Afua Hirsch, The Guardian, May 7, 2020
It must be painful to be racist right now. Knowing that if you become sick, a black or brown person is highly likely to be involved in the hard, dangerous service of trying to save you. Knowing that if you need to get to work, a black or brown person is disproportionately likely to be involved in getting you there via bus, train or cab. Knowing that if you eat fresh food, migrant workers are having to be flown into the country to pick it because there aren’t enough British workers willing to do it.
I don’t believe Britain is a country of racists. But we have been conditioned to erase the contribution of ethnic minorities to our national identity.
The last time we were in a period of national crisis, a settlement – a social contract – was reached between the state and the British people. In 1945, in exchange for subjecting the civilian population to total war, the government offered the welfare state.
We eulogise this as the offer of housing, welfare and unemployment benefits, healthcare and legal aid. The British people had earned their entitlement to these benefits, which formed a foundational part of what it meant to be a citizen of this country.
But there was one fundamental problem. The millions of Africans, Asians and other people who came to be regarded as “ethnic minorities” (though they weren’t a minority in the empire) – and who made both this wartime victory, and the new welfare state institutions possible – were not part of the story.
And what followed shows that when you exclude people from the narrative, they become excluded in real life. The idea of being entitled to a share in Britishness, and its national wealth, erased the contribution of black, Asian and ethnic minority people. And, over the decades that followed, the breakdown of the social contract – as the state remorselessly cut back its spending and stopped fulfilling its side of the bargain – was blamed on the presence of those visible, allegedly unentitled “outsiders”.
It’s beyond ironic that black and Asian people in Britain underpinned the creation of the institutions that so often define Britishness, not least the NHS. Yet that same postwar era also laid the foundations for the inadequate access to healthcare, housing and secure labour that must be part of the reason why minorities are so disproportionately affected by today’s coronavirus crisis.
Britain has long needed a new social contract, a new consensual agreement between the government and the governed, that sets out updated values and expectations. Maybe now – as even a Conservative government is forced to be radically redistributive, with conditional bailouts offering the prospect of more fiscally and socially responsible business, and the NHS becoming an emotional part of Britain’s identity once more – we might get one.
The difference between this moment and the social contract of 75 years ago, is that this time the service and sacrifice of ethnic minority people in Britain is impossible to ignore. It’s clear that racial injustice deserves a central place in our new settlement.
Yet despite this, black and Asian individuals with questionable positions on racial justice have suddenly found themselves promoted. Munira Mirza – who opposed Theresa May’s racial disparities audit – is now head of policy at No 10. And Trevor Phillips, the former equalities chief who was suspended from the Labour party over accusations of Islamophobia, was appointed to the Covid-19 inquiry – provoking protests from many of the black and minority NHS workers whose trust the inquiry most needs.
Meanwhile, the government steadfastly refuses to revisit the utterly draconian ban on migrant workers – including those serving the public on the coronavirus frontline – accessing public funds, leading to warnings of a new epidemic of destitution.
And we now witness the remarkable full circle of Britain recruiting foreigners to carry out essential work, whether in agriculture or the NHS. It’s just like the last time – when Enoch Powell was among the first to ask Caribbean nurses to come and work in the NHS before turning to race hate. But this time it’s taking place quietly, so we can continue the national pastime of deluding ourselves that Britain can survive without immigrants, while our very survival depends on their labour.
Before the virus hit, Britishness as an identity had drifted into a dark place of dishonesty and cognitive dissonance, where we correctly identified that something had broken down, but blamed minorities and outsiders, rather than the betrayal of a promise.
Now we have an opportunity to correct that wrong, by acknowledging that we will all be worse off, whatever our colour, unless racial justice and equality lies at the heart of our shared future.