Racism, according to the New Labour communities secretary John Denham, is on the decline. The government’s progress in promoting racial equality in the last decade is, he argues, substantially responsible for this state of affairs. Denham’s claim is astonishing in light of a documented rise in the incidence of racism in the UK, the growth of support for the far right BNP, the emergence of violent street gangs under the rubric of the English Defence League (whom Denham himself has compared to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), the reappearance of anti-immigrant politics in labour disputes such as at the Lindsey oil refinery, and the extraordinary increase in media-led hostility towards Muslims. Anti-racists are not as sanguine as Denham. The Guardian journalist Gary Younge argues that the last decade has witnessed a sharp regression, as “the shift in emphasis from race to religion and from colour to creed and culture” has grafted “old views on to new scapegoats”. Younge’s analysis is much more convincing than Denham’s, though the shift to creed and culture can be traced back further to the New Right’s agenda on race relations, a major inspiration in the career of Enoch Powell. As we shal see, racist ideologies have always had a concern with creed and culture.
Yet the acceleration of this shift, and the novelties of racism in contemporary Britain, need to be registered if anti-racists are to be effective. A number of important transformations are taking place in terms of the intellectual justifications for racism, and its targets. If creed and culture have come to the fore, so have ideas of nationality and citizenship that do not neatly correspond to older ideas of race concerned with biology and skin colour. The targets of anti-immigrant hostility are not necessarily black, and those engaged in racism towards Muslims are not automatically hostile to all black Britons. That fact alone confuses the discussions of racism and gives racists an important alibi. Many of those vilifying Muslims will earnestly explain that they hold no brief for racists, and that they only intend to defend human rights or “British values” from a culture that violates them. They will often add that Muslims aren’t a “race”, as if this resolved the controversy. The “war on terror” is a proximate cause of much of this racism. However, the temptation to reduce the question of Islamophobia to a sub-narrative of the “war on terror” is one that must be avoided. Racism towards Muslims pre-dates 9/11 and the ensuing warmongering, and is not necessarily tied to pro-war opinion. It has far more to do with domestic social processes than a singular focus on the “war on terror” would allow.
In fact, if socialists are to resist the far right, they will have to come to terms with the way in which they articulate a right wing anti-war sentiment in seeming opposition to their traditionally imperialist ideology. This is related to a displacement within racist ideas in the post-colonial era in which aggressive global white supremacism was replaced by defensive white nationalism. Nor does cultural chauvinism towards Muslims stop at the boundaries of Islam. Anindya Bhattacharyya has usefully characterised Islamophobia as the “cutting edge” of contemporary racism in that it carves out a path for older forms of racism to once again emerge in mainstream culture. Segments of liberal opinion have adopted the New Right’s agenda on race relations, often swallowing wholesale the culturalist arguments on immigration and citizenship that were crafted in opposition to multiculturalism. The centre-left has also increasingly embraced the idea of a progressive nationalism. In a way that mirrors the New Right, they hold that social solidarity and cultural diversity are opposing aims. Following the lead set by Gordon Brown, they have set out to develop a liberal account of “British values” that could underpin social solidarity. This has all too often led to a prosecutorial attitude to Muslims, the rationale being that “Britishness” includes respect for feminism, human rights and “Enlightenment values”, all of which are supposedly at odds with Islam, or at least with immoderate manifestations of it. Again liberal complicity in such cultural chauvinism is not as outlandish as it may appear.
As conventional forms of racism are revived on the basis of Islamophobic cultural essentialism, there has been a notable attempt to revive old racist terms of abuse. Strictly Come Dancing presenter Bruce Forsyth defended the use of the word “Paki” by contestant Anton Du Beke, averring that “at one time the Americans used to call us limeys, which doesn’t sound very nice, but we used to laugh about it. Everybody has a nickname.” Again, when Ron Atkinson referred to black Chelsea player Marcel Desailly as a “lazy thick nigger”, he was defended by sports commentator Jimmy Hill who said that such comments were just “fun”. It is probably no coincidence that such terms, whose function is to normalise racist behaviour, should be so aggressively championed just as the recorded incidents of racist harassment and violence increase. The statistics are damning. In 2005 it was reported that racial incidents had more than quadrupled in England and Wales from 13,151 in 1996-7 to 52,694 in 2003-4. Of the latter figure, more than 35,000 were characterised as “serious” and included wounding, assault and harassment. And the rise has continued. In 2003-5 the number of racist incidents in England and Wales rose by 12 percent. In 2005-7 the number rose again by 28 percent. In Scotland the number of racial incidents recorded per year rose from 4,519 in 2004-5 to 5,243 in 2007-8. The Crown Prosecution Service reports that the number of defendants received for racist incidents in England and Wales has risen year on year since 1999-2000. The number of defendants in 2006-7 was almost four times the number in 1999-2000.
The climate of racism engendering such behaviour has all too often been abetted by the government, and has led to a surge in support for the far right which is currently outperforming its last high point in the 1970s. It has also led to the development of street-fighting gangs of racists, football casuals and far right activists known as the English Defence League (EDL) and their associates. Purporting merely to oppose Islamists such as Anjem Choudary the EDL also claims to oppose racism and welcome non-Muslims, whatever their “race”. Yet protests by the EDL have often degenerated into racist chanting, sieg heils, and attacks on Asian pedestrians and businesses. All of this represents the culmination of the “new racism”, a trend described by the philosopher Martin Barker in 1981. Shorn of explicit commitment to biological determinism, or an express belief in the supremacy of “the white race”, its core axioms centre on the cultural practices of ethnic minorities and their supposed incompatibility with “mainstream” culture. Its advocates, originally only hard-line followers of Enoch Powell but now embracing sectors of the centre left, rely on common misunderstandings about the nature of racism in order to ring-fence their culturalist discourse as a neatly distinct matter from racism proper.
