The others among the most ordinary Britons

We Europeans? Mass-Observation, "Race" and British Identity in the 20th Century

November 4, 2005

Tony Kushner's study concentrates on ethnic minorities in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews formed the largest such group, followed by several smaller ones - including Italians and people from the British Empire - who, at that time, had made little impact. The author, who has written widely on the history of migrant groups in Britain, especially Jews and refugees, demonstrates the complexity of majority attitudes towards ethnic minorities during the height of European racism.

As the title indicates, this study uses material from the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University. Kushner spends much time explaining the methodology of this organisation and justifying its use for his study. Established by the anthropologists Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson during the 1930s, it aimed to provide more than just a snapshot of public attitudes towards events of the day and an approach distinct from that of opinion pollsters.

The gathering of views worked in three ways. First, specific projects, such as the study of attitudes in "Worktown" (Bolton) during 1939, which allowed a sampling of working-class views. The second and third methods of opinion gathering asked a generally more middle-class audience to keep diaries or to give their views to "directives" covering particular issues of the day.

These included race and anti-Semitism in 1939 and 1943. Some of those who kept diaries did so over many years and provide a broad range of opinions, from the outright anti-Semitic to the desire to always act positively towards ethnic minorities.

The reason behind Kushner's choice of methodology lies in the fact that he wishes to understand what "ordinary" members of the ethnic majority thought about minorities in Britain.

He is, in a sense, producing a history of everyday attitudes towards these groups in the 1930s and 1940s. Such an approach moves away from the race-relations approach that dominated the study of minorities by social scientists in the 1960s-90s. Kushner rightly stresses the fact that ethnic diversity in Britain did not begin with post-1945 migration, and he takes to task scholars such as Harry Goulbourne who suggest otherwise. While admitting that black and Asian people represented a novelty in the period he studies - most of the population had little or no contact with them - the country also contained established minorities, particularly Jews, who totalled about half a million, as well as a smaller Italian community that received much public attention after Mussolini's declaration of war upon Britain in June 1940, when they faced riots and internment.

As mentioned above, Kushner's aim is to demonstrate the complexity of attitudes towards ethnic minorities, and he has previously written about "cultures of ambivalence". Ambivalence does not come through strongly in this text. Instead, we might divide attitudes towards minorities in Britain during the period under consideration into three categories, although the full range is far more complex and subtle.

First, curiosity, especially towards black and Asian people because of their small numbers. In this context, Kushner examines attitudes towards "exotic" performers in Blackpool among people from "Worktown".

Then there is hostility, which is revealed in each of the different types of material that Mass-Observation produced, contextualised by Kushner against the background of the extant literature upon minorities in Britain during this period. By using Mass-Observation, Kushner reveals what we might describe as "basic" views of minorities, particularly in his analysis of views towards black people after the 1939 race directive, which focused particularly on aspects of appearance, including perceived smell, driven partly by unfamiliarity, but also by a number of other factors analysed by Kushner, including empire and Hollywood.

Examining an era in which anti-Semitism was part of everyday life in most European states, Kushner also reveals the levels of hostility that existed towards Jews. Some of the remarks could equally have come from a hardened Nazi. One diarist could write, in response to Nazi policies: "I do not blame Hitler wishing to be rid of the Jews but I don't like his cruelties.

Yet how could one prevent this great Jewish octopus fixing its claws all over the world except by desperate means?"

Finally, at the other end of the scale, Kushner examines the diaries of several individuals who reveal positive views towards ethnic minorities in their midst, as well as demonstrating their shock and despair at events in Nazi-occupied Europe.

This study concludes by pointing to the lack of inter-ethnic relations highlighted in the Cantle report following the "northern riots" in the summer of 2001.

Kushner has produced an extremely important and readable analysis of everyday attitudes towards ethnic minorities in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. The most important revelation that he presents is the complexity of such attitudes, as well as the range of British identities as revealed in the writing he tackles.

His book ends with a promise of a further volume, which will deal with attitudes towards ethnic minorities following the rebirth of Mass-Observation activity in the early 1980s after several dormant decades.

Kushner offers glimpses of attitudes, some of which have been tainted by the growth of hostility towards asylum-seekers. We await this study with eagerness, as it is likely to provide a more complex analysis of attitudes.

Panikos Panayi is professor of European history, De Montfort University.

We Europeans? Mass-Observation, "Race" and British Identity in the 20th Century

Author - Tony Kushner
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 281
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 7546 0206 0

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