Who’s to blame for Bradford?
Fingering the far-Right is a way of evading the real problems in places such as Bradford and Oldham.
The National Front is neither national, nor capable of putting on much of a front. On Saturday, after NF supporters threatened to break the ban on marches in Bradford, police reported that five of them were ‘persuaded to turn back’ at the city’s railway station. They could literally count the fascist infiltrators on the fingers of one hand.
Yet when large-scale violence later broke, many rushed to accuse the NF of inciting ‘race riots’, just as it and the British National Party were blamed for stirring up earlier unrest in Oldham and Burnley.
In the 1980s claims that left-wing agitators were behind the riots in Britain’s inner cities were justifiably ridiculed. Now it seems that almost everybody will nod along with the notion that the far-Right is starting riots in towns across northern England.
Why must we flatter a handful of fascist morons by attributing so much influence to them? These simplistic explanations bear no relation to reality. In Bradford, for instance, the major clashes were between youths and riot police in the largely Asian Manningham area, far removed from the brief initial fight between some white men and anti-NF protesters outside a city-centre pub. In the midst of the riots, bemused Tory councillor Mohammed Riaz said: ‘There’s no logic to this. Where are the protests? Where are the National Front?’ Presumably, the NF ‘marchers’ were sharing a table on the train back whence they came.
Fingering the far-Right is a way of evading the real problems in places such as Bradford and Oldham. There are hard-pressed communities in these old industrial towns that now seem to find it difficult to live with one another. These tensions spring not from the question of race in itself, but from issues to do with resources and opportunities.
The frequent complaint heard from poorer whites is that their Asian neighbours ‘get more than we do’. In fact, the Asian communities are usually concentrated in the poorest parts of town. But the sense of being left behind is strong within white working-class communities which see that their old way of life is at a dead-end. For their part, many young Asians complain that they are still treated as second-class citizens.
These tensions have now been racialised – but not by a few right-wing extremists. The outside agitators who have done most to incite people to make sense of their troubles in racial terms come from the mainstream.
In recent years the Labour Government and the new political elite have hardly missed a chance to play their version of the race card. From the recommendations in the Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, to Robin Cook’s infamous chicken tikka masala speech, they have sought to redefine issues in the language of race. The new official anti racism has proved to be just as divisive as the racist politics of old. For instance, the Macpherson report redefined a racial incident as anything ‘perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’.
Not surprisingly, this has encouraged many to interpret any incident between members of different communities as racial. When a 75-year-old white man was attacked by Asian youths in Oldham in April, the assault was held up as proof that there were ‘no-go’ areas for whites. The pensioner’s son made clear that: ‘As a family, we don’t think it was a race issue at all.’ Yet, following the Macpherson guidelines, Greater Manchester Police insisted that ‘the attack would still be treated as racially motivated’.
As subsequent events have demonstrated, when politicians, the media and the police start seeing and preparing for serious racial conflicts everywhere, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And those in high places who try to talk up the far-Right as the cause of the problems should not be too surprised when thousands of the disaffected choose to stick two fingers up to them all by voting for the BNP. (Maybe Bradford rioters were making the same point on Saturday when they reportedly burnt down both a Labour and a Conservative club.)
A predictable new Labour response has been to call for yet more bans on marches and meetings, and perhaps on the NF itself (as if anybody would notice), all in the name of democracy, of course. Meanwhile, as the authorities in Bradford and Oldham discuss plans for re-educating local people in the new etiquette of anti-racism, Oldham Labour MP Phil Woolas suggests that it may be necessary to impose ‘coerced integration’ between communities. That ought to keep the police busy, and no doubt will be just the thing to improve race relations.
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