Those advocating oppressive and exclusionary practices today offer a number of claims to ward off accusations of racism. One such is that they believe in the existence and importance of racial differences but do not hold that any race is innately superior to others. Another is that they do not accept that races exist, and therefore consider the idea of racial supremacy to be incoherent, but they do believe in cultures (or civilisations) which are emphatically unequal. This claim is especially prominent in liberal attacks on “multiculturalism”. For example, Martin Amis defends his intemperate and usually indiscriminate verbal attacks on Muslims against charges of racism in the following terms: “I adore multiracialism. There can’t be enough immigrants in this country for my taste. I’d like to see immigrants from Mars or Jupiter. But multiculturalism, I believe, is a fraud. We cannot justify these things because they’re traditional. The tradition has to go”. By “tradition” he means such practices as “honour killing”, which he understands to be uncomplicatedly “Islamic” behaviour. That unspoken hypothesis is incorrect—”honour killing” is a form of patriarchal violence that does not respect such cultural boundaries. According to Human Rights Watch, such violence “goes across cultures and across religions”. It is practised under various names—dowry killings, crimes of passion, etc—in Latin America, India, Italy, Sweden, Brazil and Great Britain. Nor is it at all true that “multiculturalism” entails tolerating the murder of women whether by appeal to tradition or cultural sensibility. Nonetheless, Amis’s argument confirms that in attacking such practices he means to impugn a supposedly undifferentiated culture known as Islam.
Another attack on multiculturalism came in a widely denounced provocation by Rod Liddle, the former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, in which he ascribed the “overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London” to “young men from the African-Caribbean community”. Liddle was slightly less cautiously expressing the same views that Tony Blair had in 2007 when he blamed a spate of knife and gun crimes on a distinctive black culture, specifically on failing black families. But Liddle’s statistical claims were simply false. And in his broader conclusions he reproduced verbatim a commonplace of racist ideology since the first arrival of substantial numbers of Commonwealth migrants to the UK in the 1950s. However, he justified himself by saying that he was not speaking of race but of culture. “The creed of multiculturalism is largely to blame, the notion that cultures, no matter how antithetical to the norm, or anti-social, should be allowed to develop unhindered, without criticism”. To say that this mis-states the “creed of multiculturalism” would be unnecessarily diplomatic: it is a flimsy straw man. Multiculturalism has its origins in a state-led attempt to domesticate politically rebellious black and Asian minorities in 1980s Britain. Its basic thrust was defined before the fact by Roy Jenkins who, as home secretary in 1966, declared the aim of achieving “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.
Multiculturalism, though challenging spurious conceptions of an ethnically “pure” nationhood, has its weaknesses as a response to racism. It fails seriously to address the systemic roots of racial discrimination. And in attempting to “celebrate” diverse cultures in a depoliticised fashion, it transforms culture from a process in which one might participate into a static object to be passively observed and enjoyed. Liddle’s defence indicates several prominent features of contemporary Islamophobia. These include the claim that there are such things as discrete, largely impervious cultures and that there is therefore a cultural “norm” that a problematic minority is violating on behalf of its own alien cultural tenets. A constant theme of the anti-Muslim animus today is that its conspicuous symbols such as the hijab or even the burqa indicate a hostility to “mainstream culture” and a desire to separate from it. That such ideas should then become the basis of an attack on an older scapegoat—young black men in this instance—belies the complacent view that official hostility to Islam has no broader implications for race relations. A third example of such defensive pleading is that, in advocating racist practices, one merely seeks to conserve a valuable social and cultural order that is endangered by cross-cultural penetration.
These confusions are possible in part because of the exaggerated importance attached to “scientific” racism. Racism, in this sense, entails a belief that the variation in physical human appearance is arranged according to a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. As the anthropologist C Loring Brace puts it, “race” is a concept that has “no coherent biological validity”. Variations in physical characteristics such as skin colour, tooth length, blood type, nose length, the presence or absence of haemoglobin S are not distributed in a way that conforms to notions of race. The margin for biological racism in respectable opinion has been squeezed (though it still has its defenders among devotees of The Bell Curve, which argues that black people are inherently less intelligent than their white counterparts). Were it the case that racism amounted to a discredited belief in a non-existent entity, further discussion would be futile. It would be aimed at correcting a mistake that few are likely to make. But such a view of racism is highly misleading. Racist narratives do not begin and end with the body, and the present-day emphasis on cultural difference is not as anomalous as it might at first appear. “Race” overlaps with a range of other discourses such as nationality and ethnicity that are not strictly to do with biological variation. The everyday language of racism draws on a “common sense”, a series of stereotypes and generalisations, about groups of people—be they a nationality, a faith group or an ethnicity. These stereotypes invariably focus on ostensible cultural traits.
Ali Rattansi points out that when alleged cultural traits become stereotypes they are naturalised and made to seem inherent to the group that is so characterised. “Thus the supposed avariciousness of Jews, the alleged aggressiveness of Africans and African Americans, the criminality of Afro-Caribbeans or the slyness of ‘Orientals’, become traits that are invariably attached to these groups over extremely long periods of time”. It is this essentialising gesture that has become known as “cultural racism”. As for the supposed novelty of cultural racism, it has been with us from the inception of modern racism. Enlightenment philosophers, encountering (and sometimes complicit with) the realities of the slave trade and colonialism, sought to explain white European supremacy in terms of cultural superiority. Hume is notorious for having suspected “the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites”. This was not, however, on account of any biological sense of racial difference. Rather, it was on account of customs and habits of “the Negroes”, the way of doing things that they had acquired—in other words their culture. John Stuart Mill, as a colonial administrator and Britain’s most outstanding liberal philosopher, similarly entertained a culturally chauvinist contempt for non-Europeans that was not grounded in biological racism, which he specifically opposed. He certainly accepted that colonial subjects were inferior but his explanation for that inferiority lay in the “laws of national character”, by far “the most important class of sociological laws”.
