Brexiting Britain, spring 2019

Remainers and leavers, republicans and democrats, older and younger, cosmopolitan and patriot, Muslim and non-Muslim, comfortable and left-behind, them and us, ingroup and outgroup, self and other.

All these binaries, all this dualism, these polarisations.

So much either/or thinking, so little both/and.

So much zero-sum, so little win-win.

Trolling, snarling, impatience, mockery, curses, rudeness.

What are the causes and exacerbating factors? What are the opposites, the alternatives? What constructive ways ahead are worth considering?

Three papers posted on the Insted website contain readings, weblinks and video clips on these questions, most of them dating from 2018. Most are from the UK but quite a few are from the United States or elsewhere.

The first paper is entitled Brexiting Britain in Troubling Times: reflections and resources. Its authors and characters include a historian, a rabbi, several journalists, a political theorist, social psychologists, members of parliament, teachers, various researchers and observers, several activists and campaigners, a poet, an orchestra, and a choral society.

The links and thoughts are clustered under 12 headings:

1) What we human beings get up to
2) The two Englands
3) Hate in the media
4) The current demeaned other
5) The denial of death
6) Wot u lookin @?
7) New positive narratives
8) Faith in us
9) Democratic renewal
10) Repairing our humanity
11) More in common
12) Joy in the public square

The second paper is entitled Post-Brexit Counselling in Middle England: notes for a programme. It contains thoughts and concerns arising from an episode in Jonathan Coe’s wonderful new novel Middle England, published in autumn 2018.

The third is a bibliography about Brexit. It is entitled Brexit Tales and contains about 40 items. Some of these are books but most are weblinks to articles published in the last 12 months. Most of the books and articles are more, or much more, sympathetic to Remain than to Leave. But a high proportion are at the same time challenging and critical regarding the ways the Remain case has all too often been advanced.

Muslim foster row – fears, facts and fantasy


Another awful week has just ended in the shocking history of British Islamophobia. The week began with lies on the front page of The Times. It continued with the same lies, plus a few others, being recycled in most other papers. The true facts were reported by the Guardian, Independent and BBC, but not in high-profile ways. The week ended with a senior journalist on The Times claiming the paper had acted responsibly when in fact it quite clearly had not.

If you want to know what really happened you need not only to attend to the Guardian and BBC but also to various well-informed pieces in the blogosphere. This article lists 10 articles which between them show the flagrant falsehoods and simplifications which most of the press circulated, and discuss the damage that has been done.

Briefly, the coverage was a mixture of factual inaccuracy on the one hand and Islamophobic hatred, fear and fantasy on the other. As is customary with racist reporting, it was combined for good measure with attacks on local government, on social workers and on political correctness. One of its many disgusting and sinister features was its explicit and unashamed use of a new ethno-religious category – ‘white Christian’ – to refer to people who are decent, principled, rational.

THEY (Muslims and social workers) are bad. WE (White Christians, readers of British newspapers) are good. This was the unspoken but underlying assumption, the grand narrative that the episode was deemed to illustrate.

The front-page headline in The Times on 28 August was ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’. The opening standfirst summary was ‘A white Christian child was taken from her family and forced to live with a niqab-wearing foster carer’. The ten articles listed below provide the truth, and begin to discuss what should be done in consequence.

How the press lied about the little girl staying with Muslim foster parents: here are the facts
by Tom Pride, Pride’s Purge, 31 August 2017

Muslim foster row – the facts

by Tim Fenton, Zelo Street, 31 August 2017

The UK’s Islamophobic press grows more damaging by the day
by Shenaz Bunglawala, The New Arab, 1 September 2017

The fostering case shows British case has problems reporting fairly on Muslims
by Miqdaad Versi, New Statesman, 31 August

So, it was all a lie
by Matthew Smith, Indigo Jo Blogs, 31 August

Times excuses itself – DISHONESTLY
by Tim Fenton, Zelo Street, 2 September 2017

Religious and cultural identity in foster care
By Sarah P, Transparency Project, 28 August 2017

