This is the text of the speech I gave at the Woman’s Place UK fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 23rd September 2019. I have added links and images, but not altered the words.
I’m 50 years old. I’ve been a left wing political activist since I was 12. When I was 15 I spoke in Trafalgar Square for Youth CND, alongside a young MP called Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned against Section 28 and helped set up Brighton Pride. I made the front pages by invading the stage at the Brighton Centre when Princess Di was welcoming a homophobic conference. I’ve had eggs thrown at me in Churchill Square and glass bottles thrown at me in London for being an out lesbian.
But I’ve never been as worried about the consequences of speaking in public about my beliefs as I am here today.
I want to talk about the division that has opened up between many feminist activists of my generation and the current queer activist movement. We should be each other’s allies, but the atmosphere is so toxic that we are hardly able to speak to each other at all.
I am worried that trans people I know and like will feel hurt and will think I am their enemy. I am not. I am worried that I will lose the friendship of people I respect in Brighton & Hove. I am worried that I will be treated as an outcast in some political circles, and that this will make it difficult for me to continue my voluntary activity in solidarity with migrants and with benefit claimants in the city.
I hope people will be prepared to hear what I have to say in good faith. I think it is possible to disagree politically while remaining courteous and respectful. I think learning from each other is more important than winning.
I am worried, but I am doing this anyway, because something has gone very wrong, and I want to be part of helping to put it right.
I’m doing this because I can’t accept that women like Helen Steel deserve to be vilified and ostracised.
Helen Steel is a woman who has spent her life standing up against the destructive power of capitalism and the state. When McDonalds tried to shut her up by suing her for libel, she took them on in an epic court case – and won – earning the lifelong admiration of many in my generation. The state tried to shut her up by sending undercover police officers into her small activist group. Helen has survived being deceived into a relationship by one of these spy cops and is still fighting for justice for herself and other women affected.
But earlier this year, because Helen has spoken out about her feminist views, she was told that her presence made people feel unsafe, and asked to leave a climate protest camp, organised by a group she helped to found. Many other excellent feminist activists have been cast out in the same way.
If you are on the left and you think women like Helen Steel are suddenly the enemy, then something has gone very wrong.
My mum was a feminist of the second wave. She went to women’s liberation movement meetings in London in the early 70s and was part of the campaign to get the law changed to make sex discrimination illegal. Her generation of feminists, along with the organised labour movement, won some hugely important victories. As well as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, they won the right for women in most of the UK to access safe abortions, they established women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, and they paved the way for better representation of women in parliament, the media and the workforce.
When I came out at 18, it was into an activist movement that took feminist ideas seriously, and incorporated them into our practice. Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 listened to the experiences of lesbians who had broken away from the Gay Liberation Movement a decade earlier and we recognised that the way men and women are socialised means that men tend to dominate the space in mixed organisations. Therefore we made sure that our meetings were chaired by women and our campaign was represented by women in the media and on public platforms.
We rejected the Stonewall model of a paid CEO and professional lobbying, because we knew that real change comes only from below. We were one of the most active and longest-lasting local campaign groups in the movement against Section 28, and Brighton Pride emerged directly from our very political, grassroots, volunteer-run and female-led campaign.
My overwhelming memory of that time is of a feeling of freedom. Being involved in the campaign was an intensely creative and empowering experience of working collectively with other people to make new things happen and demand change. As well as discovering and establishing myself, I learned a lot about how grassroots activism can weave together the diverse experiences and skills of a community to create a sense of solidarity that is more powerful than repressive laws.
I am worried that the experience of being involved in queer activism now is not a liberating one, particularly for young women, female non-binary people and trans men. I hope I am mistaken about this.
