35th Tacitus Lecture - Interview with Lord Hastings and Professor David Olusoga

Lord Hastings: Hello, I’m Michael Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick and I’m with David Olusoga who is our special guest this evening at the Tacitus Lecture at the Guildhall in London.

David: I’m professor David Olusoga and it’s my pleasure to be here.  

Lord Hastings: So, I’m going to ask David a couple of questions, I already know he knows all the answers. But the first one is, knowing that the purpose of the Black Business Association is to encourage a better engagement with the economy that black organisations and businesses need, when you look at the horizon of need, what do you think is the pinch point that we’re missing so far - how do we raise the level of investment?

David: Almost everywhere I go, I see, and I get to speak to a lot of different companies in lots of different sectors and to lots of entrepreneurs, a lot of initiatives for start-up. I don’t see the support there to allow their companies to build their careers and to develop. And I think it’s not enough about opening doors; it’s about planning routes through.

Lord Hastings: Just say bit more about that - the absence of support. Is that just economic support, investment support or is it also development of ideas and markets?

David: I think it is all three of those things. Also, like a lot of Black British people, when I go to the United States and I talk to African Americans, particularly African American businessmen and entrepreneurs, they are astonishing in their networking; in their expectations of support and in their ability to lobby and to push local politics to facilitate their needs. I often think we need to be more like African Americans in their ability to create these networks and to make the things they need apparent to those in power.

Lord Hastings: So, that’s exactly why the Black Business Association of the London Chamber of Commerce Industry is so important. It is a network. When you think about historic inequalities in financing and the city, how do you think we can change that?

David: If you think about the experiences of post-war Black migrants to Britain. This was a community that couldn’t get housing that was not from slum landlords. They were people who couldn’t be accepted as customers in businesses and shops. The idea that the world of finance or the world of entrepreneurship was open to people who couldn’t be accepted as customers, never mind as entrepreneurs, I think created a mindset that was self-deselecting. I think people felt that these doors were closed even when maybe they were more open than we might have imagined. For example, the history of the Caribbean – they’re deeply entrepreneurial. Look at the history of West Africa, incredibly entrepreneurial. That hasn’t been translated as effectively as it could be in communities when they have come here to Britain. I think there’s lots of historical reasons for that. But history can tell us what we’ve done in the past, the question is how do we solve it?

Lord Hastings: So, when you think about the history of the City in particular and how the City itself has realised great resources for what you might call traditional mainstream white businesses. What can we learn from that about how black businesses need to operate?

David: This is a country of networks. This is a country of informal networks. And minority communities, particularly the relatively recent communities are not embedded in those networks as much as peoples whose families have been here for many years. Knowing that is not the same as accepting that. I think we need to create, as we are doing – as is the purpose of this organisation [BBA] - new networks that can plug into those old networks. Saying that this is the way things have always been or these are the systems of patronage that have existed for a long time is not good enough. We need to change that.

Lord Hastings: Do you think that means we should change the colour of those that make decisions in the city and in finance and in institutions?

David: I think that’s an inevitable and necessary part of what needs to happen. In every sector that I talk to the big change that is needed is decision-making. We’re very good at getting young people of colour into various junior positions in various sectors. The big challenge that many sectors is how do you get people into decision-making and boardroom positions. If you walk into a business in London and everyone in the floor and everyone in the post room is a minority it seems entirely normal. If you walk into the boardroom and the boardroom is 50% non-white or even 36% non-white (which would just be the demographics of the workforce in London) that would strike you as unusual. And all that would be, would be an accurate reflection of the workforce of this city.  

Lord Hastings: And that kind of change is going to require decision-makers in the existing positions of authority to give way?

David: It does but it also requires people to feel a part of their work, a part of their job, a part of the legacy of their job is to be mentors, to be able to leave behind succession plans that are diverse. The end of someone’s career, their retirement, is a moment to look at your achievements and one of your achievements is having changed the dial on diversity and inclusion behind you.

Lord Hastings: Well, we often in this country look to governments in this country to be the epicentre and driver of change. And here in the city it is possible to say, the great traditional institutions of the city can be drivers of change. What would you lay upon them as their duty?

David: If any part of this country has a sort of independence historically from central government, it is the City of London and the Corporation. I think many people don’t understand how unique and how separate it is from the constraints on many other institutions in other parts of the country. With that extra power and leverage comes additional responsibility. The City is very proud of its traditions, those traditions I think convey upon us responsibility to use its power, to use its exceptionalism to bring about more dramatic change. So, I have to say, I talk to people in multiple sectors, and it often shocks people in the world I work in publishing, universities, television when I say there is more proactively, more energy for change in the financial sector than there is in these liberal sectors. So, no-one is doing well enough. There is a huge amount to be done. Our institutions don’t look like the Black population, and I think there is an increasing sense that that needs to be addressed and addressed urgently. But if we compared the liberal arts sector to finance – finance is doing better.

Lord Hastings: So, you’re a storyteller and we know you for that – all of your broadcasting and writing. As you look forward, what is the story of Black Britain 2050?

David: I’d like to think that that story is one that everyone appreciates is shared. We’re in a moment where some people feel threatened by emergence of these histories. They think that these histories are a threat to their histories and their identity. My history as someone whose ancestors came from Nigeria; it isn’t a threat to your history – it is your history. Black History does not belong to any ethnic group. The history of the empire does not belong to any ethnic group either. These are our shared stories. And I’d like to think, in 2050, that the generation who are at school now who are going to be the most diverse generation this country has ever seen, will effortlessly and instinctively feel that these are shared histories that belong to all.

Lord Hastings: And then, by having a shared history, somewhat into the future, they’ll equally own the right to be here?

David: Yeah, and it means a lot in a way that I think people who’ve never questioned their identity maybe don’t get; to feel that you have a warrant to exist in this country. It feels to me shocking and tragic that the 492 people who got off the Windrush in 1948 didn’t know that there had been Black stewards, Black Tudors and Black Edwardians and Black Victorians. And they didn’t realise they were forming communities in cities where there had been Black communities. To be a Black Londoner and to have just stepped off the Windrush – to have known about John Blanke, who was a Black Londoner in this city in 1511, I think that would have really meant something. I think that the job of historians is to provide people with those backstories. I think only people who have lacked them fully understand how valuable they can be.

Lord Hastings: It’s fascinating what you say about the reality of that history which is quite detailed. And if you try and tell the story to today’s young black generation who still in some ways want the protest of the curriculum that never tells us anything about our history… but yet you’ve provided it. How do you find the reaction of different generations to what is known?

David: The generation that is in school and university now - we often call them the sort of Facebook generation or the Instagram generation - they are also the Wikipedia generation. They have become entirely used and accustomed to having instant access to information and I think they really use it. They are also the first generation for whom these histories about empire, race and Black Britain are instantly available and they really are invested in this stuff and its not just Black kids. It’s very hard to be a teacher now because you miss something out or you skip a chapter that is relevant to young people in your lesson, they will go and research and then say, “What about this?” and “What about that?”, “What about this aspect of our history or these people? Or this demographic?” I think they are more accustomed to the idea that information should be readily available than any generation previously.

Lord Hastings: Thank you very much.

David: My pleasure.

To find out more about the BBA's involvement with the Tacitus lecture, please click here.