Wolverhampton wonderer

There is a lesson here for those who prefer to sharpen their knives on the whetstone of grievance

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As he is keen to tell readers, and, having told them, to remind them at every opportunity, Sathnam Sanghera is from Wolverhampton, the Staffordshire city (no “West Midlands” nonsense) which screams “Black Country”. A grammar school boy, he read English at Cambridge, the first member of his family to attend a college of knowledge. Let’s hear it for the Wolverhampton wanderer! Wave those gold and black scarves. Sanghera is also a Sikh, and has spent his life carrying a bag of ancestral memories like some modern Pilgrim, trapped between two cultures on his progress through our fractured kingdom.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera Penguin Viking, £18.99

Taken to the Punjab as a child, he longed for home comforts, not least a language he understood. How we “connect”, as another Cantabrigian put it, forms the spine of a book that weaves autobiography, history and social criticism, bracingly, if indulgently.

Whatever Sanghera absorbed at Cambridge it wasn’t modesty. He is one of those journalists, dipped in the media pool of Little World Big Me, who is rarely at a loss to tell us how fascinating he finds himself. The relentless solipsism (“I’ve tackled some controversial subjects in my journalism career”) is not endearing, and his attempts at humour rarely take flight.

It is not a good idea to use the Britain-loathing New York Times in support of an argument, or co-opt that prodigious bore Fintan O’Toole, whose knowledge of this country could be printed in capital letters on a tram ticket. Nor should Sanghera expect a reasonable response when he uses deliberately offensive nouns like “imperialist” and “colonialist” to introduce Winston Churchill, as if those words, designed to nudge the reader towards a definitive judgment, can possibly do justice to so remarkable and complicated a man.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest he hasn’t entirely cracked the unspoken code of British life. “Our society,” he says, “is resolutely anti-intellectual.” It would be wiser to say the British are anti-intellectuals, which is not quite the same thing. The “national distrust of cleverness”, which he finds so upsetting, may appear to others a badge of honour.

Whatever Sanghera absorbed at Cambridge it wasn’t modesty

The British are not by habit ideological and are therefore less prone to tribalism than some other peoples we could list. On the whole our suspicion of those who have designs upon us has served the nation well. “The English,” said Alfred Brendel, who chose to come here half a century ago, “have such little talent for fanaticism.”

At the heart of a book which doesn’t wear its occasional flippancy well is a serious question: how do we pass on our understanding of a troubled imperial past to illuminate the present, for the benefit of those rooted in British soil, and also those who have come here in search of a better life? For the most part Sanghera is a fair-minded witness. He observed racism in his childhood, casual and overt. Like many immigrants, and children of immigrants, who were scarred by that wounding experience, he hears echoes of prejudice in his adult life, some of which have the ring of authenticity.

He does not luxuriate in the role of victim, and there is a lesson here for those who prefer to sharpen their knives on the whetstone of grievance. As he says, imperial history can never be reduced to an inventory of supposed benefits balanced against proven atrocities. Wallace Stegner, the American writer, said that history need be neither the crowing of the victors nor the lamentation of the vanquished, “but the memories of the survivors”. Sanghera belongs in that camp, and his book works best when he regards the world with a steady gaze.

However, he does not explain how “amnesia” about the consequences of empire rests happily alongside our purported obsession with the world as it used to be, painted red. It is tempting to pour Brexit supporters into a pot marked “nostalgic half-wits”, and many people who should know better have failed to resist that temptation, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story of why so many voters chose to leave the EU.

It is possible they made their decision for reasons that have nothing to do with the loss of empire. For those who have grown up after the Second World War a debate about “empire” is not something that keeps them up at night.

An investigation of multiculturalism must touch at some stage upon the failure of many Muslims to adjust to life in secular societies

Besides, not all imperial thinking is deluded. Sanghera is unconvinced by Philip Hensher’s argument, expressed in October 2001, after the war in Afghanistan, that British rule might well have been more beneficial for the Afghans than centuries of tribal warfare and instability. But is it not possible that Hensher was expressing an inconvenient truth?

The triumph of modern India suggests that not every aspect of imperialism — “investment and the exchange of ideas … a tradition of parliamentary democracy and some kind of substantial infrastructure”, as Hensher argued — is to be despised, however unfashionable that view may be.

There is one important feature missing in Empireland. An investigation of multiculturalism in Britain must touch at some stage upon the failure of so many Muslims to adjust to life in prosperous, overwhelmingly secular Western societies where Islamic law is not supreme.

The evidence is abundant: the arranged marriages, the genital mutilation, and (as we have seen during the past year of pandemic) the inability of so many people within that community to understand basic English. Above all, as all those criminal convictions in the past decade have shown, there is the sexual grooming of white girls in northern towns by gangs of (mainly) Pakistanis.

Nothing has done more to undermine the aim of genuine multiculturalism than the reluctance of a significant minority of people within an entrenched world to become Britons. Moreover, they have occasionally been encouraged by self-proclaimed anti-racists who consider separateness to be a proud symbol of identity.

No good can come from squatting like dwellers in a polyglot boarding house, President Theodore Roosevelt said of those “hyphenated Americans” who crossed the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century. It is a point Sanghera might have sought to amplify.

His book is worth reading, though it could possibly have been more readable had he been born somewhere more exotic. Walsall, perhaps.

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