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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Once overrun by racism, London is now a world capital

London wasn’t always the multi-cultural capital of the world that it is today. In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about his own relationship to the ever-changing metropolis.

vir sanghvi Updated: Jul 04, 2018 13:37 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
The Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi,London
Westminster Bridge at sunset.(Shutterstock)

By some accident of history, I was born in London. And because my parents had work there and I was at boarding school in India, we ended up spending my summer vacations in London. And eventually, I went to senior school (A levels) in London and then university in a town not too far away.

So I have seen London through the years; but nearly always from the perspective of an outsider. (I never took the British passport that I was entitled to because I always believed that I was an Indian who would live in India.)

And though many Londoners complain about how much their city has declined (doesn’t everyone in every city always feel that?), I have to say that I think London is better now than it ever was. Many of the changes (the good ones) have to do with the city’s transformation into an international, multi-ethnic metropolis.

The London skyline. (Shutterstock)

We forget now how racist England was in the Seventies. When Asians were thrown out of East Africa, first from Kenya and then, more famously, from Idi Amin’s Uganda, they assumed that they would be welcome in the UK: they did, after all, have British passports.

Er, not quite, the British government said. A British passport doesn’t actually given you the right to live in the UK. A fresh Immigration Act created a new category called ‘Patrials”, which gave the right to residence (and free entry) to those who had a parent born in the UK (or even a grandparent, if I remember correctly), no matter which passport they held. But if you actually had a British passport, well then, it was complicated: you may or may not have the right to enter the UK.

Everyone knew what this was about. The only foreigners with a grandparent born in the UK were Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans etc. What the new law said, in effect, was: if you are white, we will find a way to make you welcome. If you are brown, well then, it depends on our generosity.

In the event, the government of Edward Health did take in several thousand Gujaratis and Punjabis who had been expelled from Uganda. Most had lost everything.

Many faced terrible discrimination in the UK. They couldn’t find jobs and ended up running corner shops which they kept open till late in the evening (the Brits closed their shops early and went to the pub), enduring racial assaults and abuse.

In fact racial assaults were so common that there was even a term for them: Pakibashing. A Paki, in those days, was any brown person, not just a Pakistani. The skinheads, young men with close-cropped hair, made it their mission to beat up Indians and Pakistanis. A political party called the National Front demanded the repatriation of all ‘coloured’ immigrants. The Front never got anywhere in the polls but its marches were terrifying affairs that left Asians cowering in fear.

London, today. (Shutterstock)

Plenty of the people on the right wing of the Conservative Party echoed the Front’s views, the only difference being that their accents were posher. A senior Conservative politician called Enoch Powell had predicted racial wars (rivers of blood, etc.) and though his own party never gave him a cabinet post once race became his agenda, he attracted a substantial following among the party faithful.

And race became a huge issue. Only it wasn’t called race. It was called Immigration. When ministers spoke of the need to control immigration, what they really meant was “keep black and brown people out.”

The argument was always framed in terms of jobs. Apparently there weren’t enough to go around. This was always a bit of a joke because ‘coloured immigrants’ only did the tasks that white Brits did not want. And besides, several key sectors of the UK economy, including British Rail, London Transport and the National Health Service would have collapsed were it not for brown and black employees.

But here’s what made it so blindingly obvious that race was the real issue. Even as the government was working out more ways to keep ‘coloured’ people out, it was celebrating Britain’s entry into the European Union (EU).

A united Europe was the future, it declared. And as part of the EU’s charter, there would be free movement of people between countries. So hundreds of thousands of Europeans could walk into Britain and have the right to live and work there.

Hello? We thought you told us that immigration controls were about protecting jobs?

No government ever gave a good answer to that question as much as Britain’s racial minorities kept asking it.

Since then, politicians have not hesitated to use race as an issue. But fortunately British society has matured faster than British politics. The children of the East African Asians who were let in to England in the face of so much opposition have grown up to be bright and successful Brits with no other country call their own. (They don’t know India and they were booted out of Africa.)

