The Disunited Kingdom: Britain Turns Sharp Right

Why British elections are important in Africa

Nobody saw it coming. One tabloid says “Hallelujah!” The Conservative Party – the Tories- implemented merciless cuts and then swept to victory overwhelming their opponents and leaving their nearest rivals, the Labour Party, gasping.

And the pundits definitely did not predict a tsunami of support for the Scottish National Party – now the third largest party – that toppled safe Labour seats. Novelist Cameron Duodu as well as the BBC’s Audrey Brown explain why we should care. Both are broadcast journalists and analysts based in London.

There is a part of London where I’ve always loved roaming around for my own odd reasons. In Brixton I feel less like a foreigner. The flow of African accents, the row of shops selling familiar produce and the women braiding hair are comforting. Makes me feel right at home.

The other day I follow South African journalist Audrey Brown – she’s been working with the BBC Focus on Africa for many years – into London’s Brixton Market. The place is like a womb that welcomes the world beyond England. With us is the author and one-time Editor of Drum Magazine Ghana, Cameron Duodu. I have two aims. Find food that is not British and ask my companions what last week’s elections were all about.

This time round the tick tock between the two parties that I’ve known all my life took on a different tune. Societies are changing faster than politicians can come up with solutions. Even the Brixton Market is a shade paler than I remember today.

Duodu has unpacked the elections in his weekly column (see link alongside) and Brown gave The Journalist the benefit of insights gained after living and working in Britain for about a decade.

Remember the city of London is an old entity, formed by capitalism to protect capitalism.
Audrey Brown, BBC Focus on Africa Journalist

Q. Why are the British elections important for people in Africa

CD: A lot of us have been bequeathed the British system of democracy. In Ghana for instance we have the first past the post system. Now is it sensible that in a country with many peoples, different religions and so on a person can actually represent a constituency by a one-vote majority? That’s all that is needed. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to say if you get a majority of all the votes cast then you can represent us? Proportional representation isn’t working because we end up with unrepresentative representatives. What worries me is that a guy can look at the demographics of a constituency and pitch to one side that he thinks will give him a majority and this is what the Tories are doing here.

AB: Immigration around the world is one of the biggest issues. Look at the stories that we hear every day about migrants drowning, trying to get to Europe. Look at the xenophobia in South Africa. In this election the issue of migration has actually forced parties into positions that contorted the Labour Party and made them confront a fundamental point about how societies are changing. What they had to do was to start making macho noises about what they’re going to do about migration.

The European Union means the free movement of goods, services and people. So somebody from Rumania can come and work here and claim benefits in the same way as someone who was born here. But that’s not the only reason why there’s a strain on the services in this country. The strain is also because governments have been cutting down and reducing those services. They’re spending less and less money (on services). Their services are being undermined but it’s not by foreigners. Everything will indicate that it’s not. After one time when I went to the hospital (for a operation when suffering a brain tumour) I never used any of their services again. So I pay tax but I don’t actually benefit.

These countries are bankrupt. The rich people in this country have doubled their net worth since 2005. How did that happen with a financial crisis and a credit crunch in 2008?

CD: And then you had the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan…

AB: And there was Syria… There is a saying that London is the biggest market for stolen goods in the world. All these Russians bringing their money into this country. No questions asked. In the 70s it used to be the Arabs. It used to be white South Africans bringing their money. In the 80s it used to be the Nigerians. But they never talk about the inflow of black money into this country. Now it’s all these other rich people bringing their money. London is a tax haven. Money being laundered.

CD: At the same time they are demonising the small immigrant. They are not telling the British people that their health service would collapse tomorrow if…

AB: If it were not for all those nurses from South Africa, from Ghana, from the Philippines… from all over. When I was sick in hospital there was not a single nurse from England. And the same for the doctors…

Q. So if immigration is a top issue that the elections has highlighted, what are some of the other hot topics.

AB: They blame the Labour Party for destroying the economy. They say the Labour Party just spends money. But the Labour Party spends money on the NHS (the National Health Service) on education…

CD: Whereas the Conservatives protected the banks.

The food comes. The tiny hole in the wall Japanese establishment that is part of the new section of the slightly gentrified Brixton Market does itself proud. Steaming seafood, teriyaki and pork heats up the conversation.

Q. Let’s talk about the role of the British media – still seen as the pinnacle of journalistic excellence in places – in the elections

CD: The print media actually lays down the agenda, there’s no two ways about it… The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. There’s nothing that powerful on the left. And the broadcasters take their agenda mainly from the print media.

