Satnam Singh


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ORCID-ID: 0000-0002-2017-4310
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Defiance and Thatcher

Wednesday 10 April 2024


Defiance and Thatcher are in the news this week, and both had a profound effect on me and my family, my father in particular. To others UB40 is a band, but to us it was the unemployment form (welfare) that we lived by after my father (along with other immigrants) was first in line to be laid off as a labourer at Ravenscraig steel works just outside Glasgow as part of the Thatcher era cuts. He never worked again (with many of the unsurprising consequences). He did not earn much anyway (I remember “qualifying” for free school meals, i.e. even in work we were in poverty). I will never forgive Thatcher and The Conservatives for what we had to live through.

The story of “come to Britain and work on the buses and building sites” just seemed exploitative and transactional, and our second class status is still deeply ingrained in me even today. My school friends never believed me when I told them about the racial abuse and physical violence we suffered.

I would get randomly stopped walking down the street and bundled into the back of a police van. To this day I still sometimes flinch when I see a policeman in the UK. We would pay to use to council/city baths once a week to get washed (the five of us lived in a bedsit with no bath/shower) and I recall one day trying in vain to scrub my skin, again and again, hoping desperately to scrape away the brown and become white and accepted by British society.

However, racism seemed checkered, black and white, acute in some aspects of society, almost absent in others. It’s as if my brown face was allowed in some aspects of British society, but barred from others. Education ended up being my only available path forward.

Being in poverty meant that I qualified for a government stipend to buy a school uniform (required at the local state school). I persuaded my parents to get me a cheap used uniform from a local charity shop and instead use the money to help buy a BBC Model A Microcomputer like the one the high school computing club had (note my Twitter handle, named after the chip in that computer). That one act initiated the line of dots that led me to go to university (with full financial support from the government back then since I came from a welfare family), complete two degrees, become an academic, and then go on to work in Silicon Valley. My parents were illiterate, but all of their children got PhDs and become lecturers. Sadly that level of state support is much eroded now in the UK.

I recall recently asking a friend why he was going to an Eric Clapton concert, pointing out Clapton’s racist comments, Rock Against Racism, and his continued troubling behaviour. He said he liked his music and was going anyway. There have been many occasions like this that were a slap in the face, a reminder that even my friends don’t really care/accept/value me as a fellow Brit, and which just helped to emphasized my continued belief that even with a First Class British Airways ticket, I am still a second class citizen. The feeling of not belonging, being an imposter etc. is deeply ingrained in me today, and I don’t have the words to describe how out of place I felt at the companies I worked at like Google, Microsoft and Facebook, surrounded by peers from Ivy League universities who definitely did not grow up on welfare.

It’s taken a long time to call myself “Scottish”, it was made very clear to me when I was growing up by my fellow Scots that I was in no way Scottish. Consequently I preferred “British”. I’ve tried to reclaim a bit of my Scottish identity and a few years ago I wrote “Punjabi-Scottish-American” in my Twitter bio, something that felt very difficult and awkward for me to do. Glasgow has changed a lot and now I feel a bit more comfortable in my own skin, and I can say I am “Scottish” without fear of ridicule or laughter. However, there is still plenty of racism in Glasgow.

We’ve raised two mixed race kids in Silicon Valley and like every parent we’ve tried to give them a life without the troubles we had to endure. My daughter is now studying in Glasgow. How that worked out (which is complicated) will be left for a later tweet.

So on this day I would definitely like to add my voice to the “celebrations” about Thatcher. And I hope my Eric Clapton loving friends find some time to watch Defiance.


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