“I’m not racist,” Rose told me over a cup of tea, “but immigration has got too much.”

“I go on the bus,” she went on, her voice shaking a little, “and there are lots of coloured people not speaking English. I used to know every family in this street but now I hardly recognise anyone. People come and go and you don’t know them – it’s like a different country now.”

It was the 27th of August 2011 and I was in Romford, Essex, on the first day of a three-month tour around the UK seeking the views of ordinary people about the state of British society. I hoped to speak to thousands of people as I travelled, planning to recount what they told me as close to word for word as possible, but the conversation with Rose, a widow in her nineties and my first interviewee that day, forced me to question my approach.

I had decided to undertake the journey because of my growing concern about the UK: in the wake of the global financial crisis and ongoing turbulence in the Eurozone, the national economic outlook was bleak and the Coalition Government’s austerity programme included significant public spending cuts. Phone-hacking, MPs’ expenses and the banking crisis had undermined confidence in those at the ‘top’ of British society, while the Scottish National Party’s promise of an independence referendum by 2015 had called into question the very notion of a United Kingdom. For me, however, it was the way that ordinary people seemed to be feeling that gave the greatest cause for concern: opinion polls consistently showed that large numbers of Britons felt isolated and alienated, unclear about their place in a rapidly changing country and with little sense of belonging. Voter apathy was high while trust in the integrity and competence of politicians was low. While the Royal Wedding had brought great pleasure and pride for some, I felt that such events masked deeper problems and, when riots spread across English cities that summer, some of my worst fears seemed to be confirmed.

I was thirty-one at the time, working for an education charity in London and beginning to think about my future. I was keen to make my contribution to the country and seeking to get involved in national politics had always seemed the best way to try to do so. The more I thought about it, however, the more I was concerned that Britain’s adversarial politics, so tainted by recent scandals, was not the answer to the questions I was asking, which were not so much about the state as about society itself.

The riots hardened my resolve to make a positive national contribution, but also left me less sure about what that could be. The sudden ferocity of the unrest had taken me by surprise and reinforced my sense that I didn’t understand England very well, let alone the rest of the UK: I came from a middle-class family and had lived in an affluent part of London for all my life, apart from time spent in university bubbles in York and Warwick. I had spent only one day in Northern Ireland, in a Holiday Inn in Belfast city centre, and had never seen the Scottish Highlands or visited a Welsh-speaking town.

It all combined to leave me feeling uneasy: certain that something was wrong but not confident that I knew what the problem was; keen to help to improve things, but unclear about how best to do so. I decided that if I wanted to answer these questions, I needed to get out from behind my desk in London and explore the UK, visiting parts of the country I had never been to and talking to people directly about the way they saw British society. I was granted three months of unpaid leave, hoping in that time to catch a glimpse of what the country was really like, to identify the key issues facing the UK and to become clearer in my own mind about the contribution that I wanted to make.

I decided to set off at the end of August and began to sketch out where I wanted to go, planning to start in the South-East before heading west into south Wales, then north to Scotland – including the far reaches of the Shetland Isles – and then giving myself plenty of time to explore Northern Ireland. I planned to end the journey by heading back to London through northern England, north and mid Wales and the Midlands. I organised a few interviews in advance but for the most part I wanted to go to different parts of the country and just talk to people wherever I could find them: in their homes, at the shops, in cafes, restaurants and pubs, at sporting events and in local parks, hoping to capture how they were feeling about life in the UK at that moment in time. I knew this approach would mean I would not get a completely representative sample of the British population but I felt that hearing from people in the context of their own lives would give a unique, raw insight into life in the UK.

I knew that in order to get that insight, I would need to meet a wide range of people and recount their views faithfully and without judgement, even if what they said clashed with my own perspective. I was looking forward to hearing this range of views, but the conversation with Rose – and, in particular, her use of the term ‘coloured’ – brought the challenges of my approach into sharp focus. I had wanted to capture an honest picture but, if I chose to recount comments such as hers, I knew I might offend some and be seen by others to perpetuate stereotypes or to paint the UK in a negative light.

As Rose and I talked on, however, I felt that I should stick to my approach and recount what she had said in the words that she had used. The riots had hardened my view that failing to address the way that people were feeling – including the sense that ordinary people’s voices often went unheard – would simply leave those feelings to fester. With that in mind, I promised myself that no matter what people said I would present their opinions as faithfully as I could, editing their comments for brevity and clarity but never censoring them.