The Other Side: my Muslim chidren were fostered by a Christian family
by Louise Butt, Amaliah, 30 August 2017

That Muslim foster carers story
by ‘Suddenly Mummy’

Why did Andrew Norfolk lie?

by Abdul-Azim Ahmed, Medium, 2 September 2017
View at

A low dishonest year


On Monday 14 November 2016 Alan Bennett jotted a brief note in his diary. There is ‘a nauseating picture,’ he wrote, ‘on the front of the Guardian of Trump and Farage together’. He added: ‘with “nauseating” in this case not just a word. It does genuinely make one feel sick.’

All over the world many millions of other people felt sick too, and felt not only disgusted and nauseous but also fearful and despairing.

in the famous words of W H Auden in 1939, people felt lost in ‘a low dishonest decade’, where ‘waves of anger and fear/ circulate over the bright/ and darkened lands of the earth,/ obsessing our private lives.’

Auden referred to the ‘unmentionable odour of death’ offending and obsessing the lives of millions. A similar odour is around at the end of 2016, this low dishonest year.

In order not to forget the worries and weariness with which 2016 ends, but also in order to help nurture hope and determination to keep on keeping on ( to show ‘an affirming flame’, in Auden’s phrase), here at the end of 2016 are links to a handful of reflections and proposals:

British Values, Brexit and Trump a meditation for today, December 2016

Making our states fair again post-election reflections, November 2016

Grief, anger and re-engagement post-referendum thoughts and action, July 2016

And to help remember some of the background context here are some further pieces:

A multi-storied nation religion and belief in modern Britain, July 2016

Islamophobia, still a challenge for us all ‘what Muslims really think’, May 2016

Learning to live together British values and Prevent, February 2016

British identity and British values muddles, mixtures and ways ahead, autumn 2015


Alan Bennett’s diary for 2016 is published in the London Review of Books, 5 January 2017, at





Teachers, your countries need you

History, nation and world war, 2014-18

In the last four years of his life the Swiss artist Eugène Burnand (1850–1921) created 104 portraits of people who had taken part, or were still taking part, in the first world war. The portraits depicted an immense diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, geographical origin, age, physical appearance, military rank and religious tradition. They vividly recorded that the war was indeed a world war, not just confined to Europe.

When published in a book in 1922 each portrait was accompanied by a short meditation by Burnand’s nephew, a military historian. The portraits and meditations are all now available at and there are English translations of the original French. Amongst other things, they are an unusual and fascinating resource for teachers of history and citizenship in schools.

The portraits are introduced in an article at Entitled ‘Teachers, your countries need you’, and sub-titled ‘History, Nation and World War, 2014-18’, the article begins by recalling key points about the first world war made by Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh in a House of Lords debate in December 2013. It continues with notes on some of the controversies about history teaching which have arisen in relation to a provocative article in the Daily Mail in January 2014 by Michael Gove. It concludes by introducing two new educational resources – a project based at the Institute of Education, London, and the website featuring the work of Eugène Burnand.

‘The Truth about Immigration’


‘The Truth about Immigration’ was a documentary broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday 7 January. It was presented by the BBC’s political editor and had been trailed in advance both widely and deeply. Viewers were promised it would be full of new clarity and insight, based on new and powerful facts and figures. Further, it would be imbued with unusual honesty from politicians and senior civil servants, and – even – from the BBC itself.

In the event the programme was a shoddy and shameful shambles. Visually, technically, conceptually, ethically, politically and emotionally, it was the very worst kind of tabloid TV, an hour of bias against understanding, totally unworthy to be described as public service broadcasting.

