‘The elections in the United States have been watched with an interest rarely felt in the domestic concerns of a distant country,’ Walter Bagehot and Richard Holt Hutton’s National Review declared in 1857. ‘Not for the first time – perhaps for the last – the terrible problem of Slavery, long the secret haunt, has become the open battle-field of American politics.’ The 1856 presidential election had ‘emphatically declared in favour of extension of slavery’, with ‘disregard of positive engagements both national and international’. Armed bands in Kansas had carried the polling booths ‘at the point of the bowie knife’ and laws had been enacted ‘on behalf of slavery’, ‘suppressing all liberty of speech, of the press, or of political action’. The review feared that Europe (where slavery had come from) was unaware of the gravity of the situation: ‘this very hour’, a special committee was reporting on the ‘reopening of the African slave trade’.
My mother recalls seeing the ‘no coloureds’ notices as a child in newsagents and sweet shops. Often they were written on the backs of envelopes; sometimes they were placed on removable boards outside. She used to read them when she was queueing with her sister for sherbet lemons in the postwar sugar rush. They didn’t deter her, on the brink of the 1960s, from marrying my Sri Lankan father. He docked at Tilbury in June 1953, when he was 22. He saw the ads not in sweet shops but at railway stations, on the noticeboards next to the telephones and ticket offices at Greenford, Ealing Broadway and West Ruislip, where British Rail gave him his first job as a ticket collector. One landlady, he told me, asked him to describe the precise colour of his skin: how did it compare to a cup of coffee, for example? She was pleased to establish he was ‘not black but brown’, someone who could be accommodated as part of a wider system of exclusion.
By March 2019, at least sixty councils had obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and loitering. If you don’t pay the fine, imposed for asking for money you don’t have, you risk a £1000 penalty. What happens then? If you get a criminal behaviour order for asking for money on the streets and you ask again, you can go to prison for five years. ‘How could you bear it yourself?’ William Morris asked in 1883.
‘It’s ominous,’ a colleague at a post-92 university told me. ‘Some smaller, newer universities may go bust. This will leave working-class students with nowhere to go. Some of them cannot afford to study away from home, some have caring responsibilities.’
The Life in the UK handbook boasts that Britain ‘became the largest empire the world has ever seen’ with railways ‘built throughout’, producing ‘more than half of the world’s iron, coal and cotton cloth’ (nothing on who provided the labour and who died doing so, or where the cotton came from) while reformers ‘led movements to improve conditions of life for the poor’. It goes on to say that ‘some people began to question whether the Empire could continue’ but gives no information on colonial resistance or movements for independence, or the work of Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Knight and Samuel Sharpe (or if anyone questioned whether it should continue).