To be a columnist in 2020, whether online or in the crumpled pages of what exists of the written press, can feel like going into war with the public every day. What once was the occasional chiding letter from a reader has given way over time to a barrage of below-the-line comment almost every time you take to your keyboard, culminating in brutal Twitter takedowns and, earlier this year, the conviction of three men for an attack on Guardian columnist Owen Jones, which targeted him for his published left-wing political views.
Sathnam Sanghera is the Switzerland amid such escalating conflict. Seemingly respected across the political spectrum, his erudite opinions tend to attract thoughtful responses rather than vitriol – partly, he admits, because he has his social media settings “really high” but also because he believes people are “nice” and generally want to engage in debate rather than personal attacks.
It may also be because they feel Sanghera is a friend. While his bread and butter remains a Times column looking at the offbeat and under-reported aspects of business life – “business is a way of thinking about life”, he says, when asked why this strand of his writing remains so important – he also authored a powerful book, The Boy with the Topknot, detailing his Sikh upbringing in Wolverhampton and his family’s struggles with his father’s schizophrenia. It was later dramatised on BBC2 and won a legion of fans who have become interested, via Sanghera’s journalism, in the back story of a Cambridge graduate who became one of few non-white faces offering regular commentary in the British press.
All of which makes it a decidedly risky move to dive into the topic of the British empire. And yet Empireland, Sanghera’s new book, which comes out in January 2021, will examine just how Britain’s colonial past shaped its present day culture and collective outlook. Unsurprisingly, he expects a “very intense, negative reaction among certain people” but hopes to “carry the majority of my readers into a more sophisticated, deeper understanding of the legacy of empire”. Work. spoke to him on a visit home to Wolverhampton to find out what he hopes we’ll learn along the way – and how he expects business to cope with our new ways of working.
As a working writer, how have you found lockdown?
Like many writers, I’ve always worked between the office and home, the library, the coffee shop. I guess now everyone is coming round to our way of working. We’re finally ahead of the curve. But there are lots of people concluding that the office is over and we don’t need it anymore. I’m going in the opposite direction.
I’m living with my two nieces at the moment who are in their twenties – one of them is looking for a job and one is a graduate trainee. The end of the office would be an utter disaster for them. They can’t network, can’t do work experience, can’t get a job. A lot of the people driving the ‘let’s give up on offices’ narrative are those who are established in their careers and they’re not considering the repercussions for other people.
On a personal level, I’ve been off journalism for about a year while I wrote this book and the thing I miss almost more than anything else is the office. I just think it’s essential for people who work in the creative industries to see each other and talk and discuss ideas – and also be told when we’re doing things wrong. Otherwise we’re just working in a vacuum. It’s going to work for a while but, ultimately, I think the office is going to come back bigger than ever.
You’re in Wolverhampton at the moment. Can the London media sometimes feel like a bubble, and how important is it to get out of it?
I am part of the liberal elite in the sense that I live in north London, I work in the media and I have liberal views, but I am from Wolverhampton and I come back here regularly. My family are here and this is one of the most Brexit parts of the country, while I live in one of the most Remain parts. There’s a tendency nowadays, with the culture wars, to believe the worst about your political enemies. I try not to do that. I don’t hate the people who voted for Brexit. I think they had legitimate concerns and they voted with their heads. I still think they made a mistake.
There’s London and then there’s Britain. They are two different countries. There’s a bigger divide between London and Wolverhampton than between London and New York. I don’t know if enough has been done to bridge that divide. I know Boris Johnson wants to, but it’s a profound thing and even the idea of putting the House of Lords in a different city is already being watered down; HS2 is always up in the air.
If you grow up outside London, you’re always aware of the London provincial divide in that if you want to live a life of the mind, you have to go to London. I wouldn’t want to join in the bashing of London. But the problem comes when it is so difficult to afford [to live] here. When I started out, I could just about afford to live here but nowadays it’s impossible for working class people.
Is the culture war you describe a real thing or a media invention?
Having been learning about empire for two years, the culture war is very much a real thing. You see it with the trans debate, where people who are generally left wing – or basically centrists – are trying to destroy each other.
One of the reasons I love Twitter is that it makes you love people you don’t know and it introduces you to new people. It’s changed my life and it’s been a wonderful thing, but in the last year being on Twitter has meant watching people who in my view mainly have the same politics fall out with one another to the point where they’re trying to get each other sacked or cancelled.
I really like [columnist] Toby Young’s book, for example. I followed him on Twitter, he followed me, yet suddenly we’re on opposite sides of a culture war and we’re meant to hate each other and I don’t want to particularly. You can’t be curious. You can’t just say ‘I don’t know’. Right from the beginning, you have to pick a side. You’re certainly not allowed to change your opinion, because people will have evidence of you saying the opposite thing and they’ll produce it.
Does that extend to the idea of ‘cancel culture’ [where public figures complain they are losing work because of campaigns against their views]?
