The Ebbs and Flows of Multicultural Britain

Janet Mendelsohn's photographs of Balsall Heath, Birmingham, showed a new multicultural country coming into being. How do they look fifty years later?

It’s summer 1968, and a group of children are posing for a photograph on the crumbling front wall of a house in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham. In the foreground, a girl grins cheekily as she returns the gaze of the photographer’s lens. Her friend sitting close by is dressed smartly in a white dress and ballet shoes, and in either hand is holding the ends of a skipping rope. Behind them, next to more children clambering onto and off the wall, a mother clutches her infant toddler to her hip. In some ways, a photograph like this arouses an irresistible sense of nostalgia. Yet it is, simultaneously, also a deeply political image, something that the photographer – Janet Mendelsohn, an American student who spent two years taking photographs in Birmingham – must surely have had in mind when she decided to press her camera’s shutter-release.

The parents of the children in her photograph would almost certainly have been born in what, by 1968, had become Britain’s former colonies in the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean and elsewhere. And as Mendelsohn was photographing Balsall Heath’s streets, the effects of an incendiary speech on race relations, made by the prominent Conservative politician Enoch Powell just a few miles away in Birmingham city centre, continued to reverberate. In the speech, Powell presented a doomsday scenario for British race relations. He talked of white pensioners being tormented in places like Balsall Heath by ‘wide-grinning piccaninnies’, and advocated the state-assisted repatriation of ‘coloured’ immigrants to their countries of origin. Afterwards, Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet. But within months, the far-right National Front – with their proposal that all immigrants should be forcibly repatriated from Britain – were reaching fifteen per cent in the polls. 

It would be tempting to see this moment as one of the strange paradoxes of history: the rise of an extreme, anti-immigrant mass movement in Britain at the very moment that one-time colonial immigrants, and their children, were establishing themselves as an everyday feature of inner-city areas like Balsall Heath: buying houses, playing on walls, putting down roots. Yet ambiguities like this have characterised Britain’s post-war encounter with mass migration, all the way back to that summer of 1948, when 500 Caribbean immigrants arrived at Tilbury Docks on board the Empire Windrush. This generation was invited by the British Government to help rebuild the country’s post-war infrastructure. They arrived as British Citizens, and many were steeped in a romantic attachment to what they had been brought up to believe was the imperial ‘mother country’. Yet once there, they were treated as alien strangers and subject to vicious racism in almost every area of their lives: from pubs and buses, to the workplace, housing market and playground. The ebbs and flows that would characterise Britain’s emergence as a multicultural society had already begun. In many ways, they have persisted all the way up to the present day. 

(Credit: Janet Mendelsohn 1968, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library)

In the late-1980s, a little over twenty years after Mendelsohn had taken her photograph in Balsall Heath, I began attending school in the area. Crumbling walls like the one those children played on in 1968 had long since been knocked down and rebuilt following a regeneration programme designed to alleviate some of the worst slums in the country. By this point, almost everyone who lived in the area were either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the vast majority came from the south-Asian diaspora of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  

My own family also has a history of migration, though a different sort to most of my classmates in Balsall Heath. Mine is a European trajectory that reaches back to the early-twentieth century. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents had moved to Britain in the early-1900s from Ireland in search of work. My maternal grandmother, meanwhile, had grown up in Germany and had come to Britain in the 1920s. She met my grandfather, who in 1952 moved the family back to Ireland. Two decades later, having crossed the Irish Sea once more to attend university, my mother settled in Britain.  

There is also a history of Irish migration on my father’s side, but for my father, the migration that most affected his life was an internal one. He had grown up in Nuneaton, a small mining town in the East Midlands. Disillusioned with life in the provinces, in his late teens he packed his bags for Birmingham. It is just an hour’s drive from Nuneaton, a far cry indeed from the continents, oceans and national borders traversed the Windrush generation. But to him, the differences he encountered were significant. He met my mother at the end of the 1970s, just as Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister in part by appealing to voters gravitating to the National Front – those who Thatcher described as feeling ‘swamped by people with a different culture’ and were, in her view, understandably ‘hostile to those coming in’.