But I have been listening to young women who have detransitioned, desisted or reidentified as women in the last few years, and one of the repeated themes of their stories is that within the trans community they felt that only only one path was available to them as they sought to understand themselves. Here are a few examples of statements I have seen from young detransitioned women, in the UK, in the last year:
“I knew I was a boy because I meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria – a strong rejection of typically feminine toys and typically feminine clothes, mostly male friends, a sense that my feelings and reactions were typical of boys, the desire to be treated as a boy. When I spoke about these experiences to older friends, or in online chat rooms, the message was affirming. Nobody encouraged the idea that it’s okay to be gender non conforming, Instead, friends and healthcare practitioners alike ‘affirmed’ my gender. Yes, you are a boy” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-medicalization-of-gender-non-conforming-children-and-the-vulnerability-of-lesbian-youth-10d4ac517e8e)
“Internalised homophobia and misogyny can play havoc on your mental state. I was a vulnerable person and I saw this one option that fit, no one talked about how dysphoria can have other causes.” (https://twitter.com/tjdetrans/status/1139505371972886530)
“I wanted to find ways of dealing with my gender issues that aren’t medically transitioning, and those ways weren’t presented to me. The only solution that was presented was chopping your breasts off, injecting yourself with hormones and becoming a man.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CjeGgSRBcI&t=7s)
“It’s like my entire life for seven years has been dominated by my gender dysphoria and wanting to avoid it as much as possible by Passing, so much that I stopped being myself. Now I’m realising that my life doesn’t have to be constrained by having to pass. It’s so liberating.” (https://twitter.com/detransing/status/1127265875382419456)
If you are a movement for liberation, and your female activists feel that their involvement is constraining their possibilities, then something has gone very wrong.
During the New Labour years, while I was busy with young children, Brighton Pride became more and more commercialised and less and less political. When we organised a weekend of activities around a protest march in 1991, none of us could have predicted that it would become the massive corporate spectacle it is today.
Under Stonewall’s leadership, the LGBT movement has abandoned the feminist analysis of marriage as a key site of women’s oppression, and embraced large corporations and celebrity endorsements, until our community, with its radical, creative, subversive culture has become nothing more challenging than a market segment.
Slowly, I picked up a habit of holding my tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about how marriage is bad for women when there was a gay wedding fair to go to. What was the point of reminiscing about grassroots alternatives when we seemed to have achieved mainstream acceptance?
But it seems clear to me now that because we let that silence fall, young lesbians coming out into today’s queer activist movement are cut off from the experiences of lesbian feminists who came before them. In fact, older lesbian feminists are explicitly positioned as their enemies, while massive corporations are presented as their friends.
If you are a liberation movement and you think that Barclays, Aviva, Tesco, and Proctor & Gamble are on your side, then something has gone very wrong.
When my youngest child was 11, I started writing and thinking about politics again, as the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity programme began to hit.
I was inspired by the working class women leading campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in the north of England and the young single mums of Focus E15 in London. Since 2010, at every level, austerity has hit women harder, and women have been – as usual – expected to patch up the gaps in our shredded safety net.
Some of the most important gains made by feminists of my mother’s generation are under threat. Funding cuts are leaving refuges vulnerable, while at the same time women’s options are being severely restricted by benefit cuts and caps. Women are terrified that their children will be taken into care if they stay in an abusive relationship, but denied the financial means to leave. So far in 2019, at least 72 women in the UK have been killed by men.
We still need places of safety for women. But Stonewall, in 2015, recommended to the Women and Equalities Select Committee “A review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces”.
Just to be crystal clear, the exemptions they are referring to are the ones which allow service providers to exclude male people from some facilities and services, even if those male people have changed their legal sex by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The example given in the Act’s explanatory notes is this:
“A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.”
Feminists of my mum’s generation created safe spaces for female people to escape male violence. Spaces where women could have some respite, could share their trauma with other women who would understand, could begin to heal and make their way back into the world stronger. From nothing, women built up these services and kept them going over decades.
But Stonewall would like the law changed, so that these small, safe spaces, made by women for women, are no longer permitted to exist.
Here in Brighton, even without a change in the law, our local Rape Crisis service offers no female only support groups. All their services are open to trans women, on the basis of self-identification.
I am not in any way suggesting that trans women should be denied access to support if they have been assaulted, nor that it is unreasonable for rape crisis services and women’s refuges to provide services for trans women. But I do think it is unreasonable to campaign for the removal of female only spaces, which enable traumatised women to recover from male violence.
If you are a liberation movement and you want to make it illegal for members of an oppressed group to organise independently, then something has gone very wrong.