The conversation with Rose also highlighted a separate challenge in the approach I had chosen: with so much ground to cover, I would not have time to explore the issues individual people raised in as much detail as I would have liked; neither would I be able to do justice to individual places, such as Romford, where I would spend only a couple of hours. I felt, however, that if I was seeking to learn lessons about the country as a whole, it was right to focus not on individual issues, people or places but rather on the themes that emerged through conversations with different people in different parts of the UK and how these themes linked together. Through this approach, I hoped to build up a patchwork picture of modern British society from the perspective of the people I met.

Rose and I talked on for a while, and she told me that she felt manners had changed across the country, giving the example of a teenager from a local family who had parked his car across her driveway and had threatened her when she had asked him to move it. As she spoke, I sensed not anger in her voice, but fear. I had more questions, but she had to get on with her day and, when I left, she wished me well and I felt she was glad to have had her say.

This book is the result of conversations with over a thousand ordinary people of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives across the UK, their views recounted in the same way as Rose’s: in their own words and without judgement. Some details, such as names and places, have been altered, but the voices are real and deserve to be heard.

Chapter One – Immigration, Integration and Diversity in London, Essex and Suffolk

From Romford, I headed to Southend on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend. By the pier I asked a woman in her fifties what she thought about the state of British society. She looked around her, at people of all backgrounds enjoying a beautiful late summer’s day.

“This isn’t my England any more,” she said.

I asked her what she meant.

“I just feel like we’re being overtaken,” she replied, “like there are more of them than there are of us. Some of them are alright – my boss is Asian and she’s fine – but some you just can’t trust. I work in benefits and I know the Sri Lankans are lying to me – one day they’re married, the next day they’re not.”

“My grandson is disabled,” she went on, “and my daughter has to work so hard to get any support for him while they just get benefits easily.”

She wanted to move on, so I approached another woman by the entrance to an adventure playground.

“The country has gone downhill,” she told me. “I’m not racist – my neighbours are Indian and they’re really nice – but there are just too many immigrants. I walk down the seafront now and it’s all foreign voices. This is supposed to be my country but I feel like the foreigner.”

I walked away from the seafront and met Andy, a man in his thirties who worked at a local college. We got talking and he told me that, while he personally liked living in a multicultural society, he was aware that anti-immigrant feeling in Essex had been growing for some time.

“It’s boiling,” he said.

* * * * *

I left Southend and headed to Basildon. It was seven o’clock on a Saturday evening, and at the FestivalLeisurePark, an out-of-town entertainment complex, the pubs were full as I looked around for people to talk to. By the bar in one pub, a busy chain packed with people enjoying a night out, I found Steve, an electrician from London who was waiting to meet a friend.

“There’s no such thing as British society any more,” he told me.

I asked him what he meant and he offered to buy me a drink and talk about it.

“You can’t stand in the way of change,” he said. “People will always come into other countries – just look at America – but I just want it to be a level playing field. Eastern European electricians can work for ten months a year, go home for two months, and get all of their taxes back. How am I supposed to compete?”

“Eastern Europeans get the same entitlements as British people,” he went on, “even though they haven’t paid into the same benefits pot. We could do the same in their countries, but who from England is going to go to Poland or Albania? How can it be fair that British pensioners can’t afford to heat their homes but people who haven’t paid anything in taxes get benefits from their first day here?”

We talked on, and he told me how he had seen a black man putting on a sling and neck brace and walking into a benefits office. He had taken photos of the man coming out, removing the sling and neck brace and driving away. He said he had shown the photos to the benefits office staff but they had done nothing.

“In fact,” he said, “the Indian woman in there asked me if I would have reported him if he wasn’t black. What the fuck does that matter? I like the different cultures, I take my kids to Notting Hill Carnival every year – I just want everyone to compete on a level playing field and I don’t want to be called a racist for it.”

His friend arrived and he wished me well with the book.

I looked around the pub for more people to talk to and, at a table nearby, I met two women in their twenties, Claire and Hayley. The conversation quickly moved to cultural integration.

“We built this country,” said Claire, “people died for this country, but some people don’t respect that history and our culture, or even bother to learn the language. My mum lives on the Costa del Sol and I tell her to make an effort – when you’re in someone else’s country you have to respect their customs and try to integrate.”

“I’d wear a headscarf in a Muslim country,” she continued, “and I only expect Muslim women to respect English customs when they’re here. In our society women are equal to men and it’s important to us to be able to see people’s faces, so I think the burqa should be banned.”

I said she seemed to have strong views on the issue.

“My boyfriend is in the BNP,” she said, “and they do go too far sometimes, but they also make a lot of sense on education and social issues.”

Hayley, who had been quiet until then, said they had to go. Claire wished me luck with the book and they left.

* * * * *

The next day, I headed to Thetford in Suffolk, and, on the train, I got talking to a group of young men, players in a local football team, who were sitting at the table opposite me. One said he had strong views on immigration and class and seemed keen to share them.