A more fundamental problem with the narrow reading of racism in terms of its bodily discourses is that it even misunderstands how “race” works. Historians of racism such as Theodore Allen, David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev demonstrate that race is a socially constructed category that expresses socially produced phenomena as inherent qualities of oppressed groups. The concept of “race” as a biological entity has had little to do with the actual construction of racial hierarchies, which was always a political act. Historically the purpose of “race” has been to manage class systems by stratifying labour markets along colour-coded lines. This was pioneered, according to Theodore Allen, in the rule of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, a distinctive form of class rule in which a segment of the labouring majority is integrated into an oppressor group. However poor Protestant labourers were in colonial Ireland they enjoyed privileges with respect to their Irish Catholic counterparts. Following a series of multiracial class rebellions against indentured servitude in 17th century Anglo-America, epitomised by the Bacon Rebellion of 1676, the ruling colonists turned to a system of racial slavery that accentuated and exaggerated the differences between the oppression of African and European workers. Through a series of legal and political innovations very similar to those elaborated in Ireland, a “white race” was constructed in opposition to more oppressed Africans and American Indians. Racial oppression did not depend on supposed physical differences.
“Race-making” processes continued to be important for capital accumulation in post-slavery America as new groups of immigrants were racially “othered”. Irish, Hungarian, Polish, Italian and Jewish workers, who would today be considered “white”, were racialised in such a way as to exclude them from the privileges of “whiteness”, while at the same time setting them in competition with one another as well as with Chinese immigrants and African-Americans. The “race management” strategies of American capital involved the constant adjustment and adaptation of racial categories and stereotypes such that the demarcations of “scientific” racist discourses were not strictly relevant. Instead of looking for a reference to supposed static entities called “races” to define acts of racism, it makes more sense to consider racialisation as a constant process. Just as fascism is notoriously a “scavenger” ideology, opportunistically appropriating ideological bric-a-brac from other outlooks and traditions, so racist ideologies are continually constructed and reconstructed with a variety of elements of national, regional, religious, sectional and class stereotypes. What they have in common is their relationship to the practice of racial oppression in which a minority is systemically excluded from the opportunities and entitlements of normal citizenship. Nor are they strictly literal in their expression.
Racism operates to a great extent by allusion and conflation—mark the speed with which “Muslim” was substituted for “Asian” in the target of racist polemics after 2001. Indeed, that very shift tells us that the cultural racism currently directed against Muslims is rooted in several generations of anti-immigrant racism and, before it, imperial racism. For as long as Britain remained an empire with global authority its ruling class preferred “free” immigration, its demand for labour seemingly limitless. Imperialist racism justified the domination rather than exclusion of non-European labour. At the turn of the 20th century there were some moves to restrict labour mobility. The 1905 Aliens Act was introduced on a wave of anti-Semitic invective in parliament and the gutter press, and amid protests and riots over the migration of Russian and Eastern European Jews to the UK. Political anti-Semitism was, until the Second World War, the ideological backbone of organised racists and fascists across Europe including the UK. But with the defeat of the Third Reich and the revelations of its barbarism such anti-Semitism no longer availed itself as a method of recruitment and growth. And as European countries experiencing severe labour shortages began to import labour from the colonies—North Africa in France, the Caribbean in the UK—the focus of necessity shifted to anti-immigrant racism.
Until 1962 there remained a considerable degree of freedom of movement for labour within the British Commonwealth both to and from the colonies. Subjects of the Commonwealth were considered subjects of the British monarch and in legislation passed in 1948 confirmed as citizens of the “UK and Colonies”. However, the post-war Labour government mainly sought to solve the labour shortfall, estimated at over 1.25 million, by recruiting white European labourers from Ireland and Poland. It was believed by both Conservatives and Labour that mass immigration could only be managed if the immigrants were of “good stock” and were capable of merging into the general population. Implicit in this approach was the racist belief that white and black people could not happily co-exist as equals. Even so a certain limited amount of immigration from the West Indies did begin to take place. The restrictions imposed upon such immigration began in 1962 with the Commonwealth Immigration Act with further restrictions added in a 1965 White Paper and then in subsequent acts in 1968 and 1971. The state’s regulation of flows of migrant labour tends to reflect the fluctuations of demand for labour in the economy, though initial restrictions did not come at a time when demand for labour was weakening.
A crucial consideration in the timing of the legislation was that the government found a way to implement controls that would be flexible, depending on political and economic factors, and overtly colour-blind while permitting de facto discrimination in favour of Old Commonwealth migrants. Even so the controls implemented by the act still permitted the influx of more New Commonwealth immigrants than had arrived throughout the 1950s. By 1982 no less than 80 percent of black and Asian immigrants living in Britain had arrived after the act was passed. What the new controls did achieve was not reduced immigration. Rather they entrenched institutional racism in a new way, curtailing the citizenship rights hitherto extended to citizens of the UK and Colonies and making their entitlement to live and work in the UK subject to employers’ demand for their labour. Labour had pledged to oppose the act while in opposition on the grounds that it was racist. Once in office, however, they effected a complete volte face, embraced the act and tightened the restrictions in its provisions. It was in this climate that the elements of New Right thinking on race started to come together. The transformation is neatly encapsulated in the career of Enoch Powell. During his period in government as Conservative health minister thousands of labourers from the West Indies were recruited and he never once gave any indication that he was opposed to such immigration. He spoke out against immigration controls in 1956 and in 1964 said that he could not support “making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin”.
Having lost the Conservative leadership election to Ted Heath in 1965 he served in the shadow cabinet before emerging with a new cause—one made infamous by his “rivers of blood” speech in Birmingham in April 1968. This skilfully conjured racist hysteria with the use of anecdotes supposedly conveyed to him by his constituents. Most significantly for Powell’s purposes he could claim that “thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking” the things that he was expressing. The argument that he spoke for a hitherto silent populace represented an important step in articulating the “new racism”. As theorists of the “new racism” such as Martin Barker and Paul Gilroy have argued, the racism of the New Right no longer depended on claims of white superiority, or even of significant biological differences between “races”. It depended instead on a view of human nature in which social solidarity is only possible among those considered part of the “in-group” or “tribe”, an ideological assumption given a veneer of theoretical respectability by the output of sociobiology and ethology. It was not that black or Asian people were inferior but that they could not be assimilated into a white British nation. The instinctive passions of people keen to retain their traditional way of doing things, their “culture” in other words, were not susceptible to reason or bargaining.
