In April 1968, long before I was born, Enoch Powell made his famous speech on black immigration to Britain. It was an ‘evil to be prevented or minimised’. ‘Ordinary, decent, sensible’ British people were being made ‘strangers in their own country’. He had no compunction in coming out with words which he attributed to a ‘middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’: in a few years, the ‘black man would have the whip hand over the white man’.
By the time I went to school Enoch Powell had left Parliament but the fallout from his speech shaped my childhood. A politician’s words had their consequences – on the streets, in the playground. Powell’s rhetoric translated into everyday racism. Like my father, a migrant from Ethiopia, I felt its impact.
Hearing Suella Braverman speak in Washington last week, I am angry and alarmed. I feel that a cycle is going to repeat itself. Once again, a politician’s highfalutin words are going to encourage expressions of hatred, acts of discrimination and – very possibly – violence.
When Ms Braverman talks in grand historical terms of migration’s ‘existential challenge’ to the ‘political and cultural institutions of the West’ I can guess how this is going to play out, what permission it will give to those who want to make the hostile environment part of the British way of life.
As a teacher and a trade unionist, I am angered almost beyond words to hear her casual claim that ‘multiculturalism has failed’. That is quite simply a lie. Over the past few decades, ordinary British people have created a multicultural society, what the sociologist Paul Gilroy calls a ‘convivial’ way of life.
Of course, racism continues to exist: its effects are felt in health, in education, in employment – and not least in politics. But millions of people have found in contemporary Britain a new way of living; when pollsters explore social attitudes to diversity and inclusion they find a very different picture from that painted by Ms Braverman.
This is especially true of schools, where educators have worked over generations to develop inclusive practices, to learn new ways of sharing cultures. They have done this against the grain of political rhetoric and government choices.
Government policy cuts out questions of ‘race’ and racism from programmes of teacher education. Government has sponsored a report which, in the words of the Runnymede Trust, seeks to ‘pit the white working class against ethnic minorities’. Through frequent announcements and ‘non-statutory guidance’, ministers try to create a chilling effect, so that schools will be deterred from responding to issues that it is vital for our students to engage with.
Now Ms Braverman wants to go one step further. We should listen very carefully to what she is saying and understand its implications. With her talk of ‘existential challenges’, she is pinning a label to each and every student who is, or may be thought to be, from a migrant family. She is making their lives more hazardous and adding to the risks that schools must deal with.
As educators, concerned to safeguard our students and further their learning, we have every reason to point out where her words are leading and why everyone who works in education has good reason to oppose them.