There is a critical review of the programme at The review lists the programme’s flaws and faults, and closes by suggesting some broad principles for responsible journalism about immigration and related topics. The principles are relevant for all media, but particularly for public service broadcasting. They include a reference to a fine and sensitive documentary that the BBC broadcast on the day following ‘The Truth about Immigration’. Entitled ‘The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants’, and presented by Fergal Keane, it reflected compassion, humanity and respect, but was not merely soft-hearted.

Miliband, Mail and antisemitism

Referring to the Daily Mail’s recent attack on the Miliband family a headteacher says that ‘if the Mail speaks for Britain, it is not a Britain I want to be part of.’ He continues: ‘It sets a very bad example to young people to belittle someone who is dead. I think it is nasty, it lacks taste and decency, and I worry about antisemitism. Everything that I value and try to get across to young people here, this seems to cut across. It is antithetical to everything I try to teach our pupils. The constant trashing of people for the sake of selling newspapers is demeaning and destructive of trust.’

A Church of England bishop criticises the Mail for being a dangerous influence to public life. ‘Its article about the Miliband family was not just a matter of taste, but a matter of the corruption of civic life and the public discourse … The Mail knows exactly what it is doing. I believe it is both corrupt and dangerous.’

It is now widely recognised that the Daily Mail’s recent attack on the Miliband family was an outbreak of anti-Jewish racism. ‘Mrs Cohen,’ says a headline, ‘the Mail is talking about you, too.’ ‘What does it mean,’ asks another, ‘to call a Jewish person “un-British”? ‘Antisemitism doesn’t always come doing a Hitler salute,’ observes a third, commenting that ‘hatred of Jews is often more coded than explicit’, and that the Daily Mail’s attack ‘pressed all the same old buttons’. Ed Miliband, says a fourth headline, interpreting the Mail’s message, is ‘a Jew not quite English enough’. A senior rabbi asks: ‘What is really going on at the Daily Mail? … Their attack on Ralph Miliband is so preposterous that there must be a hidden motive behind it. But what? … Why is the Mail claiming he was so evil?’

There is a short discussion by Robin Richardson of these allegations and comments, and of the persistence and changing dynamics of antisemitism at the present time, at .

‘Challenge the culture. Stop it. Now.’

‘Challenge the Home Office,’ said the Guardian in a robust editorial on 10 August, ‘challenge the culture, stop it, now.’ The references were to politicians deploring the elevation of Doreen Lawrence to the House of Lords, and talking openly and unashamedly about the Global South as bongo bongo land; to the Go Home billboards touring parts of London, a component in the government programme to make Britain, in the government’s own official phrase, ‘a hostile environment’ for immigrants; and to the government’s casual disdain for the Equality Act 2010, which requires public authorities to ‘foster good relations’ and therefore to engage in ‘tackling prejudice’ and ‘promoting understanding’. The debate over migration, said the Guardian, ‘has gone off the rails. Politicians are so scared of challenging voters’ prejudices they are stoking them instead. This should be Nick Clegg’s moment. Challenge the Home Office, challenge the culture, stop it, now.’

The editorial acknowledged there are individual Tory and Lib Dem MPs who make no secret of the fact that they are deeply uneasy about the way the government has been operating, and noted that Labour has condemned the billboards exercise as a publicity stunt aimed at potential Ukip voters. But much damage, it said, has been done. ‘Racist expressions have been legitimised by their use by elected politicians and, worse, the government itself. Social cohesion is repeatedly challenged by the knowing use of debasing and divisive language, a politics where voters are encouraged to imagine all benefits claimants are scroungers and every migrant as potentially illegal. For some Conservatives, and in some quarters of the media, this is what success looks like. Everybody is talking their language, there are ministers in touch with ordinary voters’ prejudices, elected politicians [are] not afraid to use the racist language of the 19th hole.’

