Archive for May, 2007

‘A Fistful of Euros’ awards

May 23, 2007

UPDATE: The polls are now closed: thanks to all those who voted for me. ‘A Fistful of Euros’ is well worth reading, as are a great many of the blogs nominated in its competition.

‘A Fistful of Euros’ is an excellent group blog on European politics, which is currently hosting the ‘Third Annual Satin Pajama Awards’ for the best blogs in Europe. I’ve been nominated for the ‘Best Writing’ and ‘Best New Blog’ awards.

If you’ve come here from the AFOE link, you’re no doubt worried about getting lost in the huge quantity of posts.  I’d recommend taking a look at this post first- it’s not a bad piece of reportage, as is  this .   Although it risks becoming a fight with another blogger, this post is a reasonable piece of analysis; this post, this one and this are all examples of polemic. Clearly I started out as a calm, open-minded reporter looking for new stories and ended up as a frothing polemicist, screaming abuse at targets he could vaguely remember reading about in the morning paper: not an unusual trajectory for a writer, but it’s quite impressive that I managed to pack it into a few weeks.

I can’t yet say who I’ll be voting for, as I have to admit I’ve only read a small fraction of the nominated blogs. I’ll read as many as I can and update this post with any recommendations.

Ethnic tension and the BNP

May 18, 2007

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls, in Brechtian fashion, ‘The Resistible rise’   of the British National Party, which is witty, intelligent, and much better than his rather shallow original piece on the subject. He also does rather a poor job of explaining what I said on the subject, but that’s okay: so did I. And Dsquared doesn’t rebut my main point at all, though he makes a vague two-fingered gesture at it in his comments thread.

Self-important though this clearly is, it’s time to revisit my earlier post; to rewrite the parts that were unclear and to restate the parts that weren’t. Doing this will hopefully clear the ground for some less self-obsessed posts on the subjects of ethnic tension in England and some awful possible parallels with the recent history of another part of the United Kingdom.

 1) A little humility would be in order from a couple of white, London-based Oxford graduates writing about ethnic tensions in the English Midlands and Northwest

 I don’t like the way I wrote my original post. And I don’t like the way Dan Davies wrote either of his two posts.

 Both of us sound like God Almighty advising the mortals on the mysteries of life, rather than a couple of bright Oxford graduates with interesting but necessarily- given the general lack of knowledge of events ‘on the ground’ in BNP-voting areas, and also given the rather specific ignorance of Messrs Hardie and Davies- somewhat speculative ideas on local politics in places where we don’t live. 

What is missing from both our posts is any sense that it might be a good idea to look for other data, or that the phenomena we’re describing might have multiple causes instead of being due entirely to our favoured explanations.

2) The BNP won’t win many elections or hold many seats, and that isn’t the damn point.

Any confusion on this point is my fault entirely. I had stated perfectly clearly in the post: ‘There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain… the party will never win a Parliamentary seat…’- to which I should add that I’d be amazed if they ever have a majority on a single Borough council, let alone any bigger Local Authority. Then I slapped on the snappy title ‘The Very Real Rise of the BNP’, which does conjure pictures of the BNP winning lots of council or even Westminster seats.

 Chris Dillow, who linked to the post, called it ‘Why the BNP do matter’. That, or ”Why the BNP might be a threat’, or the present title, would have been less punchy but more accurate. The old title was misleading because it implied that the BNP was rising to power by electoral means (which the post said it wasn’t) and also objectionable because of the unshakeable certainty it displayed- which my post, alas, entirely shared.

(Scepticism patch: yes, I might well be wrong that the BNP will never win a council or get an MP elected. But that needs a longer post, and I’m speeding through this point because Dsquared and I agreed on it.)

 3) Elected members of local government have few or no powers to affect peoples’ lives: this is also not the damn point.

