Hers is one of the (if not the) best known black faces in Britain, Baroness Valerie Amos the just demitted Leader of the House of Lords. Lady Amos, born in Guyana 53 years ago and a founder member of the so called ‘Guyanese mafia’ delivered a stark warning about the dangers of racial segregation in the Third Coventry Cathedral lecture recently.
Lady Amos was speaking with passion on ‘Faith and Diversity’ from the pulpit of the Cathedral which had arisen from the ashes of the previous one – reduced to near destruction by Hitler’s bombers sixty years ago. She called the magnificent cathedral ‘a fitting tribute to the fortitude of the people of Coventry’.
She saluted the people of Coventry with whom she has close links having been an undergraduate at the City’s prestigious Warwick University thirty plus years before. Being back, she said, brought back fond memories of being one of the few black faces then on campus.
Since then, Britain has admitted many more migrants. Their presence is the source of much strength and not a little tension.
“They make a musical, culinary and economic contribution to the UK. The nature of Britain in our time is now very different”, she said. Yet the former Cabinet Minister pointed to towns like Dewsbury in Yorkshire where separate Asian areas have evolved: simply mono racial.
Like, her countryman Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights, she does not regard this as an entirely healthy development. Phillips talked of Britain “sleepwalking towards segregration”. Lady Amos said we should ‘Celebrate diversity but it is also a source of serious tensions in our society. Diversity is the enemy of community” she warned. She was chastened by a very recent visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements in Israel .That showed that ‘geographical separation simply does not work’
She compared the UK today to forty-eight years ago when her parents first brought her from Guiana to the ‘Motherland’ to live. She was just six.
Her parents, Michael a headmaster and Dolly a teacher from Wakenaam chose to settle in Kent with Valerie and her younger brother and sister.
It was not easy being pioneers she recalled “we came to Britain and had a comfortable middle class lifestyle” but “my parents came to find opportunity, instead they found racism and prejudice here”. (Dolly Amos now in her late 70’s was in the front row of the Cathedral to hear her daughter deliver this significant lecture. She looked on very proud).
Valerie recalled her first impressions: “The Britain to which I came was very different to today -it was still adjusting to the end of post-war rationing.” She recalled the experience of her parents too – it was not as they had seen in the history books back home, “My Father could not believe his eyes”.
Being a migrant, albeit a very successful one from a young age, moulded the young Valerie Amos. “The experience of migration, difficult to describe, had a major influence in shaping my politics – my strong commitment to humanity, my belief in fair play.”
Since Coventry and Warwick University in the 1970’s, Valerie recalled, the benefits of being black meant gaining free entry to all black acts playing at the University by simply saying “we’re with the band.” Valerie Amos has studied at the University of Birmingham before working in local government then as Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and then entering the House of Lords in 1997 as a Labour Peer. There she became a minister successively in Health and Social Security and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before becoming a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet as Secretary of State for international development in 2003 and then, later that year, Leader of the House of Lords, the first black woman to do the job, to 2007.She demitted office on the change of Prime Minister from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown last June and is currently waiting to see whether she has succeeded in her (and PM Brown’s) application for her to become the EU ambassador to Africa.
Back in her adopted home, the UK, Lady Amos reasserted the huge contribution of migrants especially the 550,000 of Caribbean origin to the ‘motherland: She said “The shape of the world is changing. Britain is now a multi faith society” and that could only be for the good: “I believe passionately in a multi faith, multi heritage society Blacks and Asians should not feel marginalized. Racism needs to be challenged” she counselled.
Lady Amos fiercely proud of her Guyanese roots takes every opportunity to water them. She commended this writer for his ‘indomitable’ pursuit and writings on the progress of the ‘Guyanese mafia’- a term of much endearment in her view. She saluted Birmingham Headmaster Sir Dexter Hutt and Warwick University Professor David Dabydeen, fellow ‘Guyanese mafia’ members who were in the 250-strong audience. More, she later announced she was prepared to spearhead a trip back for the ‘mafia’ to Carifesta in Guyana in August next year. Others have since indicated a willingness to follow her. It could be very fruitful and enjoyable.
Temporarily out of office but never out of ideas, Lady Amos has plenty of life and much career left in her yet.