I am not an enemy of trans people. Nothing I have said this evening is an attack on trans people or a call for rights to be denied to any trans person.
All of us, in fact, have a much more dangerous enemy than each other and that is the growing threat of fascism, fuelled by catastrophic climate change.
At a moment when the human race is finally realising that we are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem, and our poisoning of the air, land and oceans is destroying our own habitat, we are already seeing how that plays out: more wars over resources, more movements of refugees across the world, and – as always in situations of conflict – more rape and trafficking of women, and intensified attempts to control our fertility.
Whatever is in store for us, as we head into the next stage of this national and global crisis, I think solidarity in diversity is going to be worth much more to all of us than the support of multinational corporations. We don’t need to flatten all distinctions between us, we don’t need to deny material reality, and we don’t need to set our minds against our bodies. Instead, we need to learn how to listen to each other and learn from each other.
That means, first of all, that everyone must acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had. We are well past the point where women will accept that our concerns are unspeakable.
The Labour Party should be facilitating this discussion. Let’s identify the common problems we are dealing with, and respectfully discuss how to tackle them. There will be areas where we disagree. It’s OK – in fact it is necessary – for people to disagree with each other. That is how we learn.
Let’s talk together about male violence. Three quarters of violent crimes and 94% of homicides are committed by male people. Feminism has many theories about why that is. I want to hear what young people think about it. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is victimised by the longstanding connection between masculinity and violence.
Let’s talk together about stereotypes and socialisation. How do children learn what it means to be a boy or a girl? What would society look like if we let go of gendered rules, roles and expectations? Does individual self-identification on a spectrum actually make a difference to the way society works?
Let’s talk together about self-organisation. I hope everyone would agree that groups of people who face oppression sometimes need exclusive spaces in which to relax, recover from, and collectively resist their oppression. I think it’s pretty clear that female people are an oppressed group, and need to be able to organise autonomously. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. Bring your argument and make your case. That’s what we do in the labour movement and in the feminist movement.
I regret that I held my tongue for such a long time. I am angry that I was intimidated into hiding my name for a year, when engaging with these issues. Women like me – like Helen Steel, like Linda Bellos, like Bea Campbell, like Julie Bindel – have every right to participate in discussion in the movements we have helped to create. We are not the enemy. Let’s talk.
Owen Jones published a column in the Guardian this week, collating diverse examples of a backlash against LGBT people, concluding that “progress in LGBTQ rights has not simply ground to a halt, it is screeching into reverse” and invoking “the crude, unapologetic homophobia of 1980s Britain”.
As one of the people directly involved in campaigning against Section 28, back in the dark ages of 1980s Britain, I am not convinced by this comparison. The context, the sources, and the content of the antagonism Owen points to are all very different from the 1980s. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by glossing over these differences.
1. Cultural context
In the 1980s, public opinion was heavily influenced by the mass media. The combined circulation of the Sun, Mirror and Mail in 1987 was 8.8 million. In 2019, this total has tumbled by more than half, to 3.2 million.
Newspapers back then were able to effectively whip up hysteria, with headlines like ‘save the children from sad, sordid sex lessons’ (4th June 1986) and ‘bizarre truth about happy family in the gay schoolbook’ (22nd September 1986). With no real way of fact-checking, people were willing to believe these largely fabricated stories, built on the much less sensational fact that one copy of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was available for teachers to borrow from the Inner London Education Authority library.
With the shift to a more fragmented media landscape, it is more difficult to gauge from media headlines whether we are seeing a rise in hostility, such as the one we saw and experienced in the late 1980s. But research shows that there has been a profound shift in public attitudes since then.
The British Social Attitudes report 34 (published in 2017) looked at trends in public opinion on a range of ‘moral issues’. They noted that homosexuality is much more widely accepted than it was 30 years ago:
“There has also been a significant increase in liberal attitudes towards same-sex relationships since the introduction of same-sex marriages in 2014; the proportion saying that same-sex relationships are ‘“not wrong at all’” is now a clear majority at 64%, up from 59% in 2015, and 47% in 2012. Looking further back to when the question was first asked in the 1980s an even starker picture emerges. In 1983 only 17% were completely accepting of same-sex relationships. Attitudes hardened further during the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis; in 1987 just 11% said same-sex relationships were “not wrong at all”. At that time three-quarters (74%) of British people thought same-sex relationships were “always” or “mostly” wrong, a view that has fallen to 19% today.”