By this time, Britain’s inner cities were virtually unrecognisable from that which the Windrush generation had initially encountered on their arrival into Britain. This not only meant physical changes to the built landscape. As first Caribbean and then south Asian migrants settled in inner-city areas like Balsall Heath – often because of the discriminatory behaviour of housing authorities and predatory landlords, who crammed large numbers of immigrants into single rooms in order to maximise their profits – many white residents, including those white residents whose own families may once have been immigrants, moved out, headed for the more prosperous, leafy and monocultural suburbs. It was a process described by sociologists as ‘white flight’.

(Credit: Janet Mendelsohn 1968, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library)

Initially, at least, my family’s story flowed in the opposite direction. When I was born in 1985, my parents had already made the decision to bring me up in the inner city. Given their education and comparative cultural and economic capital, what this in some respects amounted to was a downward class shift. Certainly my mother’s grandparents, who came to Britain in the context of the enduring aftershocks caused by the Irish Famine, would have found it incomprehensible that someone might voluntarily choose to live in an area that remained, even in the 1990s, blighted by a significant degree of poverty. But my parents were the product of a different age. They were immersed in the radicalism of the 1970s. They were interested in community art and in developing schemes that could provide immigrant communities with opportunities to represent their own experiences – away from the stereotypes that still dominated the mainstream media. For them, sending their children to school in an area like Balsall Heath was an important political act. 

Throughout my early schooldays, I was regularly the only white pupil in my class. This was always a nightmarish scenario for Powell and his acolytes, something underpinned by deep-rooted British anxieties over miscegenation and racial purity that stretched back all the way to the time of slavery. It was scenes like these that led Powell to compare the Britain of 1968 to ‘a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. Like those children posing for a photograph on a wall not long after Powell made his speech, I would have had little awareness of the racial politics of my walk to class each day. It was only later that I began to recognise the extent to which this period imbued in me a familiarity with and instinctive commitment to the idea of multicultural Britain.

I see now, for example, how Diwali and Ramadan were not themes I learnt about abstractly in Religious Studies classes, but real-life events that my classmates were living and breathing. My closest friend in these years, Mohammed, whose family was from Pakistan, lived on the same road as me. I remember holding his hand as we attempted to teach each other to roller-skate. His mother would occasionally drop freshly-made samosas around to our house after school. I would go to his house every afternoon to play computer games, where I also remember his father showing me how written Urdu should be read from right to left. It was an education at least as diverse as that received by the children of politicians, bankers and diplomats in elite international schools around the world. It unquestionably shaped my political and intellectual interests in profound ways. 

Yet there are also ambiguities to this biographical story. As much as I may wish to situate myself in close proximity to my old classmates in Balsall Heath, it is also obvious now the extent to which I was in various ways significantly separate from them. Whereas many of my classmates did not speak English as a first language, I was able to draw on the advantages that came from having two well-educated parents at home. And as we got older, my parents began to make more conventional decisions about my upbringing. When it came to choosing my secondary school, my father insisted I attend one two miles south of Balsall Heath, in a more prosperous (and less multicultural) neighbourhood. I had wanted to attend the school Mohammed was going to, but my father’s will won out. It set in motion a process that meant every rung of my educational ladder – from secondary school to university via a sixth form college – got progressively whiter with each step. While it was treated as a given in my family that I would one day attend university, most of my Balsall Heath classmates never made it there. I have now lost touch with Mohammed and almost everyone else from that time in my life. My trajectory has flowed away from Balsall Heath. In some ways, perhaps, I have gone through my own process of white flight. 

(Credit: Janet Mendelsohn 1968, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library)

The Balsall Heath that Janet Mendelsohn photographed in the late-1960s was also one of the largest red light districts in the country. Some 200 sex workers operated in the area, who were regularly the focus of considerable anxiety. Newspapers sent their journalists to Balsall Heath, who titillated their readers with tails of being propositioned by sex workers in broad daylight. Councillors raised the possibility of legalised, municipal-run brothels away from residential areas as a way of dealing with the problem. Although some of the key sites were demolished in the early-1970s, the sex industry simply moved onto adjacent roads. It continued to thrive all the way up to the 1990s. 

