I’ve lived in Bradford for over 55 years and I’m proud of it. I met someone from Montreal, Canada a few years back and he said he’d never met anyone with such civic pride.
The source of that pride is the people I’ve met across communities and the lifelong friendships we’ve established. The shared celebration of our history through enjoying our families, food, differences, similarities, work and a resistance to orthodoxy that seems to be in the water.
I feel truly blessed to have grown up here. I had three years across the Pennines at Manchester University which I thoroughly enjoyed, and go back to regularly, but my heart always lay back in Bradford. In the early 80s Bradford was bustling with cultural activity, intrigue and purposeful grassroots politics. The fact that it was compact gave you a sense of a unified narrative, that you belonged. And it remains that way.
When I grew up in BD5, I had white British, Polish, Italian/Ukrainian, Bangladeshi, Sikh and Hindu neighbours. George Lindo, a Jamaican neighbor was falsely accused of robbing a betting shop. His family waged a successful national campaign to have him exonerated. One of his supporters was Linton Kwesi Johnson, the acclaimed dub poet and a regular visitor to the city, who wrote a song about the campaign.
Dave Stark, a lecturer in Sociology at Bradford College was a friend of 30 years and fellow anti-fascist activist until his untimely passing at the age of 70. Dave left his mark on thousands of students, even those who have become school headteachers.
The official district tourist guides direct you to Saltaire, Ilkley, Haworth, Little Germany etc. These are all part of the fabric and wonderful landscape of Bradford district. Baildon Moor and Cow and Calf rocks are regular walking haunts that I cherish, particularly when family and friends visit. However, the beating heart of the city is in its richness of history, struggles and unheard narratives. The George Lindos and Dave Starks should share equal billing in the greatest city in God’s own county. I’ve mentioned two individuals in the human story of Bradford but from my own experience I could speak of hundreds more.
Bradford’s evolved but retains a uniquely distinct character. The Pakistani heritage population is the most concentrated in the world. It’s acquired an almost mythological status across the Pakistani diaspora. 110,000 people of Pakistani heritage within 150,000 Muslims in the district.
This place that’s carved out a niche, that’s not Pakistan, yet is tied to it by a contradictory visibility on a local, national and global stage. Why would the now Pakistani PM, Imran Khan, have wanted to become the Chancellor of Bradford University? Pakistanis from the UK and across the globe are drawn to this place with its food, retail, culture and the overriding sense of security of being among your own.
A nationally acclaimed British Pakistani playwright told me coming to Bradford for him was like going to London. Thriving entrepreneurs, social activists, ‘community’ leaders, self-promoters, gangsters and poverty punctuated by public displays of conspicuous consumption. The raw material of life is endless.
This is the Bradford that I love and am tested by at the same time.
What we need is a public narrative for this Bradford. That paints textured dramas where others see deficits. We need to take ownership and develop a confident vocabulary to express this passion. So, what’s stopping this?
The myth of social integration
Bradford is being held back by poverty, a lack of good quality training and education, insufficient investment and a shortage of self-belief.
The official narrative, ‘The 2016 Casey review into Social Integration’, tells us that Bradford’s progress is hampered due to self-segregating BAME communities; tensions between faith groups; suppression of Asian women’s rights by regressive cultural practices and an inability of 18,000 Asian women to speak English.
At the same time as Asian women are represented as ‘victims’, public funding for English classes and community centres have been slashed to virtually zero. Those successfully providing such services at a local level have been marginalised, making access even more difficult for those supposedly oppressed women to engage in public and working life.
Counter extremism strategies (PREVENT) have for years pathologised Muslims as prone to violent extremism, rendering them subject to surveillance by public officials and stifling reasoned public debate.
Even normally compliant ‘community leaders’ responded, ‘what we need is investment, we know how to live and talk to one another!’.
Funding for social integration shackles debate for public discussion to these narrow parameters. It corrodes our self-belief.
What we should be talking about is the rich human capital of our district. Sharing vibrant discussions about who we are? Where we’ve come from? Where are we going?
Identity to date has been the preserve of problematic discussions surrounding BAME communities. Whilst raising salient and pressing concerns, these are dwarfed by the largely unspoken anxieties of the white British community.
Media discourse and much academic research obsesses and wrestles with problematic migration to the UK. For a culture that has had close to 400 years of traversing and colonising the globe why are the main nationally voiced strands of opinion so toxic and visceral? Why do white British people generally feel so uncomfortable talking about race, empire, slavery and migration given its connecting thread to British life and history? How at a local level can we overcome this unease of speaking about outsiders, of the ‘other’?
What is to be white and British in Bradford district? In an area with one of the highest levels of income deprivation in the UK, what are the similarities between those living in expensive, leafy suburbs like Ilkley, Bingley and the largely white estates of Buttershaw and Ravenscliffe? What kind of stake do those who lived cheek by jowl with newly arrived migrants in inner city Manningham and Little Horton, have in this society? How empowered do they feel about making decisions that affect their life opportunities? What are their life journeys? Have they benefitted from families working for generations in Bradford textiles? Do they reflect on the struggles of working people for decent working conditions that were instrumental in the birth of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford in 1904? What does the future hold for them in an evolving economy? These class distinctions are important to investigate, because they underpin much of the way people think about their roots and the place they’ve called home. This in turn affects people’s optimism for their lives, their fears and concerns.
An acknowledgement of these parallel but complementary narratives that recognises the rich human stories of the district, defined by the positive lessons learnt through struggle, resistance and solidarity will leave residents of all hues confident in where they’ve come from, what they share in common. Participation in defining these narratives will help residents to address what a future Bradford will look like and take ownership of that vision.
This is a new language to be learnt, in addition to the many we already have. It speaks a tongue of skillfully and sympathetically negotiating, what we are told are oppositional spectrums. Whose vocabulary is fresh and liberating in its thirsting for knowledge and nuance in their neighbours and their histories. It is not fearful of saying the wrong thing, because people know when you’re trying with a good heart.
This is about collaboration, self-determination and showing that people and communities thick with expertise — not institutions by themselves — are the defining guiding force for a just, equitable, prosperous, vibrant Bradford district.
Just eight years ago in 2012 the people of Bradford West expressed their frustration with the complacency of institutional party rule . A by-election was held due to the ill health of the incumbent MP Marsha Singh. In less than a month, George Galloway (Respect), through political savvy and masterful oratory, galvanised a population tired of the lack of aspiration for their community. They were vociferous in their desire to change the status quo.
Close to a 1000 people attended a rally 3 days before the election date, committing to spread the word for Galloway. Respect’s increase in the share of the vote, 52.8%, was the largest in the history of mainland British parliamentary by-elections. Interestingly the increased vote share was reflected across all wards, not just those with a Muslim majority. Many of those credited with this amazing turnaround were young Asian women, knocking door to door and voting in droves. This was a political earthquake that maintained the city’s unorthodox traditions. George Galloway disappointed many, myself included, but he didn’t extinguish our hope. Let’s still be brave and make a start on this new language, keeping Bradford in the forefront, unique as it’s always been. Maybe there is something in the water.