“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 morning of 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 to travel around the country, 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 had been confident about this approach but the conversation with Rose – and, in particular, her use of the term ‘coloured’ – brought its challenges 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 looking 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 country 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 with no judgement. Some details, such as names and places, have been altered, but the voices are real and deserve to be heard.