An excess of non-white immigration—racists like Powell insisted that it was the numbers migrating that spelled disaster—would inevitably generate bloody conflict. Thus a defensive white nationalism could be asserted as a common sense response to immigration, with “voluntary” repatriation and authoritarian border controls an appropriate solution. The immediate beneficiary of Powell’s agitation was the fascist National Front (NF), the forerunner of today’s British National Party. For almost a decade afterward the party grew in membership reaching a high of over 17,000 members in 1976. It gained votes and began to build a cadre of street-fighters known as Honour Guards who terrorised black people, trade unionists and the left. The instinct of governments, both Tory and Labour, was to steal the NF’s clothes on immigration and race. The Heath government introduced new restrictions with the Immigration Act of 1971, while deportations under the subsequent Labour government increased and immigration officials began to impose virginity tests on Asian women. Though the fascist threat was seen off by a campaign attracting far larger numbers of people—the Anti Nazi League had 250 branches with 50,000 members and could mobilise half a million people at its height—the discourses that had fuelled the NF’s success also fed into the New Right’s attack on multiracial Britain.
Margaret Thatcher adopted a decidedly Powellite tone in 1978 when she argued that: People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. It was the shrill language of being “swamped” that was picked up on but the key referents here are a supposed common sense and specific focus on “culture” as the likely source of conflict. Good race relations, then, depended on minimising the number of black and Asian people in Britain. This approach was not unique to the New Right. It was an assumption built into successive governments’ handling of race relations. But it was reflected in the Thatcher government’s British Nationality Act of 1981, which consecrated existing practices by revising the category of “Citizenship of the UK and Colonies” into new categories so that most Commonwealth residents no longer had the right of abode in the UK. By this time primary immigration had come to a virtual standstill. The official moves to shut down black and Asian immigration were accompanied by a number of pieces of “race relations” legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination.
This set a pattern which has persisted to this day. Since the 1960s successive governments have pursued a contradictory policy of on the one hand separating race relations from immigration and on the other using the issue of race relations to justify ever tighter immigration controls. A primary justification for immigration controls is that they ensure good race relations. The rationale is that by controlling the fears of the white population integration for Britain’s non-white minority is made easier. Yet the signal sent by such a policy is that Britain is in some sense threatened by the presence of immigrants, especially by non-white immigrants. Roy Hattersley, once an advocate of strict immigration controls, conceded the point more than a decade ago regarding the Tories’ 1996 Asylum and Immigration Bill: “It is measures like the Asylum and Immigration Bill—and the attendant speeches—which create the impression that ‘we cannot afford to let them in’. And if we cannot afford to let them in, those of them who are here already must be doing harm”. This contradiction between anti-immigration measures and race relations policy has historically been overcome by exempting immigration policy from the provisions of anti-racist legislation. New Labour’s Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000 expanded the scope of the original 1976 legislation making it illegal for public authorities such as the police and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to discriminate on the grounds of race or nationality. However, there remains an exemption for immigration and nationality functions, where discrimination on ethnic and national grounds is permitted if it is required by legislation or ministerial authorisation. Thus agencies of the state can pursue and implement a racist immigration policy while preserving a formally anti-racist position in other policy areas.
Though the focus of official racism was initially on restricting New Commonwealth migration, changing patterns in labour migration and changing political attitudes led to new targets. Increasingly in the 1990s it was the issue of asylum that animated new government restrictions. Just as Europe was being transformed by the collapse of the USSR, and the European Community was looking to remove border controls among member states, the single largest category of migrants to the UK became asylum seekers. Asylum seekers had rights under law, that the British state did not extend to immigrants in general, as a result of previous racist legislation. The Major government sought to change that state of affairs with the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act of 1993, by increasing the number of asylum claims that could be rejected and reducing access to social security and legal aid for claimants. This was followed by further legislation in 1996 limiting access to employment and public services for asylum seekers. The goal was to restrict access to asylum without appearing to breach the British state’s legal commitments under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and the strategy settled upon was to transform asylum seekers into normal would-be immigrants, or “economic migrants”.
If a great number of asylum claims were “bogus”—the majority, as then home secretary Michael Howard claimed in a 1992 debate on the bill—then they could be treated as would-be immigrants and deported. New Labour had opposed the law in opposition but proposed and implemented even tougher measures in 1999. Just as previous arrivals in the UK had been regarded as threats to British identity and parasites who were liable to undermine the welfare system, so asylum seekers were depicted as drains on housing and welfare services. Rather than people in need, and perhaps with much to offer, they were considered competitors for scarce resources and sources of anti-social behaviour. These themes have been introduced by successive governments but they were avidly adopted by the British press. This had a predictable effect on public opinion. Polls showed that 67 percent of the public believed that less than a quarter of asylum seekers were genuine refugees. Research carried out at Swansea University found that most asylum seekers are fleeing persecution from war, don’t specifically seek to come to Britain, and have no knowledge of the welfare system before they arrive. The Refugee Council noted that while polling detected compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers the public over-estimated the number of refugees living in the UK by ten times. In one survey people thought that the UK had 23 percent of the world’s refugees, when the actual figure was closer to two percent. And the majority of the public, almost two thirds, supported the Tories’ 2005 proposal to withdraw from the 1951 Convention. A recent poll found that two thirds of Britons believe the country has an “immigration problem” and 47 percent—twice the average across Europe—favour discrimination against legal immigrants in terms of access to benefits.