2. If you’re not with us…
Owen identifies a range of actors, lumping them all together as aspects of “the current threat facing LGBTQ people”:
- “homophobic protesters” campaigning against the No Outsiders programme in Birmingham schools, with the support of a local Labour MP.
- Esther McVey, suggesting that parents should be able to withdraw their children from sex & relationship education.
- Ann Widdecombe, raising the possibility of science finding “an answer” to homosexuality.
- the attackers of the lesbian couple who were beaten on a London bus, and the perpetrators of ‘hate crimes’ more generally
- Donald Trump, taking legislative action against trans people in the US military
- “Anti trans activists” and “much of the media” whose “tawdry, sinister campaign” “demonises” trans people and “legitimises and fuels” hatred and violence against them.
I am not convinced that this list adds up to the kind of concerted, state-backed campaign of hostility that we faced in the 1980s. In particular, I think Owen’s instruction at the end of the piece to “join the dots” is an unhelpful fabrication of alliances that do not exist.
There were indeed parents who campaigned against the alleged ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in Haringey schools in the 1980s. As now, their motivations were a complex mix of religious faith, prejudice and parental concern for the wellbeing of their children. But the Haringey parents in the 1980s had the backing of the government, mass media and public opinion, while today the parents in Birmingham are firmly outside the mainstream.
In the 1980s, Haringey Council’s Positive Images policy became mired in controversy and was eventually squashed by the introduction of Section 28 before it could even be fully articulated, let alone implemented (see this fascinating PhD thesis for the full story). The parents and politicians campaigning against it were largely opposing something of their own invention, while the council insisted that it was to be nothing more challenging than an explanation that gay people exist and discrimination is hurtful.
On the other hand, the No Outsiders programme is being delivered in schools, and it contains some concepts and ideas that I find troubling. I am reluctant to simply condemn the protests as homophobic.
In particular, I am unhappy with the presentation to primary school children of the notion of innate gender identity and the idea that sex is assigned (rather than observed) at birth.
Owen claims that Esther McVey’s comments help “shift the political conversation, reopening debates that were supposed to have been settled long ago, reviving the phantom of section 28.” I must say, the article he links to, in which a parade of senior Tories line up to disagree with her and affirm their support for same-sex marriage, is somewhat weak evidence for this idea. In 1992, we couldn’t even get the Labour administration of Brighton Council to publicly defend their own decision to give us a grant of £5,000 for our fledgling Pride event. I think the political conversation has moved on quite far.
Anne Widdecombe’s comments, quoted in the piece Owen links to, are interesting, in fact. She said:
“there was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa and the fact that we now think it is quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean that science may not be able to produce an answer at some stage.”
I was always wary, back in the day, of the insistence that homosexuality must be innate and of biological origin. I feared that it could lead precisely in this direction, towards the idea that if only the ‘gay gene’ could be discovered, it could be eliminated. I preferred to argue that homosexuality was not a problem that needed solving, and that its cause was therefore not something that needed to be figured out. I wonder if our “side” having wholeheartedly embraced a ‘born this way’ narrative for both sexual orientation and gender identity has been a tactical error, after all.
Unlike the rest of the cast assembled in this piece, Owen’s “anti trans campaigners” turn out to be feminists like Julie Bindel and Womans Place UK. Here, I have a real problem with the argument he is making.
3. Dots that don’t join up
Owen claims that the pressure on the NSPCC to drop Munroe Bergdorf as a face of Childline was motivated by a wish to “drive trans people out of public life”. But the reason given by the NSPCC was that:
“The board decided an ongoing relationship with Munroe was inappropriate because of her statements on the public record, which we felt would mean that she was in breach of our own risk assessments and undermine what we are here to do. These statements are specific to safeguarding and equality.”
