Hardeep Matharu reflects on the personal story of her parents’ political shift towards the right – and what it might represent about Britain as a whole.
The Past: British National Party (BNP)
I’m the daughter of immigrants. I grew up on the same street as the British National Party headquarters in south-east London. Three years ago, my formerly centre-left leaning Asian parents, from India and Kenya, voted to leave the EU. In the 2019 General Election, along with many, they voted for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. How has this shift happened?
It is a question which challenges, upsets and angers me. But it is also one I believe is indicative of a wider shift taking place in Britain today.
For my parents, who have lived in this country for 50 years, a vote for the Conservatives wasn’t necessarily a vote for Boris Johnson, but they felt his was the only party offering them a vision of what it would do for the country. While I respect their right to vote for whichever party they believe most speaks to them – and am pleased they have always seen voting as an important democratic duty – I find their support of the Conservative Party, which has morphed into a right-wing English nationalist project of late, troubling.
We need to come up with new ideas which inspire people to not want to live in a past which didn’t exist in the first place.
I was six when the “Welling riots”, as they became known, took place outside my house in 1993. I remember fetching a dustpan and brush to clear away some of the sticks and placards strewn all over the pavement outside and my mother stopping me just before I reached up to take the door off the chain. The proximity of it all was frightening and gripping. I remember the policeman on horses.
The riots started as a march by anti-racism campaigners, demanding that a bookshop on my road – operating as the BNP headquarters – be shut down. Although I didn’t know it at the time, when the shop had opened two years after I was born, racist incidents had increased by more than 200% in two square miles within five years. Stephen Lawrence had been murdered six months before. A last minute blocking of the route for the protestors towards the bookshop resulted in clashes between them and the police on the day.
Although I thankfully didn’t see or experience racist or hostile violence growing up, I spent much of my childhood indoors and there was always a sense of anxiety somewhere in the back of our minds; of the need to be careful.
This is the backdrop of my upbringing.
Up until a few years ago, despite living in a safe Conservative seat, my parents had always voted for Labour. This changed around the time of the EU Referendum in 2016 or a bit before.
Both my parents voted to Leave for a complex and fascinating mix of reasons, at the heart of which I believe was their belief that Britain owes an allegiance to immigrants from former colonies who see themselves as British and not those from the EU, and that this acts as a form of reparation for the terrible acts the British committed in these countries. They also voted for the Tories in 2017 under Theresa May. But, it is their decision to support the Conservative Party’s current incarnation that perhaps concerns me the most.
As its own moderates have been chucked out of the party, my parents have flocked to it. Why?
The Future: English Nationalist Project (ENP)
A big part of my parents’ decision to vote for the Conservatives in this General Election came down to Brexit and Boris Johnson’s vow to get it done. Leaving the EU is one expression of Britain coming home to the idea of itself as a lone, plucky nation which was once great; an idea I believe many people in my parents’ shoes bought-into – back when they left their countries of birth to come here – and again now.
But a big part of it was also, I believe, about issues of identity, which they may not even be conscious of.
The Tories have transformed themselves into a revolutionary sect, trumpeting their ultimate English Nationalist Project (ENP) – Brexit, at the heart of which is a battle of identity. It is a project, perplexingly, that people like my parents seem to feel at home in.
Having grown up in countries of the British Empire and made a good life for themselves in the UK, my parents see themselves almost as more British than British. Boris Johnson – with his Eton and Oxford University education and public school debaters’ confidence – is the epitome of the imperial Englishman, determined to make Britain great again. Jeremy Corbyn has no such allure.
Combined with this feeling of assimilation, and despite episodes such as the Windrush Scandal revealing the systemic racism which remains, there is a feeling among people like my parents that ‘we don’t need to watch our backs’.
The blatant racism of the streets, found in Britain 30 years ago and targeted towards black people and immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, has rightly become unacceptable. In its place – aiding the formulation of the Conservative English Nationalist Project – new scapegoats have been found in the form of EU migrants and Muslim people. Conservatives such as Johnson have been adept at using the old ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the British Empire to create a feeling of favour for some minority groups who are then prejudice, or condone prejudice, against others. This is reinforced by the right-wing press and a public service broadcaster unable to ask Johnson the hard questions of where this exploitation of division leads.
I am not suggesting that Boris Johnson’s Tories are the BNP, but the rise of a Conservative ENP, race-based division, and divide and rule ‘othering’ are all in the mix with the latest metamorphosis of the party. Indeed, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – known as ‘Tommy Robinson’ and the founder of the English Defence League –explicitly endorsed Johnson in this General Election.
The Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum, headed by Johnson, was built on creating fear and division. Last week, its racist undertones were reignited when he said that “a large group of people coming in from the EU [have been] able to treat the UK as though it’s basically part of their own country” for too long. But, couldn’t the same be said about my parents and, by extension, me? Doesn’t Johnson think the same about us?
What will it take for my parents not to feel at home in an English Nationalist Project which is not in their interests?
Perhaps the answer to that depends on what lengths Boris Johnson goes to in the years ahead to make the ENP sustainable and what sort of Labour Party emerges from the ashes. But, we can’t just wait and see – it’s clear that we need to address the rise of a repressed English nationalism which speaks to people unhappy with their lives or the vision of a global Britain tied to the EU and beyond. For a significant section of society, identity politics has taken hold and we must confront this.
My parents’ voting patterns in a small way reveal something bigger to me: that the old world is gone. A fundamental shift has taken place and we cannot now go back even if we wanted to. New solutions and new ideas are required. New understanding.
The past doesn’t have the answers, but the attraction of it – and an imagined, idealised one at that – is where too many seem to want to head. The question then becomes: how do we make the future a more attractive proposition than the past?
That’s what we need to spend the next five years doing: looking forward, not back and coming up with new ideas which inspire people to not want to live in a past which didn’t exist in the first place.