I’m sceptical of cancel culture. I don’t think most of the people who say they’ve been cancelled actually have been. They’ve had their opinions in newspapers or they’ve written or been on YouTube. Free speech and cancel culture are two very different things and I’m not even sure what cancel culture means. People who genuinely have been cancelled and can’t get work, like Katie Hopkins, I would say deserve it. But their freedom of speech hasn’t been curtailed. They’re still spouting off all sorts of vicious hatred.
What about the British empire attracted you as a topic, and what prior knowledge did you bring to it?
I was taught nothing about empire at all, to such a degree that, even when we were taught about World Wars I and II, it wasn’t mentioned that millions of black and Asian people had fought for Britain, a country that had colonised them. It was omitted. It would have made a racially diverse student body engage in the story and the history.
We were taught about the Irish potato famine but no one drew a parallel to the Bengal famine, which would have made it real to us. It’s been a process of education to me, and the book isn’t about how empire shaped the world – which is the normal narrative you get – but how having an empire has shaped Britain: how politics has been shaped by empire, how much of our wealth was created through empire, how our psychology was shaped by it, our multiculturalism and our racism. When I started writing it, it seemed a really esoteric subject but then in the middle of it all the statues started coming down and suddenly it was the stuff of national headlines. I had the odd experience of my weird topic becoming relevant. It was like being a Chesney Hawkes fan and Chesney Hawkes suddenly being number one.
Does empire still exist as a real concept or is it just an abstract now?
I’ve concluded it’s a tangible thing because empire explains so much about us. Even the reason I’m here is someone invaded India in the 18th century. We do not teach that basic fact in this country. Why are we a multicultural society? Because we had a multicultural empire. Why is the City of London such an important institution? Because we had an empire. I would argue Brexit is about empire in various ways too. We don’t see ourselves as a country that ran the biggest empire in human history and I’d say that is dysfunctional. It’s at the heart of why we don’t know ourselves.
It can be hard to look at. There were a lot of massacres and a lot of famines. I am as British as I am Indian and it’s a really painful thing. It was genocide at times and I don’t want my country to be a country that supports genocide. Some people might think I’m not being angry enough but I can’t be angry entirely about something that made me as a British Sikh. I am empire – the Sikhs fought for the empire during the mutiny and during two World Wars. To say I hate it would be to deny that experience. But I can’t love it and that’s an unusual position in a debate that is very black and white.
You often write about race as a topic. Would you rather people didn’t always bring things back to your Asian background or do you feel it’s important to discuss it?
As one of few people of colour on Fleet Street, I really believe it’s important that people of colour aren’t always forced to write about race. In my case, I established myself writing about other things; for example, at the Financial Times I rarely wrote about race. Now it’s a small part of what I do.
It’s perfectly fine for me to occasionally write about it and it’s important to me as a subject, but I would hate it if it was the only thing I did and I hate it when the only time you see people of colour in magazines or newspapers is when they’re writing about race. We’ll only have made it when you get black and Asian people writing about economics and business.
Which brings us to why the media is so white…
I’ve thought about this a lot recently because I chaired Creative Access, which is a charity that gets black and Asian kids into the media. I didn’t think about it at all during the first 10 years of my career because I thought ‘well if I can make it, anyone can’, which is the thinking a lot of politicians of colour have too. But then I looked around and saw nobody else from my sort of background was making it – and that’s not just about race, it’s class as well.
Fleet Street hasn’t really improved since I started 20 years ago and statistically it’s one of the least representative industries we have. There are a number of reasons for that but one of the main ones, which is an awkward one, is nepotism. A lot of people who work in media know people who work there, and they come from a social group that really want to work there. You’ve got working class people from outside London who don’t even know how to get into media and don’t try.
To what extent do you think the same criticisms are true of business more broadly?
Business has never been good at going beyond a certain point. Nothing in business has depressed me more than the question of diversity on boards because the ambition of the Parker review – that we should have no totally white boards – is weak, hardly anything at all. It just means one person out of 12 should not be white. But even that has been resisted at such a profound level, and has been opposed by some of the campaigns for gender equality too.
We’re so far behind America. We’re so far behind the demographics of our own country – some towns are already a majority minority, if that’s the right phrase, and within 20 or 30 years this country is going to be 30 or 40 per cent ethnic minority and we’re not thinking about that at all. We’ll be fighting over immigrant talent one day, but business is blind to these megatrends.
Black Lives Matter has woken them up not just to the moral problem but to the business problem – markets are changing, and young people care about that stuff in a way my generation doesn’t. They notice, and the conversation is changing. It’s like zoos. People of my generation thought zoos were OK. You take a young person to a zoo now and they say ‘why have you brought me to this torture chamber?’ Young people have had enough. They don’t tolerate everything we put up with.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2020 issue of Work, the magazine for CIPD fellows