The turning point came with the involvement of the Asian population in a grassroots campaign against the sex industry. In 1994, while I was attending the local junior school, groups of primarily Muslim men began picketing the key sites of prostitution 24-hours-a-day over a period of more than six months. They held placards with slogans such as ‘the wife will find out’, noted down the vehicle registrations of kerb-crawlers and passed them onto the police. Reportedly, what prompted the decision to act was the encroachment of the sex industry into the area surrounding the local mosque. ‘This is where we pray’, one protestor told a visiting journalist. ‘There are men who have been to Mecca and their shame is very great’. The campaign was a success. By 1996, almost all traces of the sex industry had vanished. Crime in the area had been reduced by 20 per cent, and pimps and sex workers had been forced to ply their trade elsewhere. Although the protesters were initially dismissed as vigilantes, upon witnessing the improvements in the area the police recognized them as a semi-official organisation. For one of the protesters, the victory showed that ‘nobody can take the community on’. To his mind, Balsall Heath’s streets had become ‘our streets’.

It did not take long for politicians of all stripes to start paying attention to what had been achieved in Balsall Heath. Most prominent among them was David Cameron, who was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 on a platform to modernise his party after almost a decade in the electoral wilderness. A central plank in this project was an idea he referred to as ‘the big society’. In May 2007, Cameron went on a tour of Balsall Heath. He stayed the night at the house of a local family, the Rehmans, and volunteered for a stint on the tills at the Raja Brothers supermarket. According to Abdullah Rehman, who was a key player in the campaign against the sex industry, Cameron ‘wanted to find out how Balsall Heath had transformed itself from a run down, crime-ridden area to what it is today’. For Cameron, the campaign against the sex industry was ‘a great expression of the Big Society’. Local residents ‘were so fed up with the pimps and the prostitutes and the gangs and the drug dealers’, he admiringly told his party conference, ‘they set up street patrols to clear them out of the area and turn what was once a no-go zone into a desirable place to live’. Cameron later reflected that his experiences in Balsall Heath had taught him that it was ‘mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more, not the other way around’.

The leader of the party of Powell and Thatcher championing the cause of a largely Muslim community comprised of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants in a place like Balsall Heath – less than two years after terrorist attacks in London committed in the name of ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism – was unquestionably a landmark moment in the history of multicultural Britain. Yet at the same time, perhaps inevitably, it did not take long for it too to turn into an ambiguous story.  The cracks started to appear early on. In June 2010, a little over a month after Cameron had become Prime Minister, a controversy erupted in Birmingham over the installation of state-of-the-art CCTV cameras. Over 150 cameras were put up, including cameras designed to be hidden from view and those that tracked the registrations of every vehicle that happened to pass by. Authorities claimed this was part of efforts to clamp down on burglary and other crime. But it later transpired the vast majority of cameras had been installed in areas with large Muslim populations – including in Balsall Heath. And the scheme had been paid for with a grant that came from a government anti-terrorism fund.  Having been lionised as an exemplar of the ‘big society’, the every move of Balsall Heath’s largely Muslim community was now being monitored because of concerns about home-grown terrorism. 

If this suggested a shift in the paradigm, by the end of its time in office the government had nailed its colours to the mast. In 2014 a new Immigration Act – which included the introduction of restricted NHS access to those who could not prove their right to reside in Britain – was accompanied by an emphasis on creating a ‘hostile environment’ for those deemed to be residing in Britain illegally. Notoriously, vans were to be driven around areas with high levels of immigration emblazoned with the slogan: ‘In the U.K. illegally?  Go home or face arrest’. If these policies were driven by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, it was David Cameron who took the lead on the issue of domestic terrorism, and demonstrated the extent to which his thinking on Britain’s Muslim population had – in a matter of years – radically shifted. Having earlier suggested it was white society that needed to take more responsibility to integrate with the Muslim communities of Balsall Heath and elsewhere, he now called on Muslim communities to do more to ‘own the problem’ of Islamic extremism. ‘Too often we hear the argument that radicalisation is the fault of someone else’, he claimed. Elements of the Muslim population, he concluded, were ‘quietly condoning’ views that ‘bolstered’ Islamic extremism. 