The anti-immigrant racism directed towards Eastern Europeans, especially Roma gypsies in the form of asylum-bashing has also fed into hostility towards Polish workers. This found a small but dangerous foothold in the organised labour movement during the Lindsey oil construction workers’ dispute in early 2009 where a prominent slogan was “British jobs for British workers”. However, it is in the context of a pronounced Islamophobia that New Right arguments over immigration and integration have been taken up by segments of the centre left. Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, represents a culmination of a trend which developed throughout the 1990s when anti-Muslim sentiment was commingled with a more diffuse anti-Asian racism. In northern cities such as Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds institutional racism combined with the wholesale destruction of local economies wrought by neoliberalism to produce severe racial tensions. Policies of de facto segregation in housing allocation had been pursued by local councils, leaving Asian families in poorer housing, cut off from white neighbourhoods. Following the 1988 Education Reform Act, designed to foster a homogenous white Christian culture in schools, a number of white parents began to withdraw their children from schools with too many Asian students. In some districts school catchment areas were almost exclusively composed of one ethnic group. Unemployment had soared as a result of the destruction of labour-intensive manufacturing industries. This affected all workers but it did not affect them equally and about 54 percent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi homes across the country survived on income support. Racist gangs engaged in altercations with local Asian youths, though the blame for ensuing violence was placed by both police and local media on Asians. In February 2001 Oldham’s police chief Eric Hewitt blamed most racist violence on Asian youths.
In the spring of 2001 riots broke out across northern towns after a gang of 200 white racists attacked an Asian area of the Glodwick estate in Oldham. When police clad in riot gear targeted Asians resisting this assault, there was a prolonged stand-off between hundreds of youths and a hundred police officers. A similar confrontation took place when a gang of racists and football hooligans, including National Front members, Combat-18 fighters and—though they deny this—BNP supporters, attempted to march on an Asian area in Burnley. When residents gathered to stop the march from taking place, riot police advanced on them and another night of rioting ensued. Similar events later took place in Bradford.
The official response, the Cantle report, blamed “self-segregation” by the different communities and commended Oldham Council for its attempts to “build community cohesion”. The report systematically refused to consider issues of racial oppression, implying that the “communities” were symmetrical and that the problem was simply a failure to get along. Its suggested solution was not to offer ways to combat racial oppression but to elaborate a set of shared “values” that would centre on the meaning of British citizenship. Significantly, it was interpreted by the government to mean that minority communities in particular must get their act together. Home secretary David Blunkett responded by proposing a “British test” for would-be immigrants, and later told British Asians that they must speak English when in their homes if they wanted to properly integrate. This anticipated the themes that would later be adopted by those belabouring Muslims. The rise of anti-Muslim racism has been documented in numerous studies. A 2004 study by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia revealed a variety of forms of discrimination, including the absence of legal protection extended to other religious groups, employment discrimination, media hostility to Muslims, and verbal and physical attacks on Muslims.
A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 45 percent believe that “religious diversity” is harming Britain. 55 percent would object to a large mosque being built in their area compared to only 15 percent who would object to a large church. Only a quarter entertain “positive” feelings about Muslims while a third say they feel “cool” about them. To a considerable extent the media bears responsibility for this. In 2007 a study of one week of national newspaper headlines found that 91 percent of those dealing with Muslims were negative. This is a trend that has become particularly marked as a result of the war on Iraq. A detailed survey of the British print media (focusing on the broadsheets and therefore omitting the more pungent output of tabloids such as the Express and the Star) found that the single biggest category of Islam-related stories in 2003 were those relating to terrorism, counter-terrorism and “extremism”. The themes of such reporting were that British Muslims posed a security threat to the UK, threatened mainstream “British values”, and created tensions through their inherent cultural differences with other Britons. The survey also noted that in the pre-9/11 period, though Muslims were less likely to be discussed in the media because they lacked news clout, the framework (of “fundamentalism”, criminality, Muslim politics, the impact of Muslim schools, arranged marriages and—increasingly—”honour killings”) in which Muslims were discussed tended to be in terms of their non-proximity to mainstream culture. The construction put on such news items overwhelmingly tended to depict Muslims as being inherently at odds with a desirable norm. This once again warns against reducing the hostility toward Muslims to a product of the “war on terror”.
The current wave of Islamophobia is given an official mandate by policies pursued by governments across Europe on the pretext of seeking the “integration” of spotlit minorities, particularly Muslims. A pattern of measures such as language tests, loyalty tests, and even—in one German state—inquiries as to private beliefs concerning such matters as sexuality, has emerged as part of the state’s crackdown on politically troublesome immigrant populations. New Labour launched a series of initiatives concerned with promoting the integration of Muslim communities. Just as Asians were previously singled out for lectures on what language to speak, who to marry and what values they should have, there was an increasing government focus on the supposedly disintegrative propensities of Muslims, particularly after 7 July 2005. The precedent had been set by the government’s response to the Macpherson report into police handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Home secretary David Blunkett protested against the idea of “institutional racism” being a problem in Britain, and opposed the Macpherson report’s proposals for anti-racism education on the grounds that Britons had too long downplayed their culture and “we need to reinforce pride in what we have”. This agenda was carried forward in a 2002 White Paper which averred that the influx of immigrants caused “tensions” that needed to be overcome with “a shared sense of belonging and identity”, as opposed to the old canons of cultural diversity. This could be achieved with citizenship tests, language tests and ceremonial oaths to the queen.
There were many subsequent efforts to bolster the government’s flagging popularity with clumsy appeals to nationalism. Gordon Brown announced in January 2005 that it was time to stop apologising for the British Empire: “We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it” he claimed. “And we should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world”. This was a vision of “Britishness” that a large number of Britons would find repellent: it could hardly be expected to be endorsed by descendants of African-Caribbean, Pakistani, Bengali and Indian migrants. After 7/7 the promotion of “British values”—always nebulously defined—became a top priority. Blair made a point of insisting, contrary to intelligence briefings and popular opinion, that the attacks on London had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. They were, he said, motivated by an “evil ideology”, a perversion of Islam that promoted “absurd” grievances. Muslims were charged with the task of rooting out “this evil within the Muslim community”, and he sought to mobilise “moderate” Muslim leaders for that task. The message strongly sent was that the only acceptable “moderate” Muslims, as far as the government was concerned, were Muslims who didn’t have anything critical to say about government policy.
