I had cause to take the tube at rush hour two mornings last week – a rare event now that I am retired. It was packed, of course, but I was so struck by how companionable we were as we stood pressed next to each other like sardines. Men and women of all nationalities stood up for pregnant women and I was offered a seat several times (it has taken some adjustment to accept I look old enough to be offered a seat!). I accepted with the graciousness with which it was offered.
The journey from the tube door to the escalator at Oxford Circus was a slow one through the endless tunnels and up the steps and yet everyone slowed to an orderly snail’s pace. All colours and creeds cooperating, no pushing or shoving, just individuals quietly in their own space yet acting as a united crowd.
It occurred to me that the experience of being on the tube has changed radically since I first came to London in 1967. The number of passengers has increased exponentially and yet the good will remains, bar the odd bad behaviour. The diversity of the passengers travelling has also altered exponentially and yet my feeling was that although people inevitably find the experience of travelling on very crowded tubes or trains more tiring and stressful than travelling on empty ones, it didn’t seem to matter who these crowds consisted of. They could have been any colour or background. It was the number not the ethnic diversity that caused discomfort. Everyone on those tubes seemed perfectly amicable with one another, perfectly comfortable despite the environmental discomfort.
It surprised me, therefore, when I read an interview in The Guardian with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who said that he felt that “racism is in the DNA in the UK since imperial times”. Of course there are pockets of racists here as there are anywhere and everywhere else in the world but this blanket statement of racism didn’t ring true to my experience. What it doesn’t allow for is the fact that there are tribal factions, alienations and enmities in all kinds of areas of human life and that the concept of friend or foe is buried deep in our unconscious threat-alert system whether we are black or white or simply of a different creed or tribe. It is a natural human function to be wary of strangers and difference.
We too can feel like a minority and this change has happened within my own lifetime. A recent report has shown that the number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds in English secondary schools has soared by more than fifty percent in a decade. Figures show that black and Asian children account for 17 per cent of pupils aged 11-16 and in inner London white British pupils are now in the minority. A considerable number of schools have more ethnic children than English in several areas of the country. And yet, on the whole, daily life is companionable despite the odd flare-up of bullying or problems (and one mustn’t forget that bullying can occur white on white or black on white as much as white on black or ethnic).
The outrage at the treatment of the Windrush Generation came from a sentiment that these people are now one of us, as are so many others who have come here from Asia, Uganda and many other parts of the world. And interestingly some of those immigrants also voice their own concern at the numbers entering the country today. I have known ethnic families who were not at all happy when a son or daughter brought home a potential spouse who was white English! Wariness of change works both ways.
When I have travelled in Nigeria, Egypt, India, the Middle East I am inevitably the one who is different and endeavour to align my behaviours to the culture in which I am living or working. In the area of London in which I have lived I rarely heard an indigenous English voice in recent days and did rather wonder, as I got older and more vulnerable, whether anyone would be able to help me or know how to phone 999 if I fell in the street. Perhaps silly of me but nonetheless a consideration.
A programme on Radio 4 this week discussed the 1970s-80s policy introduced by the Labour party of ‘bussing’ ethnic children to white schools, with the intention of supporting greater integration. Some had seen this as having the unintended consequence of ethnic children feeling singled out. Others said that although it had been difficult they had, in fact, learnt a great deal more about English life and had integrated better with the culture as a result of this policy. Today some head teachers are concerned that the changing demographics of English secondary schools are leading to a kind of unhealthy separation and that perhaps there should be a return to a policy of positive integration where there is an imbalance of ethnic mix. Certainly we all need to work out the best way to help people feel at ease with one another.
My own interpretation is that the British are a reasonably tolerant lot but do want to feel this is a fair two-way relationship. Where, as can happen in some schools, the English parents can equally experience hostility or isolation, where their way of life or culture is criticised (despite there being things to criticise in all cultures on earth) then there can be division. At the school gate you can sometimes see that groups band together, like with like. Perhaps it is no one’s fault but it does require openness on all sides for people to properly integrate.
And yet most of the time we muddle along and I don’t go along with Linton Kwesi Johnson’s belief that we are innately racist any more than any other nationality – you only have to look at the Far Right movements now in Austria, Netherlands, Poland, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and beyond to realize that despite the impression that Brexit has given of us being insular, many other countries are also struggling with the numbers of new people entering their country. Getting visas to enter Canada, Australia, Hong Kong or the US can be a very challenging process. It doesn’t excuse it but it does signify that these concerns go far beyond our own borders.
Of course we can always do better and need to keep our awareness tuned to problems or bias. Reading a few pages of Cicero’s On Duties the other morning (as you do!) I was struck by his belief that each human being is a spark or splinter of divinity and that therefore treating another person badly was doing the same to ourselves. He wrote of how absurd it is to treat one’s family well but treat others badly as it is a denial of obligations, ties or common interests and this can disintegrate a society. He wrote that those who did not have a strong regard for foreigners “would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind” and that the aim of life is “to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man.” He quotes Plato in saying that “we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share.” It helps to remember that we are social animals and need one another.
Any speedy change of scene, population or behaviours is inevitably going to challenge any human group, wherever they are. It takes time for people to adjust. We have not seen the “rivers of blood” of Enoch Powell’s speech but we have had sporadic problems and in an era of austerity we have to work all the harder to embrace those around us when hospitals, schools, roads and tubes are crowded. In my observation people may resent the numbers of people but generally not the colour or ethnicity of those people – unless they themselves are resented. Where all parties make an effort to get along and to respect one another’s ways and values there is really no reason to fall out.
On You and Yours on Radio 4 this week it was quoted that some 70% of people in this country are anxious about mass immigration but that this anxiety does not translate to ill-feeling for individuals. A spokesperson also expressed the view that freedom of movement does make it difficult to predict or plan infrastructure such as schools and hospitals – and access to jobs, education and the NHS are people’s major concerns.
I believe it is time to move away from the focus on division and of what has gone wrong in the past or on the old resentments on both sides. Is it not time to celebrate the fact that most of the time we all live together in a reasonable if not perfect society, and this takes continued good will and benevolent action on the part of every single person within it. I felt I witnessed this benevolence on the tube last week.