Yesterday evening’s brilliant BBC One screening of Mangrove, the first in a series of five films in the Small Axe series directed by Steve McQueen, was difficult to watch. The historically accurate film covers the two years from 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when Frank Critchlow established his Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill, which rapidly became a much needed hub for the British-Caribbean community, to the 1970 Old Bailey trial of nine men and women of West Indian extraction who had been arrested following a protest march on the local police station. The protest was the eventual outcome of eighteen months of racist harassment by the police who had conducted twelve violent and destructive raids on the Mangrove over that period under the pretence that, being run by black people, it was bound to harbour drug-dealers and prostitutes. The trial lasted for 55 tense days during which the defendants were liable, if found guilty, to ten-year prison sentences for incitement to riot. The acting across-the-board is mesmerising, the story-telling superbly nuanced, and the film has deservedly earned five star ratings from the critics.
It was difficult to watch for two reasons. The first was that it was such a visceral reminder of so much that went on in South Africa during the apartheid years. The film captures the vicious racial stereotyping, the casual racist brutality of the police, vividly and chillingly. And it manages to do so without caricature or overstatement. PC Frank Pulley, superbly acted, still a constable after 15 years in the police force, epitomises the racist bully who takes his own inadequacies out on those he assumes to be powerless to resist. The film reveals the extent to which those in the dock are in every respect – morally, intellectually, and in terms simply of their common humanity – vastly superior to their corrupt and mendacious police accusers and, for that matter, to the inhumane court orderlies, the supercilious prosecutor and the establishment judge. The film brought home to me, once again, just how naïve some of us in South Africa were to imagine during the 1970s and 1980s that Britain could be looked to for a model of decency and justice where the police and courts were concerned. Give PC Pulley and his cronies a crash course in Afrikaans and they would have been entirely at home in the Suid Afrikaanse Polisie of the time.
The other reason it was difficult to watch was much more immediate and equally, if not more, visceral. It was, quite simply, that there is still at least one arm of the British State, namely the Home Office, that blithely continues to operate with the same casual and dishonest brutality today. The only way I can account for its appalling behaviour is by assuming that it must still be informed by a similar dehumanising racism. We learnt from a report from Lizzie Dearden in today’s The Independent that the latest device for stopping asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats in the Priti Patel box of tricks is to prosecute and imprison as a people smuggler any asylum seeker who has been coerced into steering one of the boats. Having been criminalised for trying to make sure that their fellow asylum seekers don’t drown, these asylum seekers then become liable for immediate deportation on their release from their up to 30 months imprisonment. A report in yesterday’s Observer revealed that many asylum seekers arriving by boat are being deported back to France before their asylum claims have been properly considered. As was no doubt the case with the Mangrove Nine, who faced ridiculously exaggerated charges, the Crown Prosecution Service are cravenly acceding to, in this instance it would seem, the Home Secretary’s vicious whims.
A second article in today’s The Independent, this time from May Bulman, draws our attention to a twenty-fold increase in the number of self-harm incidents in one of the detention centres holding asylum seekers who have arrived in small boats. They are only taking to small boats in their desperation, it bears repeating, because safer routes to seek asylum, and in many instances join family members, in UK have been deliberately closed to them. After the trauma and fear that drove them from their homes, after the hazards, hardship and hostility they have faced on their long journeys overland to reach the English Channel, after having had to pay people smugglers for the privilege of risking their lives to get here, it is hardly surprising that when they find themselves imprisoned on their arrival and threatened with immediate deportation before their claims to asylum have even been listened to they should self-harm in their utter desperation. And this is the country that they looked to for sanctuary and justice.
We are being told that the departure of Cummings and Cain from Downing Street will give Boris Johnson a chance to ‘reset’ the direction of his government. Now that he has crossed the threshold of the Promised Land of Brexit ‘sovereignty’, with or without a deal, one can only hope that he will demonstrate the statesmanship to look beyond the Brexit credentials of his cabinet ministers. Unless he thinks that the majority of the British people are so brutally xenophobic that they are happy to go along with the appalling way Patel wants asylum seekers treated, which I can’t bring myself to believe, he must, surely, taker a closer look at the role of Home Secretary. Patel seemed to win some public sympathy via her account of the racism directed towards her when she was at school. But it is common cause that the abused all too often end up as abusers, the bullied all too often become bullies themselves. The outcome of the long-standing enquiry into Patel’s alleged bullying of her officials in the various government departments unfortunate enough to fall under her spell has been kept under wraps, no doubt for very good reason. Now that Boris is having to self-isolate in the austere confines of his Downing Street flat he can, perhaps, find time to watch Mangrove. As he does so, with a possible cabinet reshuffle in the back of his mind, he should perhaps ask himself whether it is possible that any of his current cabinet ministers have the instincts and mental attitudes of a grossly over-promoted 2020 version of PC Frank Pulley, and, if so, whether he wants them to continue to discredit any claims that the United Kingdom is a humane and civilised country.