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What Happened When We Asked The Public To Finish The Sentence 'My Britain Is...'

27/03/2017 17:43 | Updated 28 March 2017

Is the UK a divided place? What are the things that divide us? What are the bonds that unite us?

Is it class and wealth, immigration and segregation, is it where we live and our perception of others based on where they live that divides us, even though we may be of the same ethnicity?

Those are the questions that we were asking our Afternoon Edition audience on BBC Radio 5 live all last week. Deep diving into the lives and experiences of communities living in the UK offered everything from views on immigration to concerns about the NHS, social mobility and where people say they're from.

Today we have unveiled a mural in Peterborough, painted by members of the public and exploring the theme My Britain Is....

It is an uplifting portrayal of a multicultural community living happily side by side.

I grew up in a village in Essex, as you can probably imagine there wasn't a huge British Sri Lankan community there. In fact I knew every one of them and they all lived in the same house, our house. There was no choice but to integrate but that was a good thing. As a child I realised there was racism and once or twice I thought about how much easier life would be if I had fairer skin. I also realised that for every racist there were far more non racists. My childhood, and most importantly my parents, taught me that there is much more that unites us than divides us.

Last week's terrorist incident at Westminster was deeply shocking. It was designed to create division and chaos. A few days after that shocking act, it seems to me that integration is one of the greatest challenges of our times. How will we all learn to get along with each other? The differences between assimilation and integration. What are the psychological and structural barriers that prevent us from living side by side with each other. Is it perfectly reasonable to accept that whole communities are living two distinct experiences without any real need to ever meaningfully mix with one another.

mural

Last week being able to discuss whether the United Kingdom is divided or not on air with BBC 5 live has given the audience the opportunity to share their thoughts about some of their most pressing concerns.

The EU referendum divided the country with 52% voting to leave and 48% voting to remain. For the majority it was salvation, validation and celebration. In the immediate aftermath the police and various monitoring groups recorded rises in reports of hate crime. Friends, colleagues and families fell out over the decision.

These tensions and frustrations obviously existed before Brexit. But the E.U referendum gave some people the voice they craved. A minority of those voices, especially on social media, preferred to revel in sowing the seeds of division.

On the day Theresa May announced the date on which she would be triggering Article 50, we took our show to Peterborough, a city where 61% voted to leave Europe.

Bringing together fifteen local people in Peterborough to explore community and identity through public art, we asked them to crowd-produce a mural that represents their common view of today's Britain, a creative way of looking at unity and division within what some now - post-Brexit vote - call a fractured UK.

We opened the conversation out to 5live listeners to share their thoughts on what divides us. Having an ongoing conversation with the UK audience is our raison d'etre.

One caller was particularly striking about whether wealth and class divide us. She was a Kenyan who now lives in Northern Ireland. She called in to say the barriers to her progressing in this country are so insurmountable that she is considering moving, both herself and her family, back to Nairobi. We also heard from an 18 year old student who wants be upper class one day. A woman of Italian parentage told us quite robustly that British Values were Christian values. These are the voices that 5live can bring to the forefront.

The Runnymede Trust told me we all too often focus on the whiteness of the white working class, ignoring geography and socio-economic disadvantage. And the debate on identity and where in the UK you come from provided a fascinating audience view including the man from Liverpool who says the city has a far better standing internationally compared within the UK, North v South, Asians in the Nations and the rivalry between Yorkshire and everyone else.

We asked people to complete the sentence, My Britain Is...For Goldie it's about the steel of Sheffield, from olde to borough markets, it's about art, music and the pebble stones of Fleet Street.

And we received hundreds of texts when we asked our audience to finish the sentence 'My Britain is...' From 'My Britain is a multicultural hell hole' sent by a listener who made a point of letting us knowing that he was black - to this text from another listener who wrote 'My Britain is....happy, sad, annoying, pleasing, challenging, rewarding, but most of all a place where I'm free to say what I really feel and to listen to others.'

Nihal Arthanayake presents BBC Radio 5 live's Afternoon Edition with Sarah Brett 1-4pm Monday to Thursday. All last week the programme asked listeners to answer the question My Britain Is... and today they unveiled a special mural painted by members of the public in Peterborough on this theme, which you can see below

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