Accommodating minorities, then and now

Published: Wed, 07/28/21

In the early 1970s my mother was teaching domestic science is a local secondary modern school. On two or three evenings a week our supper would be the dish my mother had cooked at school as a demonstration for the girls in her class. (Girls did domestic science, and boys did woodwork and metal work.) My mother had been teaching for about 20 years by this stage in her career, but a new challenge appeared in 1972. Some Asian girls were assigned to her her class and my mother attempted to teach them proper English cookery. The newcomers found my mother’s dishes to be very bland and flavorless and they said so. My mother asked them what they would consider an acceptable meal and samples of Asian food were brought to school for her to try. My mother never really liked hot and spicy food and came home complaining of having burnt her mouth. As I understand it the new arrivals learned ‘English cooking’ at school, but the dishes they
created were not much appreciated at home. My mother did experiment with her versions of curry and rice but the results were still pretty bland.

How did this cultural exchange occur? The African country of Uganda was ruled by a British administration between 1894 and 1962. During this period South Asians, mainly from India, were brought into the country to work in commerce and administration. In 1971 Idi Amin became the president of Uganda and he is considered to be one of the most brutal despots in world history. One of his first actions was give the 55,000 people of Asian descent, who still lived and worked in Uganda, 90 days to leave the country. Their property was confiscated and most of the 27,000 who came to the UK arrived with little more than what they could bring in a suitcase. Some of these refugees settled in North London and their children were educated in the local schools. As well as my mother’s pupils we had one Asian girl in our class although I am afraid I cannot now remember her name.

The Ugandan Asians were hard working, well educated, and spoke perfectly good English. They were also having to adjust to an unfamiliar environment, climate, society, and of course food. They also had to find work. or start a business. and rebuild their lives, pretty much from scratch. Many, maybe most, made a success of their new lives and have made a great contribution to British life in the nearly fifty years since. One couple produced a daughter who has grown up to become Priti Patel, our current Home Secretary.

Not everyone was happy with the sudden arrival of 27,000 strangers needing homes, jobs, education, and medical care. The Ugandan Asians had been happy enough in Africa where many families had lived for four or five generations. A new and quite difficult situation had been forced on both communities and a lot of effort had to be made on both sides to welcome and integrate the new comers.

When asked directly my classmate said that she had experienced some racism. She did not elaborate and, as far as I am aware, she had settled well in our school. Teachers like my mother had some minor culture clashes to manage, but generally found the new arrivals to be polite and hard working, and became very fond of them.

I am reflecting on this episode because society has to adapt to changes from time to time. I was thirteen when Idi Amin expelled the Ugandan Asians and I still remember the sense of shock, anger, and confusion which both sides had to cope with. The arrival of these refugees and the challenge for both communities in learning how to get along was a defining moment of the 1970s. Certainly a lot of discussion and some legislation on race relations and discrimination came out of that time.

It seems to me that a similar situation is being created right now. The current situation is not about arrivals but about a division being created in the population which already lives here. The same situation is being manufactured in most countries of the world, and the social fault lines which will result will be similar in their effect. Just in case you had not noticed, there is an unprecedented world wide campaign underway to inject everyone with something which is supposed to protect against the Covid 19, which is apparently such a threat to life across the globe. As far as I can see about 20% of the population could not wait to have their jab. Another 40% seem to have gone along with it quite willingly. At somewhere between 60 and 75% of the population the take up of jabs seems to stall and, although it will vary from place to place, I suspect that at least 25% of most populations will not be getting jabbed. I don’t intend
to discuss the reasons here, but informed consent to any medical procedure is a fundamental human right.

You may also have noticed that there is a lot of talk about the restrictions which may be placed on those who are not ‘double jabbed’ in term of access to public venues such as nightclubs or being permitted to work in certain professions. In the same way that businesses were expected to enforce the wearing of face covering until recently, it is very likely that those same organisations will be expected to refuse service to those who cannot produce a valid ‘vaccine passport’.

It seems very strange to me that 50 years after Britain made such an effort to welcome and integrate the refugees from Uganda we are now creating a situation where millions of people face discrimination and exclusion simply for exercising their right of informed consent. In 1972 Britain worked on the ethical principle of enabling those who were fleeing tyranny to find a place of safety where they could live in freedom. Now, in 2021, those who will not give their informed consent to participation in a mass medical experiment face discrimination, loss of opportunity, and exclusion from many aspects of national life. Britain today seems like a very different country to the one in which the Ugandan Asians sought sanctuary less than half a century ago. What happened?