This point was emphasised by the response to a letter from three Muslim MPs who criticised UK foreign policy. The government said that it would give “ammunition to extremists”, while the pro-Labour Daily Mirror squealed “Muslim Blackmail”. Just as Muslims have been singled out for failing to properly integrate, British Muslims have demonstrated more “patriotism” than their non-Muslim counterparts in polls. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in May 2009 found that 77 percent of Muslims said they “identified with the UK”, compared to just 50 percent of the public at large—in fact, the same pattern was repeated across Europe. Such expressions of loyalty can in part be interpreted as a defensive response to official opprobrium. And the very fact that such questions are being asked of Muslims is itself indicative of the atmosphere of the tribunal. But if one half of the public at large is not terribly bothered about patriotism or loyalty, why should Muslims be expected to be different? The demand for “integration” is a demand for double standards and ultimately for political quiescence. Liberals have all too often provided cover for this particular kind of racism. After 2001 the centre-left began to espouse arguments about national identity and immigration that mimicked those of the New Right. The New Labour friendly commentator and editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, revived Powellite arguments that the welfare state was under threat from excessive diversity. He maintained that the pro-welfare consensus was under threat because people would be less willing to pool resources to look after people who were unlike them and whose values they did not share. The upshot was that the government should not only seek to control borders but should work harder to “integrate” minorities—thus he applauded David Blunkett’s demand that Asian families should speak English in their own homes. He expressed the fear that “we will wake up in 20 years and find we have become a US-style society with sharp ethnic tension and a weak welfare state”.
Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) initially denounced liberals of Goodhart’s ilk as “liberal Powellites”, but later reversed his position and advised that it was time to dump “multiculturalism” as it “suggests separateness”. He said that it was necessary to fight for a “core of Britishness” that would unite society, and was defended in this position by liberal columnist Polly Toynbee. He warned that Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation” with the development of “fully fledged ghettos”. In a detailed response to these sorts of alarmist claims, a study by two experts based in Manchester University found that the evidence does not support the claims of disintegration along racial lines. For most young people from minorities half or more of their friends are white, less than a fifth of minorities born in Britain have friends only among their ethnic cohort (far fewer than whites), and Asian Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus marry out of their own group as frequently as white Christians.
As liberals have embraced such discourses, the right has felt more confident about exploring them, as when Lord Carey announced that migration threatened the “DNA” of the nation. That “DNA” consisted of “liberal democratic values” which were upheld by “democratic institutions such as the monarchy, parliament, the judiciary, the Church of England, our free press and the BBC”. He went on to say that “some groups of migrants are ambivalent about or even hostile to such institutions”. He also called for a campaign to prevent a projected 15 percent rise in the UK population over the next 20 years. David Cameron backed the call, maintaining that such levels of immigration would place a burden on public services—Cameron’s core policy for the coming election is a rapid and deep cut in public spending! Aside from the fact that immigrants can work and produce taxes as well as consume public services, the majority of future population increase will be due to births, not immigration. In general, immigrants are largely skilled, qualified professionals, and generate more in taxes than they consume in public services and benefits.
The structural logic of the liberal antagonism to Islam, moreover, is almost identical to that of forces much further to the right. Essentially, it goes like this: we do not oppose Islam only extremism. But, as it happens, Islam itself is extreme therefore it is necessary to discipline Muslims and to prevent Europe from becoming too populated with Muslims either by birth or migration. Sometimes liberal concerns about Muslims are ostensibly humanitarian, most obviously so when liberals rail against the oppression of Muslim women. However, in subjecting the patriarchal aspects of Islam to selective attention, Islamophobic liberals have actually colluded in discourses that make life more difficult for Muslim women. Some have even been willing to defend discriminatory employment practices. Consider the case of Bushra Noah who was refused a job at a hairdressing salon because she wore a hijab. She successfully pursued a law suit proving that she was the victim of discrimination, a decision that led to murmurs of discontent among some liberals. The purported humanitarianism of liberals, concerned about the condition of women who wear the hijab or niqab, is intermingled with a moral panic about Muslims “not fitting in”. For liberals as much as for reactionaries, the “veil” is a signifier of cultural separatism, of Islamist agitation and ultimately of terrorist intent. Joan Smith, for example, leavens her feminist objections to the niqab and the burqa with shrill denunciations of alleged separatism. For example, she maintains that “it’s hard to think of another form of dress which is so highly politicised—or so rejectionist of mainstream culture”.
However, what Smith means by “rejectionist of mainstream culture” is made clear when she speaks of Islamists plotting terror while enjoying “some success in persuading Muslim women to adopt the niqab and jilbab”. In a paranoid leap of the imagination, Smith treats such garments as if they are an extension of an “Islamist” agenda to subvert liberal democracy. Again this is a continental trend. The feminist writer Joan Wallach Scott has described how in France the “veil” is depicted as an “enemy flag” in the Republic. The Sarkozy administration’s attempts to ban the burqa bear this out. Construing Islam as an “enemy” within segues into a dangerous argument that Muslims are “colonising” Europe through sheer force of numbers. Lord Pearson, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), claims that on the basis of present Muslim birth-rates Britain will have lost the ability to determine its “own” system of government within ten or 20 years. Niall Ferguson has spoken of the “subtle Muslim colonisation of Europe’s cities”. Across the continent such claims consistently inform right wing hostility to Muslims. For example, the Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy ran an advertising campaign depicting the effects of “immigration” on Native Americans—”Now they live in reservations”, the posters said. The metaphor of colonisation was dramatically pictorialised during the successful Swiss campaign for a ban on the construction of minarets, when its campaign posters depicted a Swiss flag covered from corner to corner with ominous black minarets. In the foreground was a “veiled” Muslim woman, again depicted in black.