(Credit: Janet Mendelsohn 1968, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library)

Cameron’s rhetorical about-turn, coupled with the policy changes that were driven by the Home Office, had concrete effects in places like Balsall Heath. For those involved in the earlier campaign against the sex industry, the transformation was tough to take. In 2015, Abdullah Rehman reflected on the profound sense of insecurity the British Muslim community now felt. Just as in the 1970s, when the National Front embarked on a programme of physical abuse and violence aimed at Britain’s black and Asian population, Rehman suggested that many of the government’s policies had emboldened far-right groups like the English Defence League. In 2015, Rehman felt compelled to emphasise his loyalty to the country in which he has spent his life. ‘I love this country, my father loved it and my children love it’, he remarked. ‘Don’t take away our contribution’, he urged the British Prime Minister who, just eight years earlier, had been a guest at Rehman’s Balsall Heath home. 

At the tail end of the twentieth century, the academic, intellectual and one-time Jamaican migrant Stuart Hall reflected on what he described as Britain’s multicultural ‘drift’. He contrasted the growing visibility of black and Asian athletes, politicians and public personalities in Britain with the stubborn presence of institutional racism in myriad forms – something that was belatedly recognised by the 1999 publication of the Macpherson Inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence six years earlier. In this context, Hall wondered, ‘what does it mean to be British?’

Two decades on, the question is as pertinent as ever. In 2018, it emerged that the children of the Windrush generation, who had accompanied their parents to Britain as infants, were being threatened with deportation back to countries that they barely knew. It was, in all likelihood, the very same generation as many of those children who were photographed playing on that crumbling wall in Balsall Heath in summer 1968. The scandal led to the resignation of the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. But it soon became clear how connected it was to the policies of the previous government – the 2014 Immigration Act and the creation of the ‘hostile environment’. Somehow, it seemed appropriate that this scandal should erupt on the 50th anniversary of Powell’s notorious Birmingham speech, and in the febrile atmosphere that followed the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of European Union, during which the issue of immigration once again emerged as a central issue.

Yet other elements testify to the ambiguities of this moment. As the BBC took a controversial decision to air Powell’s speech in full to mark its 50th anniversary, for example, Theresa May declared the establishment of a national Stephen Lawrence Day. Following Rudd’s resignation – which in part came as a result of the pressure applied by Diane Abbott, the daughter of Caribbean migrants – it was announced that her successor would be Sajid Javid, the first Muslim to occupy any of the three ‘great offices’ of the state, the son of immigrants and now Chancellor of the Exchequer.  

As the political wheels moved on, Javid was in turn replaced as Home Secretary by Priti Patel, whose parents migrated to Britain from Uganda in the 1960s.  At a recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, Patel embraced a hard-line stance on immigration that echoed the interventions made by Powell, Thatcher and others before her.  She presented ‘hardworking, honest, law-abiding people’ as being under threat from a ‘north London metropolitan liberal elite’ which, she declared, were seeking to ‘surrender our border control and extend free movement’.  Given the large Jewish population in the area, many argued Patel’s reference to north London tied into longstanding anti-Semitic tropes that emphasise the dangers of an alien presence within.  Such are the ebbs and flows of multicultural Britain. Whatever the ambiguities of our own biographies, we all have a stake in this process. As Stuart Hall suggested, it is ‘on such piquant, fragile and bizarre paradoxes’ that our future depends.

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About the Author

Kieran Connell is a historian and writer, and teaches at Queen’s, University Belfast. His most recent book, Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain, was published by the University of California Press in 2019.