They haven’t explained what they are referring to, but if you read this thread on Mumsnet, you can see the concerns emerging as women discuss why they find this appointment inappropriate. First, there is Munroe’s public backing for the 11 year old “drag kid” Desmond Is Amazing and her lack of concern about Desmond’s immersion in an adult and sexualised art form. Then there’s the issue of Munroe having encouraged “trans kids” to contact her privately on Twitter and Instagram.
These concerns about Munroe’s lack of awareness of basic safeguarding are not about driving trans people out of public life. They are about whether she is a suitable person to represent a children’s safeguarding charity.
Owen’s final example is this:
“The anti-trans activists who hounded Bergdorf are now demanding the sacking of a senior, gay NSPCC employee because they found pictures of him in fetish gear online, suggesting therefore he is not safe around children. This is the crude, unapologetic homophobia of 1980s Britain.”
But it wasn’t just pictures. It was a video, which the employee in question had published, showing himself in rubber underwear, masturbating in his workplace toilets.
Now, I don’t care what people do in their own time. But I think women raising questions about the judgment of somebody who thinks it’s OK to engage in exhibitionist fetish play while at work in a children’s charity is not remotely comparable to the unapologetic homophobia of the 1980s, and frankly I find it a bit insulting for Owen to suggest that it is.
We were up against a powerful mass media, the whole political establishment and the law of the land. We were living in a country where three quarters of the population thought being gay was always or mostly wrong. We were living through an epidemic that was killing young gay men and coping with the stigmatisation of our community as carriers of disease. Lesbians were scared of losing their children, many of us were scared of losing our jobs, just for coming out. We were fighting for basic human rights, not the freedom to have a wank at work and share it on the internet.
Prominent campaigners like Owen Jones appearing to defend inappropriate behaviour at work because the person concerned is gay seems to me to be entirely counterproductive.
Mumsnet’s feminism chat board is not in league with Donald Trump, Anne Widdecombe or Esther McVey. Julie Bindel is not causing a rise in violence against LGBT people (quite the opposite).
Women who have spent decades fighting for feminist and left-wing causes are not leaping into bed with the evangelical right, and it is really unhelpful to pretend that they are.
The history of Section 28 is important, but it’s not the only story we can ever tell about LGBT rights. Many of the people now sounding the alarm about the direction of the movement are veterans of that campaign. Pretending that they are somehow in league with homophobes is a misleading and unworthy way to avoid confronting a real difference of opinion on the left. We can do better than that.
I have been puzzled by the sudden rise in deportations and Home Office attacks on black people who have been in UK for decades, such as the case of Albert Thompson, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, or the many similar cases now coming to light.
These people are not the stated target of the “hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, so why are they being picked on?
It’s not to appease a racist public – as far as I can see from reading online discussion of these cases, most people are convinced that they are a mistake. There is not widespread support for this action, or understanding that it is a direct consequence of current government policy which has turned landlords, hospital administrators, employers and bank managers into border guards.
I don’t believe the aim is to remove significant numbers of black people from the UK. Most of the people affected are parents and grandparents of British citizens. If the government were trying to stop them from becoming an integrated part of UK communities, they would surely have done it a long time ago.
It’s also unlikely to be pure sadism and cruelty, though I can see why it would appear that way to the families affected.
The Home Office isn’t yet staffed by robots, as far as I know – people are making these decisions. Even if the ‘hostile environment’ regulations seem to dictate the actions that are being taken, there could have been a management decision not to persecute this group of people who are clearly not, by any stretch of the imagination, “illegal immigrants”. (I am leaving aside for now the issue of the equally unjust impact of these new laws on people who are considered “illegal”, but that doesn’t mean that I think any of this is OK.)
So I was puzzled. But I recently came across a clue when I read about the government’s attempts to rebrand the ‘hostile environment’ as a ‘compliant environment’.
My theory now is that this is an example of an age-old trick of the ruling class – extend your power by testing out a previously unacceptable imposition on a disposable population, then rely on it being a fait accompli to persuade everyone it was always inevitable.
