The patriotism of ethnic-minority Britain
The woke left’s grievance politics risks undermining our shared bonds.
In the UK, the worldview of the woke left now holds sway in the spheres of politics, education, media and entertainment. Countless politicians, academics and pundits are gripped by a warped, pessimistic view about the state of race relations. On a near daily basis, they promote caricatured portrayals of the supposedly miserable lives of ethnic minorities living in Britain today.
Deploying largely American concepts such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’, identitarian leftists present Britain as a racist dystopia. They claim that our economic and social systems are deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities – that British institutions are ‘institutionally racist’. And they have embraced the American Black Lives Matter movement – even though BLM has very little to tell us about British society and history, and its aims are rejected by most Brits. Labour leader Keir Starmer may be haunted for some time by that image of him, alongside deputy leader Angela Rayner, ‘taking the knee’ during the BLM protests of 2020.
The Britain these activists envisage is a thoroughly hateful place. In the words of one UK-based academic, ‘systemic racism permeates British [society]’. In this regard, Labour’s response to Tony Sewell’s 2021 government-commissioned report into race and ethnic disparities was all too telling. Sewell, while recognising that racism still exists in Britain, highlighted the relative success of ethnic minorities educationally and professionally. Labour politicians were outraged. They accused Sewell of ‘denying’ institutional racism. In other words, his vision of Britain was simply not miserable enough.
The identitarian left’s nightmarish image of Britain is utterly divorced from reality. It also flies in the face of ethnic minorities’ own view of the UK, wilfully misrepresenting their experiences. Many groups are very content with life in Britain and are optimistic about the future. Yes, they believe that more needs to be done to strengthen equality of opportunity. They no doubt still experience challenges. But ethnic minorities generally view Britain as a place in which people have a chance to thrive.
The identitarian left’s vision of Britain denies this reality. It promotes pessimism instead of optimism, division instead of cohesion and grievance instead of opportunity.
By constantly bashing Britain, the identitarian left overlooks something very important. Namely, that many in Britain’s ethnic-minority communities love this country. Many have strong patriotic feelings. Indeed, study after study has shown that ethnic minorities tend to have a stronger sense of their British identity than the white-British mainstream.
This comes as no surprise to me. One of the greatest patriots I know is my mother. Born and raised in Bangladesh and resident in the UK since her early twenties, she views herself principally as a British citizen. She is deeply involved in the life and community of our hometown, Luton. Through her dedication and expertise, she has helped to establish grassroots community organisations. Many are now thriving civic associations which provide social assistance as well as sources of cultural belonging.
Of course, ethnic minorities’ strong affection for Britain as a nation doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems. Everyone knows there is still some prejudice and discrimination. Work needs to be done, for example, to overcome discrimination in the privately rented housing sector. And our healthcare system needs to become more efficient and responsive to the needs of an increasingly diverse population.
But the identitarian left doesn’t simply challenge actual discrimination, it treats individual instances of prejudice as emblematic of a racist society. It peddles a doom-mongering narrative about life in Britain.
This constant attempt to denigrate Britain comes at a cost. It risks undermining the patriotic feelings towards Britain held by supposedly ‘oppressed’ and ‘marginalised’ groups. Most black Brits attach great importance to their British national identity and three in four British Muslims believe that Britain is a good place to live. But, if the left continues to promote division and grievance, for how much longer will this be the case?
Too many leftists today refuse to recognise ethnic minorities’ positive feelings towards Britain. They tend to elevate particular ethno-religious identities above any shared national identity. And in doing so, they inflame tensions between groups. This corrodes social solidarity – something that the left used to care about. Indeed, identity politics excludes the possibility of patriotism.
None of this is to say that cultural differences between groups are irrelevant. Rather, the point is that recognising these differences need not come at the cost of social solidarity. It is possible to have a shared appreciation of the nation that ties together Kashmiri and Sylheti Muslims in Luton, Gujarati Hindus in Leicester, Punjabi Sikhs in Wolverhampton, Orthodox Jews in Bury, Goan Roman Catholics in Swindon and West African Protestants in Milton Keynes. Ethnic and religious differences among British citizens need not undermine a shared attachment to the nation. A tolerant, welcoming Britain, one in which fundamental freedoms are protected, is one people can be patriotic towards.