AB: But it’s changing. It’s not quite as solidified as that because of the immediacy and the influence of social media. I think social media has made massive inroads into the influence that the print media traditionally has in this country and in other places around the world.

CD: But the agenda comes from the print features, the discussions, the columns.

AB: I don’t like newspapers very much and I never have and I know it’s unusual for a journalist to say this. But you will find a fantastic spread about something or the other in a newspaper in this country in a way that you don’t find in other countries. But when it comes to the way in which the media as an entity works, I think that’s different.

CD: A very pretty woman wrote a column in the Sun saying the people who are drowning (the immigrants trying to reach Europe illegally) should be left to drown they are cockroaches and she doesn’t care what happens to them. They should be left to die. The migrants in the sea. People complained to the ombudsman that this was hate speech. You know what they said? It doesn’t matter because she didn’t name any specific person.

Q. Let’s compare regional issues. The Scottish National Party (SNP) knocked the Labour Party off its pedestal.

AB: It’s got to do with the complete swing to the right over the last 30 or 40 years, starting with Margaret Thatcher

CD: … And the power of the right wing media

AB: Rupert Murdoch’s name comes up again and again…

CD: He owns the gutter press, the Sun…

AB: And look at what happened to Ed Miliband (the Labour Party leader)… If you look at how the media treated him. They made him look like a hapless idiot. They called him Wallace & Gromit (cartoon characters). He was typified as a complete stupid man who wouldn’t be able to run a bath let alone a country. They do that with Labour leaders all the time. They did that with Neil Kinnock. They made Gordon Brown seem like a really stupid person when he was actually a man of substance.

The Scots are dissatisfied with the right wing shift in politics in this country because they want a certain kind of society. They want a society that is fair. They want investment in the education and health care systems. Education is still free in Scotland. So people in Scotland are angry with the Labour Party. They say you promised us all sorts of things and then you gave us Tony Blair who is like ‘Tory Light’. Look how close Tony Blair was to Rupert Murdoch. He would travel around the world to kiss his arse. He was actually Rupert Murdoch’s daughter’s godfather.

And then there are the rumours of Blair and Murdoch’s ex wife but let’s not digress.

Q. Africans in general still seem to think a Labour government is a better choice for the Continent. So what does this big win for the Conservatives really mean?

CD: It means that this country is being frightened into thinking that the delivery of the good life is being undermined by foreigners. It is so easy to scare people. Basically they are anti-foreigner …

AB: No, they exploit foreigners. Somebody like me comes to this country. Now I have skills that I could sell if there was an open market. If I were French I could come here and do that but I’m from South Africa so as far as they’re concerned I should be punished for working here. I should first pay to work here. So I pay tax and all of that but for the first five years of being here my work permit says that I’m not entitled to any benefits. I came here and I got a brain tumour. On the day I was prepping for surgery some man came to me and asked me whether I was legally in this country. I said, ‘why are you asking me this, my name and address and everything is there. I’m a sick person so what you really should be doing is writing a letter to my employer or whatever…’ He says, ‘well if you didn’t have the right answers I’m supposed to force you to pay.’ They did insist, in a nice way but all the time, that it had to be clear whether I was entitled to be here or not.

It means that this country is being frightened into thinking that the delivery of the good life is being undermined by foreigners. It is so easy to scare people.
– Cameron Duodu, Author & Broadcast Journalist

AB: The funny thing about this country is that you would think that the black vote would go to the Labour Party, seen as more humane or whatever… But actually no it’s very contested. The woman who does my hair is Nigerian. She votes Conservative generally. She believes that the Conservatives stand up for small business. She believes that people should stand on their own two feet. The state shouldn’t be looking after you. But when she was explaining this to me about a month ago she said she was going to vote UKIP (the right wing United Kingdom Independence Party led by Nigel Farage) because she wants to punish the Tories.

The fascinating thing is that it’s very much the same issues around the world. It doesn’t matter where you actually are. Like how you take care of people, what you do about the young, what you do about joblessness. And then the issue of how you deal with dissent in your society, how you deal with people who differ

The lunch comes to an end and we reach into our pockets. But Cameron Duodu insists on paying. He says he is a “conservative, old-fashioned, macho idiot”. We don’t argue with his bill politics. Not one bit. “I always say to my girlfriends,” says Audrey Brown, “ there are some things you don’t argue about with African men.”

You can follow Audrey Brown on Twitter

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