Dining across the divide: ‘If we had been on a train, we wouldn’t have spoken – but we had so much in common’
Russell, 37, London
Occupation University lecturer in British and European politics
Voting record Has voted in five elections for three different parties, based on who seemed best on the day, not tribal loyalty
Amuse bouche Bumped into Jacob Rees-Mogg in a House of Commons toilet and convinced him they shared a bottle of wine at a Tory conference. Russell has never been to a Conservative conference
Zaf, 33, London
Occupation Director of analytics at a large FTSE 100 firm
Voting record Usually Labour
Amuse bouche Instead of a midlife crisis, is having a hipster life crisis and engaging with moustache wax and fixie bikes
Zaf I had a crab salad and a hen of the woods, which is a mushroom that’s supposed to taste like chicken. It did, vaguely. It tasted more like mushroom, but I like mushrooms.
Russell I had monkfish with – what’s that fancy ham called? – Parma ham. Zaf was affable and friendly – we got on like a house on fire.
Zaf I was a little intimidated because he has a PhD in political science. But we got on insanely well.
The big beef
Russell My concern over large-scale immigration is that it fuels the far right. I don’t think it changes the country or the culture. But if it’s too fast, we’re going to end up handing Tommy Robinson the keys to Downing Street. It leads to the host country becoming really protectionist and nationalist. And I don’t think that’s unique to Britain. If there was rapid immigration into Japan or India, the same thing would happen.
Zaf The rhetoric right now is dangerous. I’m a British Asian, the child of first-generation immigrants, and my dad’s from east Africa, the same diaspora as Priti Patel’s father. It is no coincidence that these policymakers are Asian; it’s the first front of legitimacy. I can’t see how they would be able to take such a hardline stance if they were white.
Russell I thought he agreed with open borders, but it was more complicated than that. We both think the current system is broken, and needs to be significantly reformed to accommodate refugees fleeing situations that we have caused. We talked about the complete disaster of Afghanistan, and how our government screwed it up. Of course we should accept Ukrainian refugees, but why don’t we have the same compassion towards people who aren’t white?
Zaf We have to figure out a legitimate, legal route for people to apply for asylum before we start shutting off other routes. I have experience in conflict areas, and I’ve spent time with families who had to flee when the Taliban first invaded and when the Russians invaded. Without exception, the entire family doesn’t make it. They lose a sister, a mother. At what point in that journey were they meant to apply online? Until those routes are established, we can’t be turning away people.
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Russell We come from very different cultural backgrounds, and different religious and ethnic backgrounds. We ended up agreeing that sometimes a war is preferable to not intervening. With his experience in Kabul and mine of working with Nato, we thought we would come from totally different sides.
Zaf Bizarrely, we agreed on the concept of humanitarian military intervention. When I was in Afghanistan, we could see the positives immediately. I was able to hire women, I could see the impact locally. As soon as we left, the writing was on the wall.
Russell We discussed imperial nostalgia and whether that informed Brexit. He was saying that in the former colonies there’s a lot of imperial nostalgia, but we never talk about it. But we can’t change the empire, we can’t change Brexit. We both have the attitude that what’s done is done – we’ve got to play the cards we’ve been dealt and move on.
Zaf The point I put to him, which he agreed on, is why are we not taught about the empire in schools? Then it defeats racism at the root, because if you’re more aware of how Britain was established, you’re much less likely to judge other cultures as alien or foreign when they’re part of your story.
Russell If we had been on a train, we wouldn’t have spoken. Yet it turned out that we had so much in common. It’s not in the realm of big politics that British people can reconcile. It’s in the little everyday things. We both love Greggs and Alan Partridge.
Zaf It was more like a Blind date than Dining across the divide. I got his number, and we’re going to meet up.
Additional reporting: Kitty Drake
• Russell and Zaf ate at The Chelsea Pig in London.
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