Liberty’s 2015 briefing for MPs on the issue of immigration detention explains how this kind of mission creep works:
Immigration detention has become such a policy mainstay, it is easy to forget what a constitutional novelty it was when powers to administratively detain were first set out in the Immigration Act 1971. In a move unprecedented in peacetime Britain, the Act reversed the principle of habeas corpus, removing the onus from the state to justify the deprivation of liberty, and introducing administrative detention for those subject to deportation. In the intervening decades, the use of detention has evolved from a mechanism designed to enforce removal or examination, to a free-standing immigration power routinely exercised for administrative convenience.
The hostile environment itself is a quintessential example – across all the areas where it acts to make life difficult for migrants, the core idea is that individuals must be prepared to justify themselves to authority on demand.
If you want to rent somewhere to live, receive hospital treatment or maintain a bank account, you must now prove that you have a legal right to reside in the UK. This means it is up to the individual to have their papers in order and present them to all kinds of people in order to do all kinds of ordinary things.
When I read online discussion about the cases of Caribbean elders now facing deportation, detention or denial of healthcare, there are a few people who present this as a reasonable expectation. Why have they not sorted out their documents, if they have been here all this time?
If they been here for so long why have they not applied for citizenship!!
— Tony (@VetteheadTony) April 1, 2018
Get real… You’re talking about people who in 40+years haven’t managed to get any documentation….
One person you give is trying to use a birth cert with a different name on it to get a passport – and they wonder why it was rejected! FFS….
— Martin Dooley (@martindooley) April 1, 2018
The idea of individuals being accountable to the state has already been thoroughly tested on another disposable population – unemployed people and people who are too sick or disabled to work. And just as the hostile environment is now being extended to people who are British for all practical purposes, Universal Credit extends the sanctions and testing regime to people who have so far been exempt from the label of scrounger.
People on low wages and self-employed people are among those hit most hard by the bizarre workings of Universal Credit. Not so long ago, these were the people championed by Theresa May’s party as strivers and entrepreneurs. Now, they have joined the ranks of those who are expected to show compliance to the demands of the all-powerful work coach.
By stealth, the whole way we look at things becomes inverted. Just as with the bedroom tax back in 2013, the most powerful and long-lasting effect of these vicious policies is not the impact on those directly affected, but the way they retrain all of us to think about public services.
So once we have become used to the idea that even people who arrived in the UK as children, as British citizens by virtue of the colonisation of their native countries by the British, must prove themselves if they wish to be treated with anything resembling respect, what next? Who is next in the firing line?
An excellent recent thread on Twitter by Docs not Cops points out that we are already a fair way down the road towards declaring some people ‘undeserving’ of free NHS care. And of course, the hostile environment also provides fertile ground – and the practical infrastructure – for the introduction of widespread charging in the NHS. This result has been a long time in the making – Nye Bevan issued a very precise warning about it as long ago as 1952.
But these ideas are not inevitable. It is possible to change the direction of travel. The revelations about Facebook’s data breaches have opened up the issue of privacy in a way that I didn’t really expect to see again. These questions of accountability are the key battleground for the future of our public services. Are we residents with rights that derive from our humanity, or subjects who must prove our conditional entitlement? How do we redesign our public services to recognise our interdependence, our need for mutual support and care, and the contribution everyone makes to our complex society?
In the 1960s, many people arrived in the UK from its former colonies in the Caribbean. They were encouraged and welcomed by the British government, as workers in the growing public sector. [Edit: I have learned from a very informative and referenced Twitter thread published by Akala on 1st April 2018 that this is a myth, and that all postwar British governments implemented racist and exclusionary policies towards black people who migrated to the UK.]
Albert Thompson’s mother was one of these people. While she worked in the NHS, her son was left behind in Jamaica. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for both of them. Lucky me.
My parents arrived in the UK in 1970. Like Mr. Thompson’s mother, they were entitled to enter and stay in the UK as Commonwealth citizens. They brought their child with them.
In 1971, the UK government passed an Immigration Act which removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Nevertheless, the act stated clearly that people who were already settled in the UK, like my parents, would not lose their rights and were to be treated as having been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. If Mr. Thompson’s mother had already been in the UK for five years by the time the Act came into force in 1973, she would have been given the right of abode in the UK.