In the performing arts, black actors have been allowed to play roles that had previously been reserved only for white people, including Shakespearean heroes. British theatre and TV are largely colour-blind and the average office in London is likely to be much more ethnically balanced than it would have been, say, a decade ago.

A new generation hardly remembers the skinheads. The term ‘Paki’ is now regarded as par with the N word. Racism is seen for what it really is --- in the big cities at least --- an obscenity.

These are major achievements when you consider British history --- remember the British imposed colour bar in their colonies for centuries (an Indian could not have become a member of the Bombay Gymkhana or even entered the Yacht Club) and such terms as ‘wog’ (from golliwog) were part of common usage till the 1980s.

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. (Shutterstock)

So London is a much nicer place today than it ever was before. The Mayor is of Pakistani origin and the city bends over backwards to avoid any kind of racial discrimination. When there is evidence of racism, it is usually from frightened members of a vanishing England.

Take, for instance, London’s black cabs. These are the most expensive taxis in the world. Their absurdly high rates have long been justified on the grounds that the drivers have done The Knowledge, a test that requires them to identify every obscure street in the capital. This may have been a useful skill two decades ago (but as black cab drivers have always been so unwilling to venture out of the city centre into the suburbs anyway I am not sure why they needed to work so hard on the Knowledge) but in the age of Google maps and GPS, it is pretty pointless.

The vast majority of London cab drivers are white. And they are now under threat from the popularity of Uber, the vast majority of whose drivers are non-white. So the cabbies have waged war against Uber (which costs less than half of what a black cab would) and nearly had it thrown out. The citizens of London signed petitions to retain Uber and at present the service survives on sufferance.

The iconic London cab. (Shutterstock)

Then there is the appalling Theresa May. As Home Secretary, she sent Deportation Vans around the country to trap illegal immigrants and her ministry terrorised West Indian immigrants in what has come to be known as the Windrush affair. By the time, the truth about Windrush came out, May had become Prime Minister so Amber Rudd, her Home Secretary, was sacrificed.

There is a brighter side. At least the affair was treated as the scandal it was (even if May evaded blame) and the Home Secretary was made to resign. The new Home Secretary is Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, who has distanced himself from the immigration policies followed by May.

There are fears now that London may become less international. Almost everyone I know in London is appalled by the Brexit vote. The only reason so many people voted to leave the EU, they say, is because the Brexiters don’t like foreigners. It is just xenophobia.

They may well be right. But forgive me if I am not terribly sympathetic to all this liberal complaining.

British liberals sat tight for three decades as completely racist controls on immigration to the UK were imposed. At that stage, there was no national outcry about xenophobia. Nobody said they approved of racism but they tacitly consented to letting their government make it difficult for brown and black people to enter their country.That kind of racism is far uglier than the xenophobia they now complain about.

So if they are now to be denied the services of Polish plumbers or made to feel that the UK is now on its own, with no role in Europe, then I am sorry but I am not shedding any tears for them.

Why not do something about your own country’s current immigration policies? Even Indian students who have contributed so much to the UK and who British universities actively seek out, find it hard to get student visas. Nor is the government willing to make it easier for the students: it announced last fortnight that Indian students could expect no help.

The process of getting a UK tourist visa takes so long compared to getting say, a US visa, that Indians have to really love the UK to persist with this level of official inefficiency. Even the High Commission here, I suspect, is embarrassed by the extent of the UK’s government’s ineptitude in this area.

But honestly, I don’t think anyone in London cares. Arriving at Heathrow last month, I was startled to see that the Immigration queue snaked around the hall and then extended back to the arrival gates. No third world airport has the kind of Immigration backlogs that are routine at Heathrow.

The logical thing for the UK to do, given that the door to Europe is closing, would be to strengthen ties with the rising countries of the Commonwealth, with which it has historical links . But that still hasn’t happened.

And India-UK relations are suffering. Mrs May’s last official visit here flopped because our Foreign Ministry told her what we thought of her immigration policies.

But still, London is a greater city than it has ever been. In many ways it’s now truly the capital of the world.

Shame about the UK government, though. But it may change. Or they could just change May....

First Published: Jul 04, 2018 09:38 IST