The BBC’s Kamal Ahmed yearns for hope in a changing, divided Britain

The BBC’s Kamal Ahmed knows about economics. Financial insecurity, he says, makes people fixate on tribal identities. So where's the hope for Britain in 2018? You might be surprised

Ten years ago I planned to write a book.

President Barack Obama has just been voted into the White House and the funny thing about the 44th leader of the United States was that he was a bit like me, if slightly more powerful. And successful. And funnier. And better looking.

Our similarity came from our heritage. President Obama had a father from Kenya who was black and a mother from America who was white. I had a mother from Yorkshire who was white and a father from Sudan who was black. Which made me mixed-race, just like the newly anointed most influential man in the world.

It wasn’t called mixed-race in those days. Half-caste was more common. Jungle bunny sometimes. Or Paki.

When my mother and father met it was very unusual for a white woman and black man to marry. This was still an era – the 1960s – when “coloureds” was a part of everyday language, the Black and White Minstrels were on television and there were signs in windows in boarding houses saying all were welcome apart from black people, Irish people and dogs. Local by-election posters in the West Midlands said “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.

And given it was unusual for a black man and white woman to tell the world they loved each other and get married, that made me unusual. I was the only mixed-race child in my class at school that I knew of, with a shock of curly hair and brown, Adidas Gazelle, trainers. It wasn’t called mixed-race in those days. Half-caste was more common. Jungle bunny sometimes. Or Paki.

Kamal as a child with his mother. Image: Kamal Ahmed

So, when a mixed-race guy was suddenly on the front page of pretty much every newspaper in the world, I thought it was a moment to write about being mixed-race in Britain. So I started collecting little snippets from the papers, speaking to my family and thinking about the kind of country we were.

That book never made it to first base as work and two young children intervened. If it had it would have been an optimistic memoir, charting, as I thought was true at the time, a course of gradual progression, a story of a country that was slowly putting the issue of race behind it as the next generation got older, got wiser and achieved positions of influence.


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A decade on and the book idea started snagging again. I had reached the ancient age of 50, President Obama was no longer in the White House and there seemed to be a new narrative about identity I thought worth exploring. An angrier, more difficult conversation which was at least partially rooted in the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic calamity that was foisted on so many millions of people. In Britain there have only been three elections since the Second World War when people’s real incomes – that’s what you earn after price rises have been taken into account – were falling. They were 1945, which is understandable, and 2010 and 2017. That’s how unusual these times of stagnant wages are.

And when people start worrying about money they often start worrying – or are told to start worrying – about other things as well. Like identity and whose tribe you are in. And if you are in one tribe, who is in the other? Who is a member of the in-group and who is a member of the out-group? And maybe I don’t like that out-group very much, given that I don’t have very much, economically, myself – and it is always useful to have someone to blame when that happens.

Polarisation and anonymity has bred a new aggressive edge to the story of who we are – this great country called Britain

When I was a young child, growing up in the 1970s in west London, the National Front used to sell their newspapers on street corners and march waving banners urging the “coloureds” to go home. Which always seemed an odd request as home was just down the road from my school.

Today extremists march on social media. Polarisation and anonymity has bred a new aggressive edge to the story of who we are – this great country called Britain that my Mum and I have called home all our lives, and Dad called home from the day he arrived on the plane from Omdurman in 1965 to the day he died 10 years ago. A country that has nourished me and given me many opportunities, but also a country which has sometime made me feel like an alien.

It would be easy to be pessimistic, given all the headlines. And part of me is negative about a country where too many black men die in custody and Muslims are feeling the cold waves of Islamophobia.

But also part of me is feeling hopeful. Why? Because, as someone who is as British as the next person with a foot in both the white and the black camp, I am well aware of a certain type of peaceableness and phlegmatic good will which runs deep within us and which could be the basis of a new, optimistic conversation this country needs on race.

The great American writer and psychologist, Gordon W Allport, wrote in the 1950s that few people can be influenced who consider themselves under attack.

To start this new conversation about Britain and how we can return to that chart stamped “progress” it is time to stop shouting through megaphones. We need to understand a little more and say: “I get where you are coming from.”

I did write the book this time. And it comes from a place called hope.

Kamal Ahmed is economics editor of the BBC. The Life and Times of a Very British Man is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

'The Life and Times of a Very British Man' is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)