Issue 259 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review



Hassan Mahamdallie looks at race in Britain, while Mike Gonzalez considers 'Britishness'

English speaking rioters against racism
English speaking rioters against racism

It didn't take long for this government's brief flirtation with Britain's Muslims to come to an end. No sooner had the war against Afghanistan been 'won', accompanied by convenient pictures of religious leaders on the steps of 10 Downing Street, than it was back to normal. Tony Blair tucked his copy of the Koran away, and out came the Old Testament figure of home secretary David Blunkett.

In a carefully constructed 'interview' with the Independent On Sunday in December Blunkett recast Britain's Muslims, and by implication all black people, as outside society. This was not, as some in the media kindly put it, 'a blunder', but a deliberate intervention to skew the ongoing debate about race and racism on the eve of a clutch of reports into the causes of the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.

Blunkett may have convinced himself of the belief that he was having a tilt at 'liberals' and 'political correctness', but in reality his was a racist take on those uprisings. Blunkett's full interview demanded that 'immigrants' (code for Muslims) should accept British 'norms of acceptability' and demonstrate their 'Englishness'. I was angered when Blunkett subsequently backed the Cantle Report into the Bradford riot's proposal that 'immigrants' should sign an oath of allegiance and demonstrate their 'clear primary loyalty to this nation'.

In fact the immediate spark of the rioting was the presence of the Nazi British National Party, the National Front and Combat 18, protected by the police. And it was widely accepted that the principal roots of the riots lay in the decades-long economic decline of those ex-milltowns, and the all-encompassing poverty that had bred resentment and fed hostility. This had been compounded by the near-apartheid in housing, schooling and jobs engineered by local councils and employers, all of which was ignored by successive national governments.

But now we were expected to believe that the roots really lay in Muslims refusing to integrate. Blunkett's intervention must be another example of the Blairite 'Third Way', in which it is felt that the best way to tackle racism is to attack the victims and give succour to the perpetrators.

What a strange world the Blair government inhabits, where the immediate beneficiaries of a debate billed as about tackling racism are the racists themselves. The BNP says, 'Blunkett's attempt to steal the BNP's clothes will help us win seats! Labour are only confirming that whites have been getting an unfair deal, thereby proving the BNP have been right all along. So keep it up, Mr're our favourite British politician at the moment.' The Nazis declared that they would be sticking Blunkett's quotes on their election leaflets in the run-up to the May local elections. Bill Morris of the TGWU rightly compared Blunkett's stance with that of anti-immigrant far right parties in Austria, Germany and Denmark.

Muslims and Jews

Britain's Muslims are on the way to being cast as the 'enemy within' in the manner in which Thatcher attacked the trade unions. The views of the Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore, that 'Britain is basically English speaking, Christian and white and if one starts to think it might become basically Urdu speaking Muslim and brown one gets frightened' have been taken into the mainstream. The general public are encouraged to look at Muslims, post 11 September, as religious fanatics. They are portrayed as inherently hostile to British society, living in self imposed ghettos, and shunning integration and discourse with their English counterparts.

Haven't we been here before? Blunkett's interview gives us a clue: 'The example that Jewish immigrants always give is to embrace the language and the nation they entered and flourish by gaining the tools to make that possible'. Leave aside the stereotyped notion that all Jewish people are successful business people--let's look at the facts. If the popular portrayal of Muslims in 21st century Britain resembles anything, it is that of the Jews of late 19th century and early 20th century Britain.

When Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe came to the East End of London and other poor areas of our cities they were certainly not looked on as assimilationist success stories. They were seen as parasitic, carrying with them 'foreign' systems of thought (Bolshevism), labelled a threat to the 'British' worker, and accused of creating ghettos. As the East London Advertiser put it in May 1889, 'People of any other nation, after being in England for only a short time, assimilate themselves with the native race, and by and by lose nearly all of their foreign trace. But the Jews never do. A Jew is always a Jew.'