In 1974, Albert Thompson came to the UK to be reunited with his mother. I cannot find the relevant regulations at that time, but I expect he either had a work permit or was given leave to enter on grounds of family reunification. He was 18 or 19. He settled in the UK, found work, married and raised his children here.
Also in 1974, my parents took their two children to Australia to visit relatives. The 1971 Immigration Act had granted them indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and this was duly stamped in their passports when they returned. This tiny stamp was the only proof of their (and my) right to live here. If they had not travelled abroad, I believe they would not have been able to easily demonstrate their status. Of course, they were never asked to.
In 1981, both major parties supported the British Nationality Act, which further redefined the status of citizens of Britain’s former colonies. Among other things, it:
- removed the automatic right of children born in the UK to be considered British citizens, if their parents were not British. If my sister had been born after 1983, she would not have had automatic British citizenship, despite having been born in the UK and lived here her whole life. The same applies to Albert Thompson’s children.
- removed the right of Commonwealth citizens to acquire British citizenship by a simple process of registration. After 31st December 1987, they would have to go through the more expensive and demanding process of naturalisation.
- made it impossible for Commonwealth citizens who did not already have the right of abode to obtain it.
My family joined the protests against this Bill, understanding it to be racist in both intent and effect. At that time (as now) racism was often couched in terms of concerns about immigration, but I understood very clearly that my own status as an immigrant was never considered relevant by the boys who carved NF into the desks at school.
The measures in the 1981 British Nationality Act did affect me, but I was not their target. As Imogen Tyler argues in this excellent 2010 essay, “Whilst race and ethnicity were never directly named, the 1981 Act effectively designed citizenship so as to exclude black and Asian populations in the Commonwealth while leaving ‘routes home’ for white nationals born within the boundaries of the empire.”
The 1981 Act was the foundation of a decades-long establishment consensus on immigration that has prevailed ever since. Each successive government has tightened the rules yet further, reinforcing and feeding on popular racist myths about scarcity, overcrowding and invasion. From the 1990s onwards, both Tory and New Labour governments focused their rhetoric on asylum seekers, laying the foundations for the shameful conduct of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
Before the option was withdrawn, I decided to apply for registration as a British citizen. This took some time. I must have applied before 31st December 1987, but my eventual certificate of registration is dated 31st January 1990. It cost money (I can’t remember how much) and I had to relinquish my Australian citizenship. I had to send in all my previous passports, with the all-important indefinite leave to remain stamp. None of this was a particular problem for me.
I was prompted to do this mainly because I wanted the freedom to travel and work within the EU, and because I didn’t fancy having to swear allegiance to the Queen as part of the naturalisation process. So I am now safe, unlike poor Albert, whose lack of documentation means he has been asked to pay £54,000 for his cancer treatment by the NHS.
Should anybody ask me to prove my eligibility for lifesaving treatment, I am ready. I had travelled abroad often, and had passport stamps to prove it. My parents haven’t moved house since 1974 and all the documents were easily available to me. I had enough money to pay the registration fee, and knew the deadline was approaching. All these things are a consequence of the dumb luck of being white and middle class.
I could have made different choices, had worse luck, been less well-informed. If I had, maybe I would be in Albert’s position.
But of course, nobody will ask me. Nobody has ever asked me to prove my right to live here. I acquired British citizenship purely for my own convenience, not because I was treated with suspicion and hostility in a country that would never truly acknowledge me as its own. That is the real privilege of my white skin.
This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.
This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.
The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.
The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.
Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.
But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.
One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.
People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.
The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.
Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.
Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.
What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.
The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.
For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.
As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.
For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:
In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.
As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.
1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase
Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.
To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.
On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.
But unfortunately, it is a lie.
2. We ask all the time
The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.
In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.
We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.
We ask at hospital
From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.
We ask at school
Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.
In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:
In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.
We ask at the letting agency
Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents
Deeds not words
If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.
If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.
Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.
Thousand 4 1000
You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.
Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.
Docs not Cops
This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.
Against Borders for Children
Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.
I spent most of last week in Liverpool, on holiday. I had never visited the city before, and found it impressive and fascinating.
The centre of town is full of beautiful, grand buildings, monuments to the British Empire and its swift and bloody accumulation of wealth from around the globe, large amounts of which passed through the port of Liverpool.
