The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Campaign has again, as so many times in our past, highlighted issues of equality and how equal rights are being pursued in different countries. Chairman Richard Newcombe reflects on his path through a lifetime of misinformation.
In the UK, the struggle to achieve equality with those who are more privileged or who are held back by the prejudices of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and class has been extensively analysed.
In that scrutiny process, we are trying to define what has made us the person we are, in terms of these issues, and why we stand up for what we believe is the fairest way of moving forward.
Many factors define our attitude and behaviour: our formal education or lack of it, family and friends, media, books, articles, films, theatre and our (many or few) personal experiences.
Many in society would not have had the opportunity for time to study and familiarise themselves with the issue of race inequality to obtain a deeper understanding of the attitudes they hold, and the issues raised by ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign.
Brexit raised a host of issues that had been a low priority for most British over 40 years.
In campaigning on the streets of London, in gurdwaras in East London and giving balanced presentations in schools and a library in 2015 and 2016, I quickly realised that this was not the usual political ‘soap boxing’ that I was used to.
Since the Leave Campaign had no concrete vision of the future to present, they devised a campaign focused on the beliefs and attitudes held by many on ‘What Makes a Brit’.
There were many times when I presented the facts that the UK had prospered in the EU and that making trade deals as a nation alone outside a major trading bloc was very difficult. I would be told “You are talking down the UK,” and not being patriotic. Poor and rich alike were convinced that we were a unique island race that did not need the strong partnership the European Union (EU) offers. Those who espoused this attitude often could not back it up with strong historical evidence and if they did then the evidence was selective and thin. Any continued discussion was almost impossible with such an entrenched position.
How we see ourselves
But in hindsight, one can appreciate how this mindset came about. I am old enough to remember in the 1950s the world map on the wall of my primary school classroom, covered as it was with big blotches of red. Nobody was told - and the teachers were even possibly unaware - how the British Empire was built, often by inflicting cruelty, bloodshed and deception. Many of my generation believe that it was a result of some kind of supreme ability, unique only to the British.
As a child, I attended the local Baptist Church and gave and collected money for the work of missionaries. not appreciating that the culture and achievements of many ancient civilisations were often being denigrated and destroyed by this policy.
In a selective way, we jump years and choose to remember and celebrate the military action that involved a genuine moral outcome, as in the case of World War 2. While in the years since the end of that war, we conveniently forget the disastrous partition of India, the failed division of Palestine, the Suez crisis, the failed and brutal attempts to counter independence in Kenya and Burma and, more recently, our actions in Iraq , Afghanistan and Libya. There has been military action that has brought good, but the overall impression is that we are an uniquely strong group of islanders, intent on imposing our will on others.
How other see us
With a predominantly right-wing press and being somewhat isolated on these islands, we are not told how others see us.
When teaching in Nigeria in the 1960s, I saw an emerging country establishing its own identity after decades of colonial rule. A movement grew to discover the lost sophisticated cultures of the Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa tribes that had been denigrated by the British, notably in the form of school history books which pushed aside the British interpretation of the past. Nigerian art forms that had existed for generations and had not been properly recognised were revived. And of course, the history of slavery and its impact on Nigeria were reinterpreted.
Many of these changes will have taken place in many different countries that were once part of the empire. The end of empire saw growing change in the perception of Britain’s past behaviour, moving away from the concept of a ‘mother ‘country to a more critical analysis of this country’s role.
On this little island, many long-held attitudes have never been challenged and many people are unaware of the changing perception of the UK across the world.
The National Curriculum introduced in 1988 was the subject of great debate on what would be the content of the History and Geography syllabuses. Initially included in the Geography syllabus, the EU was removed in 2014 as it was seen as a matter for political and economic education. History and Citizenship syllabuses refer to the UK’s relationship with Europe, but no mention is made of the EU.
So we reach a point in 2015 when a certain Dominic Cummings realises these misconceptions are widely held and have been nurtured. He creates a campaigning strategy that does not try and explain any possible concrete outcomes of Brexit but decides to work on this misinformed concept of our position in the world. The solution to our lost status in the world is that we ‘Take Back Control’.
Sadly, it worked! Many in my generation voted to Leave, against the young who predominantly saw opportunity in continued EU membership. Too many had clearly been taken in by years of deception.
The European Movement and other pro-European groups need to now consider how we can emphasise the importance to the young of the benefits of membership of the EU, many of whom recognise them already. This will involve pushing for and achieving a proper presentation in the National Curriculum, promoting a school and college structure of regular debates, and seeking the support of young people through a strong youth movement that promotes partnership between the young across the continent.
Work in colleges and schools has not been as effective as we may have wished. We spent much time on lobbying industry and commerce on the issues around Brexit and EU membership.
Our energies must be directed towards not generating another misinformed generation, doing this by supporting college and school debate, challenging the learning experience of British children on EU matters by lobbying educationalists and historians , and creating and supporting a bridge of links between the youth of the UK and the EU.
Chair of London4Europe
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.