They were labelled 'Yids' because of the language they spoke. But their isolation from society was not a choice--it was the outcome of a combination of their economic position in society and anti-Semitism. They were crowded into the East End and places like Cheetham Hill in Manchester because slum housing was all they could afford and all that was on offer. They quite reasonably wanted to enjoy the traditions they brought with them--exemplified by the springing up of Yiddish theatres and other cultural associations--and they wished to practise their religion.

This was too much for the British establishment, which passed the Aliens Act in 1905 to keep them out. This in turn spurred the growth of fascist parties such as Mosley's Blackshirts. The anti-Semitism in the British establishment meant that at the start of the Second World War German Jewish refugees and anti-fascists were interned in camps.

We have a similar attitude being fostered towards Muslims--as it has been against black people in the past. I recall when Bradford previously rioted in 1995 talking to Pakistani youth hanging out at a video shop in Manningham. They were mystified at the cod-sociology pouring out of the pages of newspapers and the mouths of commentators, that they had rioted because of their cultural alienation from British society. Those young men shook their heads at papers that splashed pictures of rock-throwers wearing salwar kamiz, as though this image communicated something profound about them. They were insulted by the notion that they were 'immigrants' at odds with society's 'cultural norms'. In their broad Yorkshire accents they explained that they were born in England, felt as English as society allowed them to be, and went to work, followed football, watched television and enjoyed music like everyone else. What more did they have to do to be let in to British society, they asked? The idea that they had rioted because they had not 'a sufficient grasp of the English language', as Blunkett put it, was, and is, laughable.

Immigration laws

In fact they had rioted because they understood completely the racist epithets that came out of the mouths of local police who had been goading them. The notion that their parents had stopped them integrating because they spoke Urdu at home is nonsense. That older generation of Asians were the ones who took the brunt of racism in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the generation that sweated their lives away on production lines or in the mills, and battled to raise their families. They should be celebrated as the pioneers who fought to make their way in the face of hostility. They have contributed more than enough to society, and deserve better than to be branded backward and too lazy to learn English.

This is also the generation who suffered most at the brutal application of immigration laws. Under the Wilson/Callaghan Labour governments Asian women arriving here to take part in an arranged marriage were snatched from Heathrow airport by immigration officials, and driven to a detention centre or a London prison where they were internally examined by Home office doctors to see whether they were really virgins, and then put back on a plane and deported back to the subcontinent.

Blunkett's implied description of Muslim culture as defined by 'enforced marriages' and 'genital mutilation' was offensive in the extreme. The battle within Asian communities against 'enforced marriages' has been going on for some time, and very few would defend the practice. Blunkett also managed to confuse in the public's mind arranged marriages with forced marriages. But he did not condemn the arranged marriages that our royal family go in for, or those marriages of the upper classes that make sure the inheritance stays in the right hands.

The reason that many Muslims are concentrated in poor areas is not through choice--it is the direct result of racist housing policies in the same way as West Indians were forced to settle in Rachman's Notting Hill in the 1950s. My father, a Muslim from the West Indies who arrived here in the 1950s, still recalls the landlords who turned him away, pointing to signs in the window that said 'No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs'. Like many others in his position, he couldn't get rented accommodation or a council flat, so he borrowed some money and put down a deposit for a house. When my cousin came from Trinidad he stayed in our house (sleeping at the other end of my bed) for ages because he couldn't get somewhere to live.

Estate agents would only offer blacks and Asians properties in 'black areas', which is why my family ended up in a particular area of south London. To move out to the suburbs meant braving neighbours complaining of 'curry smells' and panicking that the sight of black kids playing in the street would somehow bring down house prices. This racism continued--in 1988 the CRE served an order on an estate agent in Oldham after an investigation showed that 'the firm tended to recommend white areas to prospective white purchasers and Asian areas to Asian purchasers, to accept instructions from white vendors to deter prospective Asian purchasers, and to offer mortgage facilities only to white clients'.