The Museum of Liverpool tells a multitude of stories, revealing a place that is constantly reinventing itself, grasping the opportunities of history and incorporating new ideas, people and technologies as soon as they sail in on each new tide.
The holocaust we deny
I was aware, of course, of the central role of the transatlantic slave trade in making Liverpool rich. In the city museum there was a display of some of the bizarre and unexpected things brought back by traders – vast quantities of whalebone, mummified cats, exotic animals, and so on – while in the International Slavery Museum I read about a single boat journey which netted the owners a profit of £10,000.
Altogether, over 12 million African people were captured and transported into slavery between 1500 and 1900. The scale of this horror is difficult to contemplate and shamefully seldom acknowledged or considered by mainstream culture and education in the UK. The Slavery Museum rightly includes a focus on both the impact on the development of African societies and slavery’s complex legacy for black populations across America and Europe, rather than presenting the story of the trade itself in isolation.
One story from the museum that stuck in my mind was a reminder that not all slaves in north America were put to work on sugar plantations. Some found themselves in cities – their labour was used to build places like New York, creating the infrastructure and working on the docks from where goods were shipped back to Liverpool.
The echoes of slavery – and the colonialism which flowed from it – permeate every aspect of European and American society – from infant nutrition to policing, from film casting to the structural causes of mass migration.
Children of the Disappeared
Back in the Museum of Liverpool, there is another hidden story, shocking because it is so little known and yet it happened directly to people who are still living.
In 1945, under the post-war Labour government, a meeting took place at the Home Office, to formulate a plan for deporting hundreds of Chinese seamen who had settled in Liverpool during the war years.
There was a long history of Chinese sailors settling in Liverpool, dating back to the late 19th century, when Alfred Holt and Company began running steam ships to China. However, during the 1939-45 war, this population was boosted by thousands of Chinese sailors who were recruited to the British merchant navy, to keep the country supplied with goods, despite the obvious dangers.
As the war dragged on, many settled in Liverpool, forming relationships with local women and fathering children.
Once the war was over, the Chinese seamen were surplus to requirements. The exact reasons for the decision are not entirely clear – the government feared mass unemployment, the local council faced a shortage of housing, the shipping company wanted rid of some troublemakers –in any case, a decision was made that the Chinese men had to leave.
People were snatched into cars in the street. Others set off to look for work at the docks and never came home. Despite married men having a right to stay, they were packed off along with everyone else. Their wives, partners and children – who have uncovered this shabby tale – were left without a word, without any money coming in, without a link to the Chinese community.
Just as in the years of empire, the centuries of slavery, Britain plunders the world. People as well as goods are treated as chattels – used and disposed of at the convenience of state and capital.
A hostile environment
As we absorbed this tale in the museum, another visitor voiced her shock:
“They would never get away with that now.”
But they would. They do.
There are currently an average 12 of immigration raids per day across London. As part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants, people are taken from their homes and workplaces to detention centres, where they can be held indefinitely. Some are later deported on specially chartered flights, while many more are carried on regular scheduled flights.
Since 2014, the government has been deporting people before their immigration appeals have been fully heard. After a protracted legal battle, this has been found to be unlawful, but not before families have been split apart, and their access to justice denied.
No one is illegal
I will be taking my Borders Kill banner to the Brighton Pride parade tomorrow, to join Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton). Their contingent is a necessary reminder that Pride is rooted in campaigning for justice, and that governments, police, immigration services and multinational corporations will not think twice before criminalising our brothers and sisters if it suits them. They are no allies of mine.
As we come together at Pride to celebrate the fact that our love is no longer deemed illegal, we need to reflect on where the focus of that state oppression has relocated. We will march not only because we are proud to be who are we, but because we are proud to defend the rights and freedoms of those other communities that are now criminalised by the state and demonised by the mainstream media.
We are proud to march alongside and in solidarity with Brighton’s migrant communities and to oppose racist immigration raids, detention and deportation across the UK. With this year’s parade being sponsored by Gatwick Airport (where migrants are routinely deported and detained) our message is more crucial than ever.