A Word of Advice


First broadcast on BBC Radio 4, A POINT OF VIEW

Twenty years ago, Lord Woolf, then a senior British judge, gave a talk to newly minted lawyers. In the Q&A afterwards, a young black barrister asked if Woolf had any advice for someone ”like her.“ Woolf knew exactly what she meant. “Be better than them,” he simply said.

The former judge could have lamented the injustices the black newcomer might face, but instead he chose to answer her question with actionable advice, and very good advice I believe.

With an opening like that, you might rightly wonder if I’m going to discuss racism. But let me stay, if I may, with this matter of giving advice.

I think good advice should reflect what the adviser, in good faith, considers best for the advisee.

A financial adviser won’t tell you to increase your spending because it’ll grow the economy, as governments believe. For the same reason, when working class aspiring writers seek careers advice from me, a novelist, I don’t tell them they should go into literary fiction because it would correct an underrepresentation. My advice to writers from a background like mine, who, also like me, have very modest incomes is not to go into literary fiction. It simply doesn’t pay.

Perhaps it’s advice like Lord Woolf’s—“be better than them”—that drives many Asians academically. For some years now, Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese British students have all greatly outperformed White British counterparts in Mathematics, English and other subjects, in exams at ‘A’ Level, GCSE and other stages. 

That said, isn’t everyone told that to get on in this life you’ve got to get ahead?

Yet there’s one piece of advice that’s always stood out for me, advice my white British friends seem never to receive but which I’ve had the good fortune to be given on many occasions. 

If you don’t like it here—so the advice goes—you can always leave. And, as advice goes, it’s actually not that bad. We can even correct it’s obvious flaw, that it doesn’t help the misanthrope who hates it here here but knows he’d hate it even more  elsewhere. Naturally, this calls to mind Winston Churchill—what doesn’t?—and his quip that democracy is terrible but it’s better than the alternatives. Maybe someone should’ve told Mr Churchill that if he didn’t like democracy he could always go abroad and live under, say, despotism.

The better advice is to consider going somewhere else that suits you personally, although this too hardly contains a penetrating insight. I’ll bet most of the millions of Brits who’ve migrated abroad came to the same thought without such guidance. 

Retirees, for instance. And the three quarters of a million Brits living in the EU outside Britain, most of them workers. Britain also experiences brain drains, recently in the 2000s and now an ongoing one in very recent years. Then there’s the tech entrepreneur leaving Britain in the belief that, say, the US West coast offers better access to next round funding for her business. Importantly, choosing to migrate is always reflective of a personal calculation no one but the migrant can make.

In 1959, the great James Baldwin explained why he, an African-American, had emigrated to France, a country convulsing from its racist horrors in Algeria:  “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem.” 

The fury that Baldwin describes has never gone away, and anger today informs the various movements we’re witnessing. Christ’s beatitudes are a model of all that is kind and gentle but don’t forget the man went on a rampage in the temple.

When Dr Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council expert on Russia, testified before a congressional committee last autumn, I was moved to tears.

“I was born in the north east of England,” she said. “The men in my father’s family were coal miners and always struggled with poverty. I came to start graduate studies in the US. Years later I can say with confidence that this country has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England…This background has never set me back in America.”

My advice to young working class people with strong academic credentials—including those of African heritage—is to grasp that America is many different countries, a union as ever, and to seize any opportunity in the east coast, where class does matter but it’s read very differently: Your academics overcomes class to a vastly greater degree than in Europe: the US has the powerful narrative, not wholly mythical, of the Ellis island immigrant who works in a sweatshop but whose children become doctors, bankers and Supreme Court Justices. You alone will know your specific circumstances but, all other things being equal, go West is what I say, go West.

In many ways, it’s the migrants out of Britain who, I would have thought, should preoccupy this country the most. What advice are they getting? 

Well before Covid-19, the British medical establishment warned of a crisis at breaking point: Doctors have been leaving the NHS in vast numbers, many going to America, Australia, and everywhere. Failure to conduct exit interviews has hobbled efforts to uncover the doubtless multiplicity of reasons.

Listening to my friend Yousaf Ali, I’ve learned about some of those reasons. In the 90s, he and 9 other junior doctors of his acquaintance together left the UK for the US. Yousaf’s father had been a doctor in the British Army for many decades and Yousaf was about as British as we get. But Yousaf felt there was no clearly defined endpoint to the training and noticed a disparity in how doctors of color were being treated professionally.

It’s easy to forget the scandal of St George’s Medical School’s admissions process. The school co-operated with an enquiry and we know that, by design, the process docked you 15 points if your name was “non-European” and 3 points if it was female. The school admitted that the algorithm was written to mimic the outcomes of document-based initial human sifting, before interviews. The result was that possibly around 60 students a year were being wrongly turned away—and this from before the algorithm was written—60 candidates a year who were all prima facie better than some of those admitted. Later research showed that St George’s was actually less discriminatory than most medical schools but was the only one caught because its process was there in code to see. The case makes tough reading unless you have a strong stomach and an appetite for the lucidly written but technical articles in the world’s leading computing journals.

Yousaf said that the 10 new doctors who left together for the States had one thing in common: As he put it, “an abundance of melanin.” Now a physician and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, one of the world’s leading hospitals, Yousaf’s too modest to say so himself, but he’s a leader in his field. And others in his cohort are also stars. All of them have made wonderful lives for themselves and their families, while doing what doctors do: helping people.

Black and Asian medical staff face unusually high risks from Covid-19, and at the same time make up a very disproportionately large number of our doctors and nurses. Whether government is responding to their plight, some of them will believe that the government is failing. Then there’s the racism that still besets the NHS. Rhetoric won’t allay anxiety: evidence, after all, is the stock in trade of the science in which doctors are trained. What would you advise them, knowing that they can always leave? And is that really advice or are you just venting an opinion?

Of course, ”leave if you don’t like it here” isn’t mere advice. It has all the markings of a wish. Britain’s toxic racism is something I’ll discuss more in another broadcast but here I’m just considering one aspect of its toll on Britain. Wishing someone would leave is your right. But can I offer a word of advice, in good faith? Be careful what you wish for. Not only might you get it, you already are.