We can tend to be utopian but a divided society serves no-one.
Britain is divided in a number of ways and if it continues then everybody will suffer. Between Remainers and Leavers, environmentalists and climate change-deniers, misogynists and feminists, the curious and the ignorant and the haves and have-nots, we’re at risk of tearing ourselves into ever smaller pieces.
Blackburn, the town where I spent my formative years, was subject to a BBC Panorama programme on this very subject and in just 30 minutes it couldn’t have realistically focused on the complexity of how we come to be so divided. Instead, it focused on the perceived division of South Asian, predominantly Muslim families and the ‘white British’ community in Blackburn, leading to social media opportunists seizing the simplistic debate for their own ends.
The BBC programme wasn’t entirely wrong. Blackburn isn’t perfect and nor is it typical. It has a large and long-standing South Asian community (having been initially invited to fill a skills shortage), similar to other small and medium size, often former mill towns in northern England, where not only housing, school places and jobs, but vacant business premises, gaps in the local economy and vital public service roles have been filled by generations of families settling down there. Abandoned by successive governments and with little there to keep the young from going elsewhere to live and work, recent decades have often looked bleak and could well have looked even bleaker without immigration.
When I think of Blackburn, I think of the army of people being productive such as Zainab Bilal, a pie maker and a Muslim woman who runs her business from the kitchen in her Blackburn home. She was featured as part of The National Festival of Making in 2017, appearing live on national television and newspapers with her fusion of delicious, home-made South Asian cuisine and the good old British pie. Also featured at The National Festival of Making in Blackburn was Rizwana Matadar, with her brilliant Cover Me business, which combines contemporary fashion with the modest requirements of some Muslim women, was also featured and offers a similarly potent symbol of what the integration of cultures, attitudes and inspirations can actually mean to individual and collective benefit.
In London, where I have now lived for almost four decades, we have one of the world’s richest cities. Yet we have similar and well publicised divisions, with the opulently rich living in a stone’s throw from people living on the bread line. People from all around the world live on both sides of that divide, some are rich and some are poor, some are religious and others not, some are educated and others haven’t been afforded that dignity. What unites us all across those divides is realising that nobody can gain anything from making the gap wider.
That Blackburn, Bradford, Kensington, Birmingham or anywhere else suffers from division is a truth, yet it is a truth that we desperately need to overcome rather than drive further stakes between communities. Reactionary voices will seize on Blackburn’s situation but will offer no solutions. Solutions need to stem from a complete rethink of how communities are engaged in their locality, the opportunities afforded to them, showing young people a path towards success and prosperity through engaging with each other and their skills, their talents and finding a focus for their collective pride.