In any case, what does Blunkett mean by 'English culture'? Is he talking, for example, about the traditions of English law such as habeas corpus, by which someone accused of a crime has the right to appear in open court? If so, then why is he determined to end that right in his anti-terrorism bill? Is he talking about the age old right to a jury trial? If so, then why is he planning to abolish it for the majority of cases? Perhaps we should learn to celebrate a society that sees the rich (of whatever colour) getting richer, while the poor (of whatever colour) get poorer?

In the proposed test 'immigrants' (not ones from South Africa or the farms of Zimbabwe, one suspects) will take, will they have to learn that there is no such thing as an English 'race', and that the majority of people in this country are a mix of Celts, Brythons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen and Normans--foreigners all? Will they have to know that George I neither spoke, understood nor read English, being a German prince from Hanover? Or that England's patron saint, George, is most likely to be of Turkish origin, or even that according to geneticist Steve Jones one in five 'white' British people have African blood relations due to co-mingling during the era of slavery?

Blunkett and New Labour have shamefully used a debate about tackling racism to drive more divisions between black and white. What else can we conclude when Home Office minister John Denham refers on Radio 4 to 'Asian culture' and 'white culture'?

The culture of discontent

Norman Tebbitt
Norman Tebbitt

So David Blunkett has decided, like Norman Tebbit before him, that immigrants should be tested for their responsiveness to British cultural values! In Tebbit's case, the key test was cricket. A British person was a man (note!) who knew his cricket, who understood the world of cork on willow, and the deep significance of taking tea and cream scones on the village green. It was a favourite image of wartime Britain too, evoked by Agatha Christie and E G McDonnell's England their England along with the romance of the 'plucky' home guard and Rupert Brooke's 'Old Vicarage Grantchester'. This was what we were all defending--this timeless world of rural villages and picnics by the river.

In 1940, though, the government began to realise that it had a problem. No one was responding to its propaganda messages, and all the talk of teamwork and our 'finest hour' was passing most British people by. When it got Tom Harrison's Mass Observation organisation to take weekly polls across the country, it hit the government that most working class people just didn't recognise the country that the ministry of information was urging them to defend. They didn't play rugby, and most of them had never seen a village green. Needing its cannon fodder, the government had to change its images, and began to show the lives of factory workers and the real houses that they were living in--they even introduced regional accents into the BBC, calling in Yorkshireman Wilfred Pickles to read the news.

It turned out that the nation--the country whose culture we shared and were being asked to die for--was not one place, but many. It was country mansions and urban tenements, it was hill farms and back to backs, it was racehorse owners and ferret racers, it was bankers and night cleaners. What values, what 'deep nation', as some people called it, could tie together Lord Beaverbrook and the woman who scrubbed his floors? That's the question that Blunkett has to answer.

Which Britain is he telling new immigrants to learn about? Should we demand that every immigrant child learn the acceptance speech for his or her local Masonic lodge, or the Catholic creed, or the national anthem? But why not the words to 'On Ilkley Moor Bah't'Hat', or 'Freedom Come All Ye'--Hamish Henderson's glorious anthem to the socialist agitator John Maclean--or Bertrand Russell's brilliant anti-nuclear speech at the Albert Hall in 1960?

Or we could even talk about cricket--not the amateurs and gentlemen at Lord's, but the Lancashire Sunday leagues where working class players made up their own savage version of the genteel game. Or, even better, let's ask the children of Britain to learn by heart the names of the members of the glorious West Indies team of 1963 who beat England for the first time and shocked the establishment?

The reports on the Oldham and Burnley riots have produced a procession of wise commentators rattling on about 'core values' and language. When they are pressed, they trot out again all the old assertions that get an audience from Tunbridge Wells roaring on Question Time--'British decency', 'the sense of fair play', 'modesty and reserve', 'getting on with your neighbours', and so on. It is a well recognised fact, of course, that no other nation in the world believes in decency or consideration, that every other community on the globe is deeply committed to inequality and injustice, bends the rules and cheats at every opportunity--not to mention that well known foreign tendency to speak loudly in public places and give way to emotion at the drop of a hat. Whereas we British...