“It’s not an immigration problem,” he said. “If you’re fucking English, and you’re on the dole and getting your housing benefit, while a fucking Pakistani man next to you is running his shitty little cornershop, but he’s paying his taxes because he’s part of the system, I’d hate you more than I’d hate him.”

“It’s the mentality,” he went on. “It’s not working class, it’s ‘benefits class’ – the little fuckers who go robbing because ‘Oh, I’ve got a hard life.’ Well, fuck off home then – if you got on the next boat to fucking Somalia and got your hands cut off, I wouldn’t give a shit – you haven’t worked a single day in your fucking life.”

I said he seemed to feel that immigration and benefits fraud were closely linked.

“The reason that happens is because of the media,” he said. “The people who are committing benefits fraud, supposedly the majority of them are immigrants – because they’re illegals, they’re not on the system. The chances are that you’d probably find as many people who are twentieth generation English who are causing as much grief to our system but when you say ‘immigrant’ I immediately think of someone who is over here, getting our money and doing fuck all for us. You see refugees from Kosovo walking around during the day with their flashy mobile phones – it’s difficult to understand a new culture coming to the country and they’re taking advantage.”

“If someone is disabled and they’ve come here legally,” he went on, “we should support him because we’re not a Third World country. But why should he miss out because some scummer doesn’t want to work? That absolutely makes my blood boil – people who don’t work because they think someone owes them something – ‘I’m English so I’m just going to go on the dole’.”

“My mate’s just finished university,” he went on, “and I told him to go on the dole, but he wouldn’t do it. It’s a pride thing. It’s
supposed to be for normal people who are just looking for a job, but, if you asked us to draw a picture of a job-seeker, I guarantee we’d all do a picture of some fucking chav, smoking his weed, never done a day of work in his life. It doesn’t matter if that fella is black, yellow or fucking Caucasian.”

The conversation moved on to integration.

“They shouldn’t cover their faces,” he said. “We’re in England, we’re English – if you don’t like it then fuck off. The thing that got me was the air hostess and the teacher who got in trouble for wearing a crucifix – fuck that! We’re a Christian country – most of us aren’t actually Christian, but, still, if you gave me the choice between a burqa and a crucifix, I’d say ‘Hello crucifix’.”

“My brother lives down in London,” he continued, “and when I visit him I see a load of burqas and I don’t quite trust anyone. But it’s the ultimate untouchable – religion. You can’t question it – some fucker might put a jihad on you or something.”

“And then the government is paying for the mosques,” he went on.

“If I went to fucking Baghdad and tried to build a cathedral there, I’d probably be lynched in the street. But our government still takes it up the arse from these people. We even give them priority planning because we feel they should fit in.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“As long as you can see their face, I don’t mind the burqa,” he said finally, “but people take advantage of it. It’s like your man on the July bombings, travelled on his sister’s fucking passport. If I covered my face now, I could be arrested under the Terrorism Act for concealing my identity, but if you wear a fucking dishdasha with a fucking letterbox then no one can touch you because everyone’s too scared.”

“It’s difficult for us to deal with religion,” one of the others added, “because we’re on the border of Christianity and nothing. Like national security, we’re concerned with keeping everyone safe and on that basis you’d ban the burqa. This is the way we run our country and I can’t understand why people can’t say, ‘Look, human life’s at stake; that’s above religion.’ Keeping people safe has to come above offending people.”

“No one minds about immigration,” he added as the train pulled in. “It’s when they don’t integrate. They had a hard life, fair enough, but they still need to integrate.”

They all wished me well as they stepped off the train.

* * * * *

On the Monday of the August bank holiday I returned to London to visit the Notting Hill Carnival.

By Notting Hill station, the streets were packed full of people drinking, dancing and having fun. Next to a convenience store, I met two young women waving Jamaican flags and wearing Union Flag T-shirts and told them about the book.

“I’m proud to be British,” one said. “I was brought up by Caribbean parents, but we had fish and chips on a Friday night.”

“Britain is a mixing pot,” she added. “It’s not just straight British – we take bits from different cultures and make it our own.”

“We love this country,” her friend said, “and we love London.”

Across the street, I visited a stall where flags and lanyards bearing the colours of almost every country on earth were on sale. Around me, people of all backgrounds were enjoying the fun, and it felt a long way from Essex and Suffolk. I wanted to get some perspectives from migrants to the UK, towards whom so much of the animosity I had heard had been directed, but I was also keen to try to understand the root causes of the anger I had encountered in Essex and Suffolk. First, though, I wanted to explore the issues raised by the recent riots.

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