The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion John Cleese’s tweets weren’t just racist. They were also based on a historical lie.

A view of central London's skyline on Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
Placeholder while article actions load

Dalia Gebrial is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and an editor at Novara Media.

Last week, British comedian and “Fawlty Towers” actor John Cleese ignited waves of condemnation on social media for tweeting: “Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city anymore.”

The comment was met with immediate backlash. Much of it focused on the murky record of the once-Liberal Democrat turned Brexiteer Cleese, who has a history of making anti-migrant remarks and crass jokes using racist stereotypes — not to mention his hypocrisy, given that he is himself a recent migrant to the Caribbean.

As Maya Goodfellow noted in the Guardian, it is unlikely that Cleese asked every person he passed where they were born or whether they had a British passport as he strolled the streets of London trying to quantify “Englishness.” Instead, he probably just looked at the black and brown faces or heard the multi-lingual conversations that are now ubiquitous throughout the city and decided they did not represent his vision of England.

The London-based writer and scholar Ambalavaner Sivanandan once wrote, “All of us non-whites, at first sight, are terrorists or illegals. We wear our passports on our faces.” What Sivanandan means here is that “Englishness” and its sister term “Britishness” are often euphemisms for whiteness. When your face does not fit, it does not matter what your papers say. It’s not hard to see the racial dimensions of Cleese’s comments.

But more interesting than the outdated opinions of a once-relevant actor is the broader worldview represented in Cleese’s tweets — one that relies on an approach to citizenship and national-belonging that is both ahistorical and racist.

The truth is that London has never been a purely “English” city in the way Cleese means. Ever since its inception as a metropolis, it has had a racialized underclass of people who are situated outside whatever form Englishness had taken at that time.

London’s growth into the global center of wealth and power we see today has been marked by various epochs of migration. The first movement of Africans to London came with the opening of trade routes beyond Europe in the early 16th century. This swelled during the tri-continental slave trade of the 17th century. Then, in the 19th century, there were the mass migrations of Irish and Jews to London — two communities historically racialized as “others.” At each stage, migration was an integral part of London’s urban development — whether it was from slave-trade money, or off the backs of a highly exploited and brutalized migrant working class.

The recent Windrush scandal reveals the extent to which minority communities have contributed to Britain — all while having their Britishness constantly questioned. In the mid-20th century, when the Windrush generation of people from former colonies moved to the “Mother Country,” they did not come as immigrants. They came as British citizens, because the 1948 British Nationality Act granted citizenship to all those in the Commonwealth and ex-colonies.

Once again, at the heart of this was the need for migrant workers to help rebuild post-war Britain, which suffered from massive labor shortages. Recruitment drives in former colonies brought hundreds of thousands from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent to fill jobs in cities across the country. New arrivals were crowded in the most poorly paid and poorly treated workforces, facing racism both within and outside the workplacebut their contributions built the welfare state and helped British industry thrive in a time of post-war destruction.

Yet even today, the rights of the Windrush generation to live in the United Kingdom are being questioned, with devastating and degrading consequences. Some have lost government financial support and even been deported. This comes amid a broader context of heightened anti-migrant racism which, while frequently portrayed as a working-class problem, is actually being pushed by government elites.

The history of migration to London and elsewhere in England has often been accompanied by racism and economic exploitation. And London is not the only culprit: Similar dynamics can be seen in most global cities, such as Paris, New York and Dubai.

Cleese and others like him may believe they are challenging orthodoxy and breaking taboos with their provocative proclamations of the decline of England. But their outlook is the oldest one in the book. The mentality that currently picks out brown and black faces as suspicious or un-English is the same mentality that led many in the Victorian era to complain of the “influx of continental pauperism” of Eastern-European Jews, or of how the “crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns.” It is a tale of wanting to enjoy the fruits of migrant work, but without the migrants.

Perhaps if these sentiments were nothing more than solitary opinions from figures such as Cleese, we could laugh and move on. Unfortunately, as Britain peers over the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit and race-based hate crimes are on the rise, the emotional, political, economic and social cost for those of us who wear our passports on our faces continues to be immeasurably high.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: If John Cleese meant London is just another homogenized world capital, he’s right

Kimberly McIntosh: Brexit will cause untold harm to Britain’s minority communities

Yomi Adegoke: What the Meghan Markle rumors say about Britain and the world

Benjamin Butterworth: Britain exported homophobia worldwide. It can’t afford to stay silent now.