Jon Garland & Neil Chakraborti, University of Leicester
During the first few months of 2011 the issue of how we define and understand English national identity frequently hit the news headlines. Prompted by a number of factors, including Prime Minister David Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism in a speech in February and the provocative marches of the English Defence League, high-profile debates have been triggered surrounding conceptions of ethnicity, ‘race’, religion, community, belonging and Englishness.
However, one of the most controversial entries into these discussions was made almost inadvertently by Mr Brian True-May, the executive producer of the long-running, rural-based police TV show Midsomer Murders, in an interview with Radio Times in March. When asked about the ethnic make-up of the fictitious Midsomer area, Mr True-May stated that: ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved [in the show] … Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work. Suddenly we might be in Slough’. Following these comments True-May was suspended by the production company that makes the series and vilified in certain parts of the national press.
Interestingly, though, when we conducted our own extensive research into racism in rural areas we found that such opinions and values – which equate the countryside exclusively and unthinkingly with white Englishness – were far from uncommon amongst white rural residents and were in fact echoed in many rural towns and villages. The countryside was, for a number of those we spoke to, the ‘last bastion’ of old-fashioned Englishness which needed to be preserved from the encroachment of the ‘evils’ of late modernity.
Not only that, this idea of Englishness was essentially monocultural, in all its forms – white, heterosexual, middle-class, conformist, family-orientated, church-going, conservative and ‘safe’. Minority ethnic incomers were often treated with suspicion as many white rural residents felt that they belonged only in the city, with all its concomitant ‘negative’ attributes of noise, pollution, crime and, crucially for some, multiculturalism. The rural, in their eyes, was an escape from all of those things, and the presence of a minority ethnic family suggested that the city was somehow ‘invading’ the space of the tranquil rural they so treasured.
Our research also found that minority ethnic incomers into the countryside often felt the brunt of this hostility, whether it be through episodes of so-called ‘low-level’ verbal harassment and hostility, or via (thankfully rare) incidents of violent assault. Families were frequently left feeling isolated, not only from their immediate communities but also from fellow minority ethnic rural residents (who were often scattered, in small numbers, across quite large landscapes).Commonly, they also felt forgotten or overlooked by criminal justice agencies, who seemingly refused to take their victimisation seriously, believing that racism could not be a problem in their area as the number of minority ethnic people living there was relatively low.
Fortunately the research did uncover some positive responses to the diversification of rural space, albeit a minority, and this is perhaps reflective of the evolving attitudes and shifting demographics that are becoming evident in many towns and villages. For example, we spoke to many white people who had no problem living alongside ethnic minorities, and even some ethnic minority residents who enjoyed ‘standing out’ as they did in their rural communities.
However, we should not underestimate the extent to which prejudice can be embedded within the mindsets of many rural dwellers. Indeed, when we wrote about these issues in an opinion piece for the Leicester Mercury we received a stream of abuse (including a death threat letter from someone signing themselves ‘Death Incarnate’) from readers of the paper outraged that we were challenging their obviously preciously-held notions of an idyllic, crime-free and tolerant rural landscape.
A recent article about our work in the online version of the Daily Mail prompted 412 comments from readers, many of which were overtly hostile to the premise and findings of our research. Many people clearly felt very affronted by our less than ‘green and pleasant’ take on life in the countryside for some minority ethnic households, as if by highlighting this issue we were somehow challenging the very idea of Englishness itself.
Perhaps that’s the problem in a nutshell: for many people, notions of Englishness are very much bound up with images of an unspoilt countryside and its gently undulating landscape of farms, cottages and hedgerows, itself a very nostalgic form of national identity redolent of an England left behind many decades ago. It also, of course, pre-dates the advent of post-war multiculturalism, and for some white rural residents, and seemingly for Mr True-May and his conception of Midsomer Murders, this is the way that they want it to stay – whatever the realities of modern rural living may actually be.
Jon has published four books: Racism and Anti-racism in Football (with Mike Rowe); The Future of Football (with Mike Rowe and Dominic Malcolm), Rural Racism (with Neil Chakraborti), and Hate Crime: Impact, Causes, and Consequences (also with Neil Chakraborti). He has had numerous journal articles and reports published on issues of racism, community safety, hate crime, policing, cultural criminology, and identity.
Neil is a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Research Advisory Group, and is the lead organiser (with Jon Garland) of the Partnership Against Targeted Hate (PATH), a knowledge exchange partnership between the University of Leicester and regional criminal justice organisations. Neil has published widely on issues of hate crime, victimisation and policing diversity. He is editor of Rural Racism (Willan, 2004, with Jon Garland), author of Hate Crime: Impact, Causes and Responses (Sage, 2009, also with Jon Garland) and editor of Hate Crime: Concepts, Policy, Future Directions (Willan, 2010).
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