The Telegraph

In the early 1980s, when London Weekend Television was about to launch its first programme aimed at ethnic minorities, I was interviewed for the job of presenter. The interview was the most unusual I have ever had. It turned into a ferocious argument between me and the white interviewer about the relevance of the American experience of dealing with immigration. I tried to argue that Britain’s experience was, historically, very different to that of America, and that blindly following their example would not be very useful. He disagreed and, needless to say, I did not get the job.

I have been reminded of that episode as, following the bombs in London, there have been many references to how American-born Muslims have not taken to the bomb – apparently proving the superiority of the American way of integrating minorities. The problem with this analysis is that it ignores historical differences between the countries.

Unlike America, Britain is not a country that has tended to import people. Indeed, it continued to export people until well into the post-war period. One of the iconic British movies of those years, Brief Encounter, ends with Trevor Howard telling Celia Johnson that he is emigrating to southern Africa. The arrival of immigrants in large numbers, and of a darker skin colour, changed things dramatically, but we are still not a country of immigrants.

Nor has the British experience of colour been remotely similar to that of America, as the examples of Ranji and Jackie Robinson illustrate. Ranji, an Indian prince, played cricket for England in 1896, scoring a century on his debut against Australia at Old Trafford. It was more than half a century later, in 1947, that Robinson became the first black man to play major league baseball.

The British Empire certainly had a racial curtain, inspired by a belief in white supremacy, but the curtain had gaps through which other races could creep. When the Bengal Club in Calcutta refused to let the viceroy hold a dinner to honour Lord Sinha, the first Indian member of the House of Lords, he joined Indians in setting up the Calcutta Club, which had both Indian and European members.

The Americans had a racial wall, first erected by the US constitution, decreeing that a black man was to be considered equal to four fifths of a white man. The wall has now been smashed, but the idea of an irreconcilable difference between citizen and alien has survived. Whereas Britain, in her complicated way, recognised dual identities – the native retaining his culture but loyal to the Queen, the expat thinking of England but honouring his hosts – the US forces people to choose between place of origin and place of settling.

The difference is simple but profound: America can impose a coherent historical narrative on immigrants because the countries they come from had no previous involvement with America. Settlers are able and encouraged to discard their native histories and accept the American version.

But the vast majority of non-white immigrants to Britain have come from our former colonies, and bring not only their own cultures but also their own versions of our shared history. So, in trying to construct a single coherent narrative for this island, we are faced with trying to marry two historical streams: the “home” version and the “export” version.

It can be done. The Australians and Irish like to mock, and even rail against, the British, inspired by historical memories that are often antagonistic. The Australians remember Gallipoli with bitterness – not towards the Turks, but towards British generals they hold responsible for the slaughter (so strong is the symbolism of Gallipoli that before the last Ashes series in this country, Steve Waugh, the then Australian captain, took his team there in order to inspire them for the coming battle). The Irish sat out Britain’s gravest threat in the Second World War, and many sympathised openly with the Nazis. Yet both nations see themselves, and are seen by us, as part of the same family – the arguments are held within the walls of the same house.

Relations with the Indian subcontinent and with her people – especially those who have come to live here – are very different. Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis and Sri Lankans have, if anything, an even more loyal record towards Britain than Ireland and Australia, but both white Britons and immigrant communities here often do not think of themselves as part of the same family.

Soldiers from the subcontinent have fought for Britain for more than 200 years in many lands. At the splendid fort at Jodhpur recently, I saw a gun won by the Rajputs in putting down the Boxer rebellion in China. The Second World War saw 2.8 million Indians fight for the British, the largest volunteer army in the war. India also suffered terrible civilian losses during the war, with 3.5 million Bengalis dying of famine.

The Gurkhas are citizens of a country whose last war was fought against the British in 1816. Since then, Nepal has been neutral in all other conflicts, but its citizens have proved to be Britain’s best fighters.

The problem is that this history is largely unknown to the majority white community. As the great Trinidadian writer C L R James put it, what do the people of Britain know of what was done in their name in far-flung places? And, sadly, the history is increasingly unknown to immigrants and their descendants, too. Indians do not want to be reminded that they collaborated in such large numbers with colonial masters. We might add to James’s question: what do Pakistani and Indian Britons know of what their grandfathers did in the name of Britain?

We will only succeed in constructing a proper narrative of this island, which appeals to all communities, when these stories are told and widely heard. America has no “export” version of its history; integration is simpler there. But the people of Britain and of her imperial offspring are already related to each other: the challenge for us is to recognise the relationship and restore it on terms which, if sometimes antagonistic, are at least familial.

Some 16,000 European prisoners of war died at the hands of the Japanese on the Burma railway; more than 100,000 Tamils died in the same project. In the week we celebrate VJ day, we should remember those allies of ours who paid the highest price.


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