The relevance and implications for the world of education are well reviewed in a recent article by Gus John ( ‘It is critical,’ he writes, ‘that as many of us as possible send a message to David Cameron, Theresa May, Eric Pickles and the rest of this government that the xenophobic society they are projecting and the nation of snoopers they want us to become is NOT the society in which we want to live or want our children to live. And we won’t ‘Go home…’, because for far too many of us, going ‘home’ means going to Manchester, or Leicester, or Brent, Bristol or Bradford.’

One immediate way of showing opposition to current trends, Gus John points out, is to sign the petition organised by the Black Feminists collective in association with the Refugee and Migrant Forum in East London (RAMFEL) at

The reality behind the rhetoric

‘We hold,’ say the Tories and Lib Dems with their actions, though not with their exact words unless behind closed doors, ‘this truth to be self-evident, that human beings are born unequal.’

They continue – again with deeds rather than with explicit policy discourse – along lines such as the following: ‘It is urgent that we should return the education system to the essential role which it always played in the past, which is to prepare children and their parents for inequality, and to accept and appreciate inequality. Those who deserve to prosper will do so, if we simply set them free from state intervention and control. Those who do not deserve to prosper, due to their lack of intelligence, energy or aspirations, will be treated with compassion, in so far as resources permit. But basically we say to them, tough, that’s life. In these various ways we are making the world safe for capitalism in its neoliberal variety. Everyone will benefit, of course, even if some do not yet realise this.’

This Tory and Lib Dem view of education is clearly shot through with falsehood and hypocrisy. But Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, namely the Labour Party, seems to broadly agree with it, or anyway to have nothing useful or inspiring to say against it.

It is in this context that the Socialist Education Association has launched its 32-page pamphlet entitled Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised, sub-titled The Reality behind the Rhetoric: essays on the current crisis. There are seven brief essays altogether. The pamphlet is reviewed by Robin Richardson at

Oh dear, dear Brum

‘Dear Birmingham,’ writes Karamat Iqbal, ‘thank you for being my home for the past forty plus years. Thank you also for welcoming my father and others in our family and community during the fifties. You as a city welcomed them, us, because you needed their labour and they came willingly because they needed jobs. As we have learnt, it has benefited the city in many ways. It has certainly benefited our community, both here and back in Pakistan. I grew up in a brick house, the first in our village, thanks to the money earned in Birmingham.’

Iqbal’s new book is an extended thank-you letter, almost an extended love letter. It is not, however, just one long outpouring of gratitude and affection. The city which he holds dear can be disappointing and deplorable, a hell-hole as well as a haven, a place of negligence and neglect as well as a nest, woeful as well as wonderful. Iqbal loves his fellow citizens of all backgrounds. But also he wants change, and wants it radically, deeply, urgently. He wants and seeks justice and equality, and wants them for all communities in Birmingham – not only the newer communities which have settled there in the last sixty years but also those whose forebears settled in the city rather earlier.

He interweaves the story of his own family with that of Pakistani Birmingham since the 1950s to the present day. He salutes the early pioneers, recalls crude street racism, draws attention to continuing negligence and neglect, and sets out principles, proposals and action points for the future. His book is reviewed at

Gerry German, 1928–2012

Gerry was a tireless and inspiring fighter for racial justice in the education system. His family are organising a memorial event for him on Saturday 6 July at Christ Church, Union Grove, Clapham SW8 2QJ, beginning at 3 pm. There will be poetry, songs and speeches followed by refreshments and conversation. Further information can be obtained from Gerry’s son Deuan at

At the funeral last summer, led by Gus John, there were Bob Marley songs, Hindu prayers and reflections, a Christian hymn, Cwm Rhondda, psalms from the Jewish scriptures, a poem about emancipation, the Welsh national anthem, and a humanist reading from the works of George Bernard Shaw. Also, of course, there were many warm and loving tributes from friends, comrades and family members. ‘The true joy in life,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw, quoted by Deuan, lies in ‘being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one [and] being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.’

Shaw continued with words which captured everyone’s remembrance of Gerry: ‘My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.’