections of society.

Building a multi-racial working class conservatism

We need to build a multi-racial working-class conservatism that takes the lead in tackling discrimination and racism and also prioritises in removing the barriers that prevent people advancing, whether they’re based on race or class. It should look to build on the progress that has been made and should reject the narrative of a dystopia that parts of the modern left seem determined to paint.

As Trevor Phillips points out, the UK has more ethnic minority politicians in senior government positions than the rest of the EU put together, and cross-European polling shows that prejudiced attitudes are much less common in the UK than in many other European countries.

The kind of vile racism that was once commonplace in British football grounds, and remains so in places like Spain or Italy, is thankfully seldom heard in the stands today.  We should be proud of the advances we have made as a society, but always conscious that there is more to do.

We must be prepared to take on prejudice head on, which is why the Prime Minister was right to announce that anyone convicted of racist abuse should not be welcome in any football ground. A multi-racial conservatism also means that we should not be questioning the motives of black footballers or dictating what kind of stand they decide to make.

As Danny Finkelstein argued, the idea that Raheem Stirling and Marcus Rashford  “taking the knee” was somehow associated with Marxism or defunding the police is patently absurd. When black players take steps to highlight the racist abuse they have been facing, the players should have our full-throated solidarity and support.

Conservatives should be quick to disregard the excesses of “wokeness” and identity politics. Phrases like “white privilege” and “white fragility” are deeply unhelpful, and the identity politics of the left seems more concerned with highlighting virtue and emphasising what divides us than seeking genuine solutions to important problems.

Endless debates about statues might create media opportunities for previously obscure academics but they won’t improve the opportunities for ethnic minority Brits. Equally, a continual chipping away at British history is not going to help build a strong and cohesive sense of national unity. The UK shouldn’t import the highly polarising rhetoric about race from the US, which is both divisive and unsuitable for our very different circumstances.

Instead, we should focus on an approach that shows zero tolerance for prejudice and also has a real focus on tackling the issues that harm the life experience for too many ethnic minority people in this country.  Addressing issues such the high levels of unemployment facing Britons from a black and Bangladeshi background will be important, as will taking on board the concerns that black Britons continue to have with elements of the criminal justice system and continuing health inequalities.

Black people are also more likely to work in low-paid, insecure work, meaning that steps we need to take to boost pay and improve dignity in the workplace will tackle barriers that impact based on both race and class.

The success of the England football team and the way in which they managed, for a brief period, to make the country both positive and united should give us inspiration. As conservatives, we shouldn’t pay heed to the divisiveness of identity politics, but nor should we indulge in the shrillness of US-style culture war rhetoric.

We should continue building a multi-racial, working class conservatism that has zero tolerance for prejudice, looks to remove barriers that still face  and builds a strong sense of national unity and solidarity. Whereas the Left seems determined to pull apart the ties that bind us, we should be doing all in our power to strengthen those ties.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.