As tends to happen in busy households, we were reading different bits of the newspaper over supper as a prelude to converging on the crossword. Nicky turned a page and, looking at a large photograph, exclaimed ‘I know him!’. The photograph was of a special needs assistant in the north London primary school Nicky taught in before we came to Sheffield. He was one of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’ who came to the UK after the Second World War – named after the first ship which brought Caribbean migrants to this country in 1948. Now, without evidence of his right to live here, the school had been obliged to terminate his contract under regulations requiring employers to check eligibility to work in the UK.
It’s always the individual experience which crystallises the wider trend: the teaching assistant we knew, the patient denied treatment. In other instances, it took the single example of the hawksbill turtle caught in plastic waste on the final episode of BBC’s Blue Planet 2 to drive home the devastating impact of plastics on our oceans. It took the heart-breaking photograph of the dead toddler washed up on a Mediterranean coast to encapsulate the appalling human tragedy of the Syrian civil war.
By the end of last week, there was a media, political and public consensus that a dreadful injustice had been done to the ‘Windrush generation’- a perhaps unintended consequence of a policy designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ for those living here illegally. Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service who now chairs Hallam’s Board of Governors, said on Newsnight that it was government ministers in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, rather than the noisy media, who had compared some of the measures adopted to those taken in 1930s Germany. If there was a consensus about the injustice for individuals, there was, predictably, less consensus about who was to blame, little evidence of willingness to accept responsibility and even less agreement about what should be done. Here, unfortunately the power of the individual story works the other way: putting things right, or at least ameliorating them for individuals (which gets reported) is a lot easier than doing so at scale (which is harder). We will almost certainly never know the answers to the questions David Lammy MP asked the Home Secretary: how many have been denied treatment, lost their jobs, been deported, or simply decided to leave.
This country has changed immeasurably in the last half-century; in many ways for the better, in other ways less so. I grew up in an almost completely mono-cultural white working class community. I was one of the very few children from the side of town I lived in to go to the secondary school I attended. As it was, I took to walking part of my way home from school with Atul, whose family had left Kenya when large numbers of Asians were expelled in 1968, and who had found themselves in cheap accommodation in a Midlands town. Atul’s mother’s kitchen was filled with exotic smells and tastes. Goodness knows where she bought them, given the range of groceries on sale in our town in the 1970s. They were completely new to me and I now understand were one of the things which began to change, for the better, my views of the world. Later, Atul and I were divided by a barrier more powerful than almost any other in 1970s education: he did science A-levels and I didn’t, and we lost touch.
In universities, we are the beneficiaries and, rightly, the expected drivers of many of these changes: greater cosmopolitanism, openness to new ideas, cultures and practices, opportunities to think differently and to mix with others. It’s easy to forget that in too many communities, the last two generations have been experienced quite differently, and that the cosmopolitanism and diversity we can take for granted in universities feels threatening. This sense of threat was captured by the senior Labour politician Herbert Morrison in the House of Commons in 1955, when he said: “I never studied at a university. I am a product of the elementary schools, and I am not ashamed of the fact. All sorts of things happen in the universities. Abnormal ideas are evolved”. I suspect we laugh at it, but it captures an attitude. There have been some reports of diversity seeming threatening even to a small minority of people within universities, with some high-profile cases reported recently, expressed through alleged acts of racism, which I condemn without reservation. This will not be tolerated or condoned within this, or, I hope, any University community.
It’s impossible not to draw a direct line between the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’ and the deep divisions in our society which have contributed to Brexit and to a fear of difference and change in some communities. I spent an hour last week with one of the candidates for the Sheffield City Region mayoral election, which takes place on May 3rd. We talked about the city, and we talked about the region, and we talked about the need to find better ways to take the successes of Sheffield’s universities out to the region: leading locally and engaging globally as we put it.
One of the difficult things we all learn as we get older is that it’s almost impossible to put things right: damage done is damage done. The damage to individuals, to the reputation of this country, to the fabric of the nation’s complex cultures is done and – despite the all-too-blithe not-quite-apologies of politicians – can’t be ‘fixed’. The best we can do is to resolve to learn, and to act differently as a result of what we have learnt.
The crossword didn’t get done.