Adopting Britain, 70 Years of Migration: Southbank Centre

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“Intolerance – religious, nationalist, ethnic – that is the worst evil and does the most damage. Tolerance is the ultimate lesson.” These are the words of David Kynaston, whose societal study of post-WWII Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem, formed the inspiration for the Southbank Centre’s timely migration exhibition. Sandwiched between the mouth of the Thames and the London Eye, in the heart of multicultural, mega-city London, ‘Adopting Britain’ is timely, indeed.

The London location of the exhibition is a case of preaching to the converted. A migration observatory statistic puts the foreign-born population at 2.8m in 2013, with 37% of inner-city Londoners born overseas. The political message during an election year in which the UK Independence Party splashed immigration on the front pages of the newspapers is dissipated. The exhibition is a positive celebration of the experiences of the diverse range of people, whether economic migrant, family, refugee or asylum seeker, who have come to Britain, seeking to better their own circumstances and make modern Britain.

Postwar Britain was in a dire state: rationing lasted until 1954. Two world wars in a generation had depleted the workforce and left a shattered imperial power in need of repair, quite literally patched up by the inauguration of Clement Attlee’s NHS. Turning outwards to the empire, initiatives invited Commonwealth citizens to Blighty’s shores, starting with London Transport’s recruitment of Barbadians in 1956. What followed was the most significant transformation of British society during the twentieth century; one which changed the face of Britain from a sterile, decrepit beige into a multi-racial paradigm of progress. ‘Adopting Britain’ concentrates its force on the Gujarati Ugandan Asians, who found an unlikely sanctuary in Leicester’s bosom.

It is a sorry story of a crazed Idi Amin, whose genocidal dream dictated the fate of the Ugandan Asians, on July 7th 1972 awakening to give the minority 90 days to leave the country. Of the 30,000 exiles to the UK, a third settled in Leicester. Now a city of diversity, where White British number 45% to the established immigrant majority, this was not originally the case. The narrative of events in ‘Adopting Britain’ focuses upon a detailed, multi-dimensional retelling of events. From the shock of departure to the housing emergency upon arrival, the victims find hurdles everywhere. The highlight is the newsreel from Leicester’s local news. Firstly, we see a young family interviewed in their home, extolling their personal relief and the feeling of welcome. Next we see immigrant interviewees show immense ease at the settlement of the Ugandan Asians, while white faces, largely retired white-haired women and blue-collar workers, grimace and baulk at the mere thought of more foreigners in ‘their’ city and country. There is ‘an anywhere but here’, ‘not on my doorstep’ mentality that has formed the cornerstone of mainstream racism in UK politics since.

In UK politics today, there comes a paradox. The Eurosceptic backbench worriers, who daily decry the net migration figures and apply constant pressure to the Home Office, are ultimately defined as a bunch of white, grey, pale has-beens reduced to the periphery of the right wing. Yet, this noisy, dissatisfied, ragtag bunch of beards finds a voice in the unlikely form of Priti Patel. Someone with a moniker like Rees-Mogg might seem more apt, but, revealingly in twenty-first century Britain, it is an ethnic minority face that leads the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party. For all the talk of 70 years of migration, this is where it has led us today: three political power brokers in the heart of Westminster. Conservatives Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Labour’s Chuka Umunna.

Patel, MP for Witham since 2010 and, on May 11th, promoted to Minister for Employment in Cameron’s Conservative cabinet, is the daughter of a Ugandan who fled just before Idi Amin’s infamous edict. Rising fast from grammar school education in Watford to a University of Essex degree, she made her money in PR and became a Tory parliamentary candidate, winning the Withal seat. Since, she has been a vocal leader of the backbench Tory 1922 committee before being brought into Cameron’s Westminster team after a stint as UK India Diaspora Champion.

Another individual, topping the first list, and high on the second, is the former Minister for Culture, the recently anointed Business Secretary, Sajid Javid. From Rochdale, the son of a Pakistani taxi driver, at his peak, Javid was earning a £3m salary as Managing Director and board member of Deutsche Bank. The MP for Bromsgrove has progressed from Worcestershire to Westminster, having been the first Conservative MP of British Pakistani origin. A party that once found home for ‘Rivers of Blood’, Enoch Powell, MP for Wolverhampton South West, now looks likely to be led by a British Asian in the not too distant future.

Finally, in the interests of cross party representation there is the Shadow Business Secretary and leading light of Labour, Chuka Umunna. Umunna is of Irish-Nigerian heritage: the son of a Nigerian immigrant father and grandson of celebrity judge, Sir Helenus Milmo. Chuka tells his father’s story here: “Somebody gave him the fare to get to London where he found lodgings with friends… once he’d finished washing the car he could sit in the back and study for evening school, where he did his business and accountancy qualifications.” A self-made millionaire, Umunna sent his son to St Dunstan’s College, where the young Chuka flourished before finding his feet as a career politician, winning Streatham in 2010, aged 31.

So there we have three very modern faces of the United Kingdom. Sample questions from the UK Citizenship test conclude the exhibition, historical enquiries our current PM, David Cameron, fluffed on Letterman. These three future candidates, Patel, Javid and Umunna, will continue to lead UK citizens with their influence in the corridors of the Commons. Their story, powerful proof of ‘Adopting Britain’.

Photograph: [Duncan] via Flickr

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