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Issue #1581      February 13, 2013

Culture & Life

Keeping Britain’s image white

If you scratch a right-winger you pretty soon find a racist hiding inside, like a worm in an apple. Britain’s Tory-dominated government has plenty of such worms within its ranks, but with the arrogance of a well-entrenched ruling class that thinks itself invulnerable, they do not see much point in hiding.

A display at a UK school of young students portraits of Mary Seacole.

In fact, the leaders of British capitalism are well and truly on the attack, just like their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They are attacking working conditions, wages, pensions, union rights, job security, you name it: if it’s in working people’s interests then they will attack it. They are also attacking working class culture and working class history. As far as bosses are concerned, workers neither need nor deserve culture to be proud of nor history to be proud of.

Britain’s Education Secretary, one Michael Gove, is currently enmeshed in a squabble of his own creation, as he tries to prevent British schools teaching children about a woman born to Scottish and Jamaican parents in the 19th century, named Mary Seacole.

At the time of the Crimean War, Mary Seacole was so moved by reports of the suffering of the wounded that she made her own way unaided to the Crimea and provided food, nursing and other basic comforts to the wounded troops.

Unlike the better known Florence Nightingale, who worked at the army base at Scutari in Turkey, Mary Seacole worked in the Crimea itself, very close to the front lines and even on the field of battle. As the New Worker notes, “after the war her role was recognised by Queen Victoria, who awarded her a medal and her name became well known to the Victorian public”.

In fact, according to material produced by the group Operation Black Vote: “She was a national heroine on her return to Britain, and a crowd of 80,000 attended a four day fund-raising benefit in her honour in 1857.” The group also notes that “her inclusion on the National Curriculum [for British schools] came as the result of tireless campaigning to recognise someone who had become a forgotten figure in modern times.”

Despite Queen Victoria’s high regard for her and her contribution to establishing good nursing as a vital part of medical care especially in wartime, the fact remains that she was “coloured” and definitely not a member of the “establishment”. Teaching British kids about her clearly offended the poohbahs of the British Tory party. But of course they dare not attack her directly, that would be far too gauche.

Instead they attacked the reason for placing her on the National Curriculum at all. They used that snide trick of labelling it “political correctness”, thereby implying without actually daring to say it, that she wasn’t worthy of study and the only reason she was on the curriculum was because she was black.

This is no more than one would expect from a British government that is busy filling the streets with heavily armed police (carrying machine guns, no less, in a country once famous for its unarmed police force), which has more video surveillance cameras watching the populace than any other country and absolutely nothing to offer unemployed youth apart from harassment on the dole, neo-fascism or prison.

Under the banner of “attacking political correctness”, reactionaries of all types have joined in the assault on Mary Seacole’s status. An outraged Operation Black Vote lashed out: “Her proposed removal [from the national schools curriculum] can only be attributed to a recent backlash against Mary Seacole … by right-wing media and commentators.

“To remove Mary Seacole … is tantamount to rewriting history to fit a worldview hostile to Britain’s historical diversity.” Add to that the fact that in a poll of the British public, she was voted the Greatest Black Briton.

The antics of Britain’s reactionaries today would have puzzled members of the ruling class at the time of the Crimean War. Sir WH Russell, Crimean War correspondent for The Times – in those pre-Murdoch days, very much the voice of the Establishment itself – wrote of Mary Seacole: “Let England not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

So why doesn’t Michael Gove want British youngsters to learn about Mary Seacole? I suspect it has to do with the fact that “the teaching of Black historical figures is widely recognised to be beneficial to the success of Black pupils…. Mary Seacole, as a Jamaican/Scottish figure, is a positive role model.”

In the whole of the British National Curriculum, Mary Seacole is the only Black person not connected to civil rights or slavery.

As the British paper The New Worker commented: “[British people] should be taught more Black history, not less.”

And of course, let us never forget that for most reactionaries racism is not just a convenient tool for dividing and ruling the workers. They do actually believe in notions of racial superiority and particularly inferiority. It bolsters their image of themselves to regard the rest of the human race as lesser people, undeserving of the privileges they themselves enjoy.   

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