Well, we British have shown time and again how committed we are to those 'core values'--why, we're doing it now, as we bomb Afghanistan and bring home with (restrained) force the importance of decency and fair play. We conquered empires and enslaved a thousand subject peoples in the same spirit, and enthusiastically protected the most powerful people in our society from unfair criticism and excessive taxation for the same humane reasons.

A sense of community

Black children on an inner city estate
Black children on an inner city estate

The really odd thing is that while the rich and powerful encourage the rest to exhibit all those eternal values, they lie, cheat and abuse each other and everyone else at every turn. On the other hand, there are groups of people who do seem to be driven by a sense of community, loyalty and unselfishness. When the miners went on strike against a ferocious Thatcher government, tens of thousands of people found ways of expressing solidarity. No national industrial action affects everyone equally, yet there is unity against the employers. When fascists attack a young man walking home from school because he's black, the shock and revulsion echoes across people in hundreds of different communities.

Solidarity is born of shared experience and common needs--it may be expressed through a single language or through many. When the students of Paris marched to the striking Renault factory in May 1968 they carried posters in eight languages calling on workers in the factory to come out together. Here the boss was French and the workers a motley army of immigrant labour. De Gaulle tried to mobilise the mystical nation that bonded workers to employers, and divided workers by race and colour. Material solidarity came face to face with national unity--and won!

Britishness can't meld together the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless--it can't conceal the vast differences of access to education, health, jobs or wages that are the reality of Britain. Learning the British way, for Blunkett and his ilk, means refusing to see the material divisions in our society while imagining that there is another kind of equality. Trouble is, if you're poor, working class or black, or all or any of these, there is no equality at any level. Like heaven, the nation is impossible to find--you just have to believe in it. And like heaven, the nation persuades us that the important things are beyond our grasp, eternal and impossible to change. As the Levellers put it 350 years ago, 'The clergy dazzle us with heaven then they damn us all to hell.'

The thugs that paraded around Oldham with their Union jacks were the stormtroops of a ruling class happy to let them protect their material interests. The communities created out of persecution fought back against the myth of nationhood.

The workers have no country. They have no loyalty to a ruling class that exploits them and represses them while claiming some higher unity. The irony, of course, is that the driving impulse of capitalism, to seek out and control both markets and sources of raw materials, has embraced the whole planet. The violence of that process has filled the planet with terrorised fleeing refugees, leaving behind their starving brothers and sisters who will later fill the sweatshops and the farms, and travel the same planet as they follow the global system's shifting demand for labour.

The real problem is that the shared experience of those workers creates the conditions for a class solidarity across frontiers, traditions and languages that will recognise how nationalism has so often divided them against one another. So this global capital does two things at once--it creates the endless restless movement of human beings across the face of the earth, and it creates hostility, racism and rejection wherever they go.

There is a liberal argument which suggests that all the 'Britishness test' means is an encouragement to learn the host language. We should all try to speak one another's language--there should be classes in Urdu, Mandarin, Spanish, Serbo-Croat available in every community. But learning English doesn't really mean that--because Blunkett wants to make it a condition of acceptance, a ticket of admission. But to what? To a community divided, riven with conflict and inequality? And which English shall we teach--Caribbean English, Scottish English, the language of Canada, Australia, Trinidad, Nigeria?

The irony is that all this talk of inclusion denies and crushes the dynamic variety of the working class. We all belong to groups, to collectives--their voluntary combination and exchange of experience is what makes a decent, humane society. The irony about Britishness is that it will exclude most of society by redefining it in terms of a mythic village community existing in a bubble beyond some misty lost horizon.

A world worth building will find the future in difference and diversity. That will be the 'better world' that thousands of voices are calling for, from Brussels to Porto Alegre. Blunkett's tests of Britishness will make that impossible and lock us up in a cell with people we'd never choose to share a desert island with.

Jose Emilio Pacheco, the Mexican poet, put it like this, in his poem 'High Treason':

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