Taking this language to its demagogic extreme, the BNP asserts that “Islamic colonisation” in the UK amounts to a “bloodless genocide”. The language of colonisation implies that the appropriate response is a “national liberation” struggle. While such martial connotations would not be welcomed by liberal Islamophobes, this is the message taken to heart by would-be far-right bombers. Martin Gilleard, who manufactured nail bombs for the purposes of such a struggle, said, “Be under no illusion, we are at war. And it is a war we are losing badly… I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back…the time has come to stop the talk and start to act”. A founder of the English Defence League (EDL) feels much the same way. Commenting on the daubing of inflammatory graffiti on an Indian restaurant, he claimed, “I personally look forward to the day that we are posting news of acts of war against the Moslem community and not just graffiti”. This interface between the authoritarian policies of European states, media propaganda and the racist priorities of the far right has contributed to the growing profile of xenophobic and outright fascist parties across the continent. In Italy the Lega Nord shares power in a hard-right coalition. In Belgium the far-right Vlaams Belang is the single largest party. In Denmark the Danish People’s Party is the third largest party and governs in coalition with the centre-right Conservative People’s Party. In Holland the second largest party is Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. And in Britain we face the twin threats of an electoral surge by the BNP and ugly manifestations of street violence by various far-right activists and racist hooligans under the rubric of the EDL.
The far right in Britain is currently enjoying its best election results since the Second World War. The BNP is outstripping the best results obtained by the National Front during its heyday in the mid-1970s. In the 2001 general election the party gained a total of 47,129 votes, largely based on localised pockets of strength in the north east following race riots. In the 2005 general election this had increased to 192,746. In the 2008 London Assembly elections the party gained a seat on the assembly for the first time with 130,714 votes. And in the 2009 European Parliament elections the BNP gained two MEPs and a total of 943,598 votes nationwide. From the start to the end of the last decade, in other words, the BNP had increased its total vote by over 2000 percent to almost a million. The party’s membership in 2008 stood at more than 10,000. This performance is even more shocking in the light of the schismatic nature of far-right politics, and the splits that have beset the BNP itself in recent years. There has been a simplistic tendency to reduce BNP support to the disaffected “white working class”, comprising former Labour supporters angered by the party’s allegedly lenient stance on immigration. The conclusion drawn by some Labour ministers is that the party should abandon “politically correct” equal rights legislation and appeal to white workers on the basis of pandering to anti-immigration sentiment. One study, based on a composite of several polls, would appear to give some weight to this picture. It identifies typical BNP supporters as middle aged white males working in skilled manufacturing roles. They are not necessarily the poorest workers but they are typically the most aggrieved. In contrast to NF supporters in the 1970s, they are older, less sympathetic to the Conservative Party and much angrier about the state of society. They share significant demographic qualities with Labour supporters and “52 of the 58 council seats won by the BNP since 2005 have come at the expense of Labour incumbents”.
Other research, however, casts a different light on this. First of all there is the Democratic Audit study from 2004 which found that the majority of BNP voters were ex-Tories rather than former Labour supporters. “In fact the BNP gains most from the Conservatives and least from Labour”, it said. That survey also suggested a more complicated story with respect to the class background of fascist voters, a disproportionate number of whom were “lower middle class”. Another survey carried out by YouGov last year was large enough to include a representative sample of BNP voters. It confirmed that the BNP had made substantial inroads into the working class but still found that their voters tended to have voted Conservative in the past rather than Labour. Indeed, the traditional base of the Labour Party, the organised labour movement, is the most resistant of all social groups to the BNP’s ideas. Another cliché is that BNP voters are not expressing racism so much as dissatisfaction with levels of immigration, or an inchoate rage about their diminishing economic prospects. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, alleges that “most” BNP voters are “not racists”. In fact, the YouGov survey found that the majority of BNP voters, some 72 percent, support the party’s platform of “voluntary” repatriation, a key step in their programme for an “all-white Britain”. 94 percent want all immigration stopped and 58 percent attribute most crime to immigrants. Only 35 percent of BNP voters agree that non-white British citizens who were born in this country are just as “British” as their white counterparts. This is a layer of people who don’t want to share a country with black or Asian people. A sizeable number of them are also prepared to endorse explicitly punitive measures against non-white Britons, as 49 percent want employers to discriminate on the grounds of race. BNP voters are also disproportionately inclined to believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, in as much as 9 percent believe that there is an international conspiracy led by Jews and communists to undermine Christian values in Western countries. A further 24 percent believe that such a conspiracy exists but that it is “exaggerated”. These are not merely hardcore racist ideas. They are even more extreme than the BNP are prepared to appear in public.
BNP voters also tend to express a spurious victimology in which white people are the “real” victims of racism, corroborated by the media and politicians who hypocritically vent about the “white working class”. The Yougov poll found that 77 percent of BNP voters believe that white people are unfairly discriminated against. 70 percent believe that Muslims enjoy unfair advantages and 62 percent believe that non-white people in general are given undue favour. But in this as in other respects the BNP is tapping into much wider layers of racism. Across the public in general the single largest sector of opinion, 40 percent believe that white people are the victims of discrimination, 39 percent believe that Muslims are unfairly advantaged and 36 percent believe that non-white people in general receive unfair benefits. 44 percent believe that Islam, even in its milder forms, is a “serious danger” to “Western civilisation”. 61 percent of the public share the view that all immigration to the UK should be stopped. More than a quarter favour the government “encouraging” “immigrants and their families” to leave the UK even if they were born here. Predictably, it is the most right wing voters that entertain these views but they are also shared by a substantial number of Labour supporters. Note the overlap between the racist resentment of Muslims and the same resentment towards other minorities. These are not separate but parallel phenomena.
