We all tell stories and the stories we tell each other often go unnoticed. When you pay a visit to your doctor, you may tell her or him a story about how long you’ve had symptoms. Stories are everywhere and they’re told for a variety of reasons, some of which are good and laudable and others not so.
Last year, when Boris Johnson announced the creation of a commission to investigate racial disparities, the words he used were “to change the narrative” with regards to institutional and structural racism. To do this, he insisted that stories of success be created to cancel out demands from Black Lives Matters protesters than structural inequalities be addressed and historic injustices be recognised. Johnson and his government then appointed Munira Mirza, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who doesn’t accept the existence of institutional racism, to set up the commission. In turn, she appointed Tony Sewell, who shared her views. Sewell has been known to many of us for decades and not for the right reasons. I have personally seen him as a collaborator, who, like Trevor Phillips, provides racists with ammunition to attack minorities. Racists will say “Look, Tony Sewell says x, y, and z, so it must be true”.
This Tory government isn’t interested in addressing serious structural and institutional injustices. To its defenders who point to several people of colour on the government benches, like Priti Patel or James Cleverly, I say this: these people are actively involved in the maintenance of a system to keep minorities in their place. Thus, they themselves can be considered a enablers of racism, because they use their class privilege to deny the lived experience of those of us who encounter racism on a daily basis.
Stories have their place in our world, but they are often told to avoid facing up to uncomfortable truths and Britain has been telling itself stories for decades. Having lost their empire, the British ruling class were lost and frightened. So, rather that face up to their past, including the multiple atrocities committed in the colonies (and to its own people), they told themselves stories about how “great” they were. Indeed, many of the stories they told themselves were created from fragments of memories, myths and outright lies. Thus, when the report was released yesterday, it came bundled with stories about how Britain was a “beacon for white-majority countries”. But, by whose metric is this country a “beacon”? Why the story-tellers themselves.
Last January, Laurence Fox, scion of the Fox theatrical dynasty, appeared on the BBC’s Question Time and, in response to a point made by an audience member about racism in Britain, replied “Britain is a most lovely country and not at all racist”. That’s a story that he told himself because he cannot accept that racism continues to thrive in Britain. It’s a story that’s rooted in fear: fear of much needed change and fear of people of colour who are smart and who are able to articulate their concerns about racism. This makes bourgeois reactionaries like Fox feel uncomfortable.
The media, too, has played its part in normalising nativist discourses on nationality, citizenship and identity, through the use of storytelling. We saw this during the European Union referendum in 2016 with the constant production of stories around the themes of “independence” and “freedom” and being able to “make our own laws” rather than have “Brussels” impose rules on us. These stories fed into the national mythology of imperial greatness, along with tales about how “we stood alone” and “If it hadn’t been for Churchill, we’d all be speaking German”. Churchill himself actually advocated a United States of Europe, but it was the wrong kind of story because of its inconvenient truth. Instead, Churchill was painted as a staunch Eurosceptic, while his racism and bloodlust were elided.
If we go back further to 2005, the Blair government’s response to Michael Howard’s dog-whistling campaign (Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking) was feeble. In fact, in the remaining years of the last Labour government, we saw an acceleration of nativism under Gordon Brown, who said that he wanted to see Britain emulate the United States and become more “patriotic”. To achieve this, he told several stories about Britain’s “greatness” and even used the far-right’s phrase “British jobs for British workers”. This effectively widened the space opened up by Blair for the circulation of far-right discourses. If you want to know how we ended up with Union flags everywhere and statues of slavers and colonial thugs being given more rights than women who have been raped, then look no further than Brown. The Tories have simply carried on his work.