Arson, race and rioting

In 1981, the year of the ill-fated wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, race riots burned through the communities of Brixton, Toxteth and parts of the West Midlands. Twenty years later, the north of England has seen disturbances which have caused millions of pounds- worth of damage and injuries to hundreds of police officers. Race has reimposed itself on Britain’s political agenda.

Is it a running sore that the authorities have been able to hide, but not heal? Observers of events in recent weeks have been struck by the geographical and ethnic differences between 1981 and now. The previous riots took place in the major cities of London, Birmingham and Liverpool, and involved Afro-Caribbean youths who considered themselves victims of discrimination in employment and a heavy-handed and racist police force.

The violence of that year would flare up again in 1985, with the gruesome murder of Police Constable Steve Blakelock. In 2001, the violence has been perpetrated by Asian youths in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford — in reaction, they claim, to provocation by white racists and police passivity.

Racism and poverty have again combined to produce mayhem, if only in different communities and generations. However, on analysis, the recent riots reveal a complex situation with worrying implications for multi-culturalism in Britain. This week has seen the publication of a report on Bradford by a former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The inhabitants of Bradford emerge from this report as people united by economic and educational failure, but divided into districts, and schools, which prevent mixing and mutual comprehension between the various ethnic groups. Many parts of this northern town, whose moribund textile industry once attracted large-scale immigration from the Indian sub- continent, are populated up to 90 per cent by either whites or Asians.

A division between whites and “Asians” is in itself misleading. Bradford has a Pakistani community of nearly 100,000, the largest of its kind outside the home country. The mainly Pakistani Muslim community lives alongside 12,000 Hindus. Tensions between them are considerable. The latter feel targeted because of their religion and the ongoing stand-off in Kashmir between Pakistan and India.

Hashmukh Shah, an Indian businessman and spokesman for the World Council of Hindus, blamed the mosques for the Bradford riots: “They are less religious centres,” he said, “more like training grounds for the Taliban.” Leaders of the Hindu community openly criticise Muslim rage at perceived injustice, comparing it with their own dignified attitude to the predicaments faced by first-time immigrants.

Within the Muslim community there are differences: the “community leaders” hauled before the TV cameras often have little sway over those young men who took to the streets. There is also a marked difference in temperament between those who came to Bradford to earn wages that were paltry but far superior to those in Pakistan, and those British Asians who expect to enjoy the fruits of equal citizenship.

The Bradford police were taken aback by the ferocity of the rioting, even though the city has been near boiling-point for more than a decade. In 1989, the mosques were at the forefront of the campaign against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. At the same time, a school headmaster, Ray Hunniford, was sacked for suggesting that multi-culturalism was not working.

Underground activities became a racial domain. In the course of the 1990s, Pakistanis systematically forced white prostitutes off the streets. In 1995 came a foretaste of last week’s rioting.

The extreme right National Front (NF) and British National Party have been blamed for sparking off the violence. However, given the deep racial divisions already existing in the north of England, it could be concluded that these tiny and divided organisations were less the cause than the consequence. And blame can be convincingly attached to the role of the far left Anti-Nazi League. In Bradford a planned NF march had been called off, but the ANL and Pakistani youths found it fit to unite against the “common enemy,” the riot police. On examination, the troubles are also closely linked to gang warfare and drug dealing, which are rife in these communities.

It would be wrong to paint a uniformly bleak picture of race

relations in Britain. Leicester, home to a rich cocktail of immigrant communities and once dubbed the most racist city in Britain, has succeeded in promoting understanding between its inhabitants and avoiding the strife seen elsewhere. There are still no separate ghettoes in the American sense of the term: British immigrants who succeed economically tend to move into white middle-class areas.

Nevertheless, the current political leadership shows remarkable complacency. In 1981, the Tory Michael Heseltine became “minister for Merseyside,” spending three weeks in riot-ravaged Toxteth to develop plans for regeneration. In 2001, no government minister has yet visited the north. Given the predictability of this summer’s riots, this could soon prove to be a disastrous mistake.