Sunday, 19 June 2016

Misrepresenting Britain: BBC Radio 4 Today and Keighley in West Yorkshire

On Saturday June 18th, 2016, in the final days before the EU referendum and a couple of days after the murder of Jo Cox by a Neo-Nazi supporter of Britain First, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme broadcast an extended report by John Humphrys based primarily on a visit to Keighley in West Yorkshire. (Humphrys also visited Shirebrook in Derbyshire)

I know Keighley well. I worked in the town for 4 years as a mechanic shortly after leaving school aged 16, and I was a member of Keighley Boys Amateur Boxing club for long enough to realise I didn't have the requisite skills. I still go to Keighley now, when I return to Yorkshire to visit my parents. Both my brothers work in a town with similar demographics just down the road from Keighley. One brother, John, has lived for the past ten years in Keighley (4 years) and Bradford (6 years). (Bradford is another former mill town mentioned in the report, larger than Keighley but with similar demographics).

So, when John Humphrys interviews 4 or 5 people in Keighley and then concludes his report by saying Keighley proves "that if you allow disproportionate numbers of immigrants to settle in one small town the local people pay a price". I can tell you he is simply wrong. His thesis would fail as a GCSE sociology or social geography paper, because it is poorly argued, systematically biased, and wrong in its conclusions.

The large 'migrant community' in Keighley was brought here when this country needed people to work in the mills, three generations ago. Britain needed them and they answered the call and uprooted families to come here, to the rain and bland food, to help Britain rebuild its economy, which was on its knees after the 2nd World War.

What happened next is: The mills closed as the British textile industry declined. Keighley, like its larger neighbour Bradford, and like the Lancashire towns of Colne and Nelson, was a mill town. The industry that sustained these towns practically disappeared within a generation.

To talk, in 2016, about any ills in Keighley and focus on 'migrants' is messed up, misleading and serves a right wing agenda. The migrants Humphrys refers to are in reality families who have been in Keighley for generations now. When one of the report's vox pops (a women who Humphrys bumps into in a restaurant) talks about large numbers of non-English speakers among that community, she does so without comment or challenge; has this person conducted well-designed research on this, so as to arrive at this conclusion? How does she know? In fact, there are very very few non-English speakers, but plenty who are bi- and multi-lingual.

Moreover, what was absent from the report was any talk of how the descendants of these mid-twentieth century migrants who came here by invitation and helped the nation rebuild after the war, now contribute in full to the local economy, running businesses, employing local people, and . . . often speaking with broad West Yorkshire accents.

This is to be wilfully biased and divisive.

Keighley isn't a wealthy town. That's because the economy it grew up around, based on the textile mills, no longer exists. Those fellow Yorkshire folk who can trace their ancestry to the Indian Sub Continent have done as much as anyone to save Keighley from terminal decline, just as their grandparents and parents helped save the national economy from terminal decline 60 or so years ago; in doing so they have been an intrinsic and crucially important part in making Keighley a town, though not wealthy, which still has life and where people still stay and work as they leave school.

In my teens and early twenties I spent a lot of time living and socialising in two parts of West Yorkshire: the West Yorkshire ex-mill towns of Bradford and Keighley and the West Yorkshire mining towns (in the process of becoming ex-mining towns) of Kippax and Castleford. At this time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kippax and Castleford had no notable history of immigration from outside the UK; those communities were almost exclusively what would be described as working class white British. Yet here's the thing: all the problems faced by Keighley and Bradford were evident in equal measure in Kippax and Castleford. Industries that each of these towns grew-up to serve had all-but gone within a generation. There was mass unemployment and a truly shameful lack of investment to address the problems that are caused by such economic collapse. This brief comparison should be enough to draw into serious question not only the conclusions Humphrys drew in his report, but also his methods and motives. We all deserve better. 

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