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Sathnam Sanghera: Problems in Britain due to a reluctance to talk about the Empire

Sathnam Sanghera takes a walk along the street where he grew up, and remarks on how little it has changed.

Sathnam Sanghera attending the opening of Wolverhampton Society of Artists Centenary Exhibition in 2019
Sathnam Sanghera attending the opening of Wolverhampton Society of Artists Centenary Exhibition in 2019

“If anything, it has become more run down,” he says. “When my parents sold the family home in the late 80s it was for £29,000, right now the house prices are pretty much the same. It must be one of the few areas where there has been no house price inflation.”

This is not strictly true. The average sold house price in Prosser Street, Wolverhampton, where Sathnam spent his formative years, is actually £109,000, but you see his point.

The writer and broadcaster returns to his roots in inner-city Wolverhampton for a two-part television documentary series, beginning tonight, which examines the role of the British Empire on us today.

“Wolverhampton is a very multicultural city, and the reason why it is such a multicultural city is that we had a very multicultural empire,” he says.

Empire: State of Mind sees Sathnam return to the street where he grew up, visit the museums in Wolverhampton, and watches a football match at Molineux.

During his research for the documentary Empire: State of Mind, Sathnam also visited Express & Star head office in Wolverhampton ­– where he did work experience during his student days – to read archive reports about the city’s controversial former MP Enoch Powell.

“Enoch Powell had wanted to become viceroy of India, and I think the fact that he never got to be that explains a lot of his racist politics that followed,” he says.

Sathnam believes many of the problems in Britain today stem from a reluctance to talk about Empire, or at least to only see it through tribal, partisan eyes as being either positive or negative.

“We rarely confront the Empire, but it was the biggest thing we ever did. And when we do talk about it, people either take a rose-tinted view by talking about building the railways in India and the Raj, or view it as entirely bad.

“In this programme I have approached it from the point of view of not having an agenda, some aspects of it were good, and others weren’t.”

He believes a lack of knowledge about the Empire is behind much of today’s racism, specifically a lack of awareness that many of the people who came from the former colonies at the end of the war did so as British citizens.

“The Windrush people came here as British citizens, but even now they are still viewed as new arrivals by many people,” he says.

“I’m from a Sikh background, and the Sikhs took the side of the British during the mutiny of 1857. The Sikhs were largely supportive of the British Empire. We’ve just had Remembrance Sunday, 83,000 Sikhs were killed in the First World War fighting for the British, but how many people know about that?

“I’m sure we would stop having all these circular crises about racism if we all understood why people came here in the first place.”

Sathnam’ says things are much better for minority communities today, adding: “Things are a lot better, the P***-bashing was a sport in the 80s, and you don’t get that so much these days.”

But he says it would be wrong to assume it has disappeared completely, but it is in a “more polite form”. He adds: “Wolves fans used to have a bad reputation for racism, and even during the making of the film, Rio Ferdinand was there and some of the fans made monkey noises towards him,” he says. “The difference is this time those responsible were banned, and that wouldn’t have happened in the past.”

And Sathnam says that prejudices today can sometimes take a more subtle form.

He adds: “I worry today that racism takes a more polite form. Even the racists now don’t want to be seen as racist, we learned that in the Yorkshire Cricket Club row.”

*Empire: State of Mind is on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight. It concludes the same time next week.

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