James Cleverly: It Might Take “Decades” To Repair Relations With The Black British Community Over Windrush
James Cleverly, photographed by Baldo Sciacca
For James Cleverly, Britain is “the best place in the world” to be Black. But 2020 has been a difficult year for the Black British community. Jasmine Lee-Zogbessou asks him why he thinks they should have faith in the government
Every Black Tory politician knows they are likely to be asked about a specific political issue: the 2018 Windrush Scandal, which brought to light the wrongful targeting of hundreds of Caribbean migrants living in the UK due to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.
The destruction of this group’s landing cards a decade ago made it largely impossible to prove their right to stay and work in the UK, although they were granted citizenship upon their arrival during 1948 and 1971. This led to the detainment and deportation of many of these British citizens, as well as the withdrawal of their legal rights to government services, welfare benefits and more.
“We repaired the administrative errors that led to a whole lot of British people being treated as if they didn’t have the right to be here,” says Foreign Office minister James Cleverly.
“The relationship repair work is going to take a lot longer, there is no quick fix and we do need to win back trust. It is going to require years, and maybe decades, of hard work but we absolutely recognise that we are determined to repair that relationship.”
He goes on: “But I do also think that we need to recognise that this was a culmination of various errors that crystalised on our watch. We have to deal with that and we will be defined by our response to this problem.”
However the government fares on this score, Windrush is far from the only challenge faced by Black people in the UK in recent times.
In 2020 alone, they have been hit by a fatal virus that disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, a resulting lockdown during which 20,000 stop and search procedures were carried out on young Black men – with 80% of them leading to no further action – and they have seen the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and how it soon shifted from an emotional set of protests to a desperately fraught talking point in Britain’s interminable culture wars.
If we are talking about race relations through the prism of American society, we will miss the opportunities to focus on the uniqueness of the situation here in the UK
Despite all this, Cleverly is on record as saying that contemporary Britain is “the best place in the world” to live as a Black person.
It seems fair to conclude his views are somewhat at odds with the views of many Black British citizens. Why does he think this? Part of the reason, he says, is his belief in how far the UK has come.
Born to a Sierra Leonean mother and English father in the 1960s and growing up as a mixed-race child in Lewisham, he recalls racist ‘comedy’ shows and the National Front marching through his street as commonplace experiences that are still seared in his memory.
In 2008, when he was first elected onto the London Assembly, he recalls being sat next to an elected member of the far-right and overtly racist British National Party.
“All those things are inconceivable now,” he says.
“I’m not suggesting for an instant that there are no challenges, there are no hurdles, that there is no racism [or] that there is no disproportionality.
“I do think we need to recognise that while there is work to be done, there has been a lot of progress that has been made and balancing those two points for me is really key.”
But the benchmark for true progress is of course much higher than a lack of overt racism.
Disparities are present in health for example, with Black British women being five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth.
On this subject, Cleverly points to the Race Disparity Audit as an example of how the government has sought to understand why inequalities such as this are present and, while this is necessary, it is fair to question when the government will move from introducing audit after audit to implementing solid action and change.
However, Cleverly backs the case for more reviews on race, framing them in a business management idiom: “if you want to change it, you’ve got to measure it.”
“It’s important that you constantly test yourself and make sure that you are heading in the right direction,” he explains.
“[Regarding] disproportionality in terms of health outcomes, we need to understand whether there are biological factors that are a part of it, or is it an attitudinal thing?
“If the default view is that disproportionality is always driven by racism, or predominantly driven by racism, sometimes that can hide another factor that we could or should look to address.
“Let’s make sure we understand what that is, and [that] we don’t miss an opportunity to make things better, because we’re jumping to an assumption about what the cause might be.”
Regardless it is clear that Black Britons are eager for immediate and consistent change. This became explicitly clear during the BLM protests earlier this year, which began following the gruesome death of George Floyd in the US.
The BLM UK movement is often perceived through a US lens. However Black Britons have made it exceedingly clear that the UK movement has its own legs – and Cleverly is happy to stand behind elements of its cause.
If you want to change it, you’ve got to measure it
“If we are talking about race relations or race politics through the prism of American society, we will miss the opportunities to focus on the uniqueness of the situation here in the UK,” he says.
“If you’re talking about police shootings, which is something of such rarity here in the UK, then you might miss other issues, for example about black men’s mental health, how we deal with mental health issues and policing, which I think is a more relevant subject here in the UK.”
However every movement has differing approaches when fighting for equality and Cleverly notes the elements of the BLM movement that he is critical of.
One example was the controversial pulling down of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol this year. There had been calls for its removal for years before, and it was a movement-defining incident that spoke to the long-held frustrations of Black British people.
Cleverly, along with the government, condemned the act. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson argued that a “democratic process” should have been followed. Cleverly says he supports the right to peacefully protest but describes the destruction of memorials as “counterproductive”, stating that these approaches “massively detract [from] legitimate concerns”.
It’s a typically measured answer, typical of a senior politician who needs to tread carefully on the subject. If this is “the best country in the world” for a Black person, perhaps the bar should be higher. At least Cleverly accepts it’s still a long way from being perfect.
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