The BNP’s approach to would-be voters has been decisively shaped by the new international political climate forged by the “war on terror”. In this respect, it mimics xenophobic and fascist parties across Europe by redirecting its fire onto Muslims, tailoring its message to avoid public expressions of anti-Semitism and even for the first time expressing support for the state of Israel. The first sign of the latter change came in 2006 when Lee Barnes, the BNP’s legal officer, outlined the position with respect to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon: “I support Israel 100 percent in their dispute with Hezbollah… I hope they wipe Hezbollah off the Lebanese map and bomb them until they leave large greasy craters in the cities where their Islamic extremist cantons of terror once stood.” The party declared itself “prudently” on Israel’s side, for reasons of “national interest”: Israel was part of a “Western, if not European” civilisation whose opponents were “trying to conquer the world and subject it to their religion”. An article on the BNP’s website explained that the party had cast off “the leg-irons of conspiracy theories and the thinly veiled anti-Semitism which has held this party back for two decades”. BNP leader Nick Griffin explained the new strategy berating those who wished to continue to focus on Jews by saying, “We should be positioning ourselves to take advantage for our own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam currently being whipped up by the mass media”.
However, this has not translated into a pro-war stance in the major theatres of the “war on terror”, nor has it necessarily involved explicitly cheerleading Israeli aggression. The BNP has opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming to be the “only serious party calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan”. It has, however, tapped into pro-troops sentiment by standing in wards where soldiers have died, and Griffin has even made an appearance at Wootton Bassett where the coffins of deceased soldiers are routinely paraded. On Operation Cast Lead, Nick Griffin explained to supporters that though it was in the general interest of Britain for Israel to defeat its opponents, the BNP took no view on Israel’s assault on Gaza because it was none of Britain’s business how the two sides dealt with one another. By saying that the troops should be brought home to police Britain’s borders the BNP taps into a right wing version of anti-war feeling, the gist of which is that Britain should have nothing to do with Muslims either at home or abroad. Obviously this does not represent a conversion to anti-imperialism. The BNP has roots in a post-war organisation called the League of Empire Loyalists, and its British Pride website celebrates the British Empire as a “noble” and “benevolent” venture. What it signifies is, firstly, the BNP’s hostility to the United States and, secondly, its adaptation to the shift from explicitly pro-colonial racism to a more conservative white nationalism. The claim that Muslim “colonists” are carrying out a “bloodless genocide” in Britain reflects an agenda of militarising British society in quite a different way to that intended by the government.
In order to “take advantage” of “public hostility to Islam” being “whipped up by the mass media”, a division of labour has come about on the far right. Lee Barnes explained: “The BNP have no interest in seeking to return to street activism so the way is clear for the NF to become the primary organisation in the UK that organises and deploys those nationalists who are not interested in political electioneering but in street activism.” Tom Linden, a National Front organiser, made the same point in strikingly similar language. The formation of the English Defence League, avowedly in response to “Islamic extremism”, represents something of an opportunity along these lines. The EDL and the BNP formally maintain an organisational distance. Indeed, each is operatically appalled at the very idea that it would have anything to do with the other. The EDL denies that it is racist like the BNP, and the BNP has gone so far as to accuse the EDL of being a “Zionist false flag” operation. The truth is that the two organisations are connected in a number of ways. Chris Renton, a key EDL organiser, is a known BNP activist. Davy Cooling, a member of the BNP, is also active in the thuggish outfit “Men in Gear” and a key activist in the EDL’s Luton “division”. Sean Corrigan, who runs the EDL’s online forum, is a BNP activist from St Albans. Several BNP members have been spotted at EDL protests. The EDL also accepts Nazis from other backgrounds such as the British Freedom Movement and is open about the fact that violent Combat 18 members attend its protests. One of its key funders and strategists is a far-right businessman named Alan Lake, who has previously worked with the fascist Swedish Democrats.
What appears to be happening is that the organisational and “intellectual” spine of the organisation is being supplied by organised Nazis while the foot-soldiers are recruited from among football casuals and other violent right wing, but non-Nazi, groups. This is not the first time that such a tactic has been pursued. The National Front used to infiltrate and mobilise skinhead and football hooligan groups during the 1970s in order to attack the left and ethnic minorities. It is also analogous to the general tendency by fascist organisations to use paramilitaries, comprising many who are not ideologically committed fascists, both as weapons against opponents and as socialising institutions that can help produce a disciplined fascist cadre. This is one reason why it is a mistake to simply dismiss the EDL as thugs who can be dealt with by police as a public order issue. The swing, within a decade, from post Lawrence Inquiry optimism to the current abysmal state of affairs was not inevitable. To a considerable extent racism has been driven by policy and encouraged by media reaction. Contrary to the ahistorical analyses of racism that see it as an instinctive response to “otherness”—which by naturalising racism, undermines criticism of it—racialisation is a political act, and racism a structure of political oppression. In this sense the revival of Powellite racism, the “new racism”, is a result of various government strategies for managing troublesome minorities, making immigration work to the benefit of capital accumulation, and depoliticising anti-racism so that it can be accommodated to the neoliberal settlement.
But it would be a mistake to see this as a purely top-down process. Racist ideas have caught on because they in some sense explain people’s experiences of the world, and they are particularly popular among those for whom the world is structured by competition for scarce resources. It is these groups of naturally right wing voters who gravitate toward UKIP and the BNP. The “war on terror” has helped radicalise these ideas and give them a poisonous edge, but it didn’t create them, and it isn’t the principal source of them. To combat racism it is necessary not only to mobilise the anti-war and anti-racist majority and fight the delirious propaganda of the right wing press, but also to reassert the basic class antagonism that structures society and the necessity for working class unity in the face of that. This becomes an altogether more urgent task as the deepest recession since the 1920s throws millions out of work, depresses incomes, and threatens to eviscerate public services and welfare.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.