If you want an insight into the patriotism of ethnic minorities, look to the army town of Aldershot in Hampshire. It is home to a significant Nepalese Buddhist community – some locals even affectionately refer to it as ‘Little Kathmandu’. The reason Aldershot has a large Nepalese community is because of the continued service of the predominantly Nepalese Gurkhas in the British army. It is estimated that 3,300 Gurkhas – widely regarded as brave and highly skilled soldiers – currently serve in our military.
Many Asian, African and Caribbean people’s patriotism is sufficiently strong that they are willing to fight for Britain. One of the most moving images I came across during a recent VE Day anniversary was of two elderly gentlemen, Alford Gardner and Lionel Roper. As young men, both of them travelled from Jamaica to join the RAF during the Second World War. These men, born and raised in the Caribbean, were willing to lay down their lives for Britain and the values it represents.
The left’s cynicism towards military service, its tendency to see the army as structured by a colonial past, as an institution as rotten as the nation it serves, cuts against the patriotism of people like Gardner and Roper. Indeed, this cynicism is fuelled by leftists’ discomfort with patriotism. For them, there is nothing much to be proud of about Britain. They paint a relentlessly negative picture of life here.
Everyone supports rooting out discrimination and tackling prejudicial treatment wherever it exists. What the left is doing today is quite different. Woke leftists are promoting a politics of grievance and victimhood, much of it imported from the US. They are also attacking many of the values that ethnic minorities hold dear. These activists believe that religion does more harm than good, they view the family as a unit of hierarchical oppression, and they are pushing a gender politics that is utterly alien to most Brits, but particularly to ethnic minorities.
Among Britain’s ethnic minorities, the values of faith, family and flag are alive and well. They hold a deep appreciation of community. They have a strong work ethic and are, above all, optimistic. If leftists continue to promote identity politics, and the deep sense of social and cultural pessimism that seems to go along with it, they risk undermining ethnic minorities’ attachment to British society.
As it stands, a shift in thinking on the left looks unlikely. Many are clinging to identity politics more than ever, particularly as they have become so detached from the politics of class.
If, as expected, Labour wins the next General Election, it intends to introduce a new Race Equality Act. As Starmer put it in 2021, eradicating ‘structural racism’ would be the ‘defining cause’ of the next Labour government. But far from bringing about a more just and equal society, such legislation would only fuel a race-based grievance culture and deepen social divisions.
As Starmer’s invocation of ‘structural racism’ implies, this act would reduce complex social and economic disparities to a problem of racial bias. This approach will do nothing to help tackle falling social mobility, class-based inequality and our huge regional imbalances. Nor will it address the problems that face certain ethnic-minority communities. They are struggling not with ‘institutional racism’ or ‘systemic discrimination’, but with fatherlessness, intergenerational disconnection and a fundamental lack of civic spirit. A narrow focus on how racist society supposedly is would only make things worse.
A future Labour government would be much better off promoting notions of personal responsibility, family duty and civic obligation. These are the kinds of messages that many of Britain’s ethnic-minority communities want to hear, rather than a constant barrage of identitarian grievance-mongering.
Life chances in Britain today are not primarily shaped by racial or ethnic identity. Social class, family dynamics and community are much more significant. Ideas of ‘white privilege’ and ‘racial oppression’ look farcical when one considers that young Brits from Indian, Chinese and Nigerian backgrounds are doing far better in work and education than their white-British peers.
If the left is to become relevant to the lives of ordinary Brits from all backgrounds, it needs to accept a simple fact – that Britain is a successful multiracial democracy in which ethnic minorities enjoy considerable freedoms. This should be something to celebrate. Instead of cultivating division and conjuring Britain up as an object of loathing, the left should be trying to bring diverse communities closer together, fostering bonds of trust, respect and mutual understanding.
Cultivating social solidarity ought to be a cornerstone of any genuinely progressive politics. This means promoting Britain’s liberal and democratic political values, and it means building on rather than doing down Britain’s cultural heritage and history. Because without some sense of shared values and history we can never be united as a people.
The modern left needs to stop framing ethnic minorities as victims in desperate need of paternalistic ‘allyship’. Ethnic-minority Brits expect fairness, not favours. They do not want public institutions to pander and succumb to unrepresentative group interests. They just want them to be effective and responsive.
We must go beyond the politics of grievance, otherwise we risk undermining a very British success story: the shared bonds that have been forged between Brits of all backgrounds, in spite of all the attempts to divide us.
Rakib Ehsan is a research analyst and writer, specialising in matters of social cohesion, race relations and public security.
The above is an edited extract from Rakib’s new book, Beyond Grievance, published by Forum. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)
Pictures: by Getty.