Thursday 14 December 2017

In the midst of all this division, there are reasons to find hope

Brexit has given impetus to a bigotry brewing for decades but the Somme has lessons for us all, writes Fergal Keane

PRIDE: A soldier stands among military graves at a vigil to
commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the
Battle of the Somme at Thiepval, France, last week
PRIDE: A soldier stands among military graves at a vigil to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval, France, last week

Fergal Keane

Some months back, an Arab friend of mine told me of an incident involving his daughter who is studying in a northern British city. The family is Palestinian, long resident in Britain. The daughter was born and brought up in the diverse milieu of central London. Walking home from college one evening she was confronted by a young man who shouted at her, "Go home to your own country". My friend's daughter was badly shaken. In a few seconds her sense of security was upended. "We just never expected this here," my friend said. At the time I put this down as the isolated act of a troubled individual. I was convinced Britain had long left behind what George Orwell had described as "insularity ... their refusal to take foreigners seriously ... a folly that has to be paid for heavily from time to time."

The last few days have made me rigorously interrogate my confidence in a plural future in Britain.

Since the Brexit vote, Britain has recorded an alarming upsurge in racist abuse. The targets have been mainly those with a different skin colour, or who do not speak English as their mother tongue. Anybody noticeably 'continental' has been fair game. The bigotry has a wide embrace. Suddenly the confident assertions of pluralism that rang from the London Olympics feel shallow. I had always told my children that the British mistrusted radicalism. Cromwell and his regicide had been the last true revolutionary enterprise. To paraphrase the words of the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, we have looked into the mirror at midnight and seen "a horrible face...but one's own".

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