Again, clearly stated in my original post: ‘the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything’, with the possible exception of local low-cost council housing, stocks of which are now very small. (Even here they will run up against Race Relations legislation and the permanent local government officers who really run most of the show, to say nothing of the Treasury who provide most of the financing, so even a BNP majority council, should there ever be one, will have a very circumscribed opportunity to favour ‘whites’ in allocating housing.)

As I said, ‘Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t’. Why do I think that? Keep reading.

4) Signalling by a static population of racists is not really a problem…

Dsquared argues- in the comments to his second post- that if you have 20,000 racists in Blackburn who decide to tell you that they’re racist by voting BNP in largely meaningless local elections, the problem is not that they’ve declared their racism but that they were racist in the first place. Which is where I have to respond that he didn’t read, and hasn’t rebutted, the key point in my original post.

5) …Unless that signalling contributes to a process of ethnic (or ‘racial’) polarisation- and a growth in the racist population.

The key point from my original post: ‘what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression.’  Further: ‘Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. ‘

In conclusion: ‘the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.’

With all due humility, I’d like to say that that last sentence needs changing:  yes, the vote for an openly racist party is rather clearly ‘a symptom of’ a worrying degree of ethnic tension, but I can’t say whether it succeeds as ‘a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation’. 

 Firstly because I personally don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring in areas where the BNP are making a pitch for votes, or in areas where they aren’t. Secondly because I can’t (as yet) find evidence that anyone else really knows this or not. Thirdly because one can certainly imagine other ways of signalling ethnic hatred other than voting BNP, which may be more effective (or just as ineffective) a signal as a vote for Griffin’s shambling crew.

6)  We don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring.

 Specifically, my initial trawl of the data suggests that we don’t know very much about whether ethnic polarisation is occurring in the regions of Britain where the BNP gets some votes. More than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a determined effort to collect such data. There are some worrying but rather ‘soft’ data points indicating that there has been ethnic polarisation in areas which the BNP have found fruitful: the Cantle Report on Bradford is a good place to start. There is some rather harder data arguing that there is considerable ethnic segregation among British schoolchildren: but this is only one working paper and might well, if we all look hard enough, contain considerable flaws, and we don’t know what bearing it has on specifically BNP-targeted areas. This paper argues in a more restrained fashion that internal migration is leading to increased ethnic concentration, but says that the phenomenon needs a lot more study. By contrast, the demographer Ludi Simpson has written a paper arguing that ‘self-segregation’ on ethnic lines is a ‘myth’, singling the Cantle report out for particular criticism. Writers decrying or praising current levels of immigration, or the hard-to-measure ‘integration’, quote whichever of these documents draws conclusions most amenable to them.

Although the links above only scratch the surface, there is a debate on ethnic polarisation and segregation among social scientists like Simpson and local government officers like Cantle. If polarisation is occurring, then the BNP are unlikely to be having a benign effect- but they may well be having only a small malign effect or possibly no effect at all. We don’t know.

7) Daniel Davies and I are worrying about different things

Dsquared argues that the rising vote for the BNP in General Elections, and their winning of (a very small number) of council seats is irrelevant because none of them puts the Party anywhere near the effective exercise of political power: I agree. He also says that the BNP’s electoral success is peaking and any peak is likely to be followed by rapid decline (the first point buttressed by this excellent post on The Gaping Silence) and I think this is very likely true. He finally points out that the BNP’s current membership and electorate probably consists disproportionately of weirdos and marginal individuals: having met a few of them, and also thinking about the social costs incurred at most levels of society by being an open fascist, I again think that this is almost certainly true.

So we agreed all along? No- and this is just stubborn misreading on Dsquared’s part. I’m not worried about these shambling apes taking over the government of the UK or even of any small town. It won’t happen.

 I’m worried about the possibility that they may not just be a signal of non-increasing white racism but a factor in increasing the number of Asians who fear that their white neighbours are racist- and hence opt to separate from the ‘white’ community

8.) Weirdos count in weird situations and small populations can generate big conflicts.

Why am I worried about the BNP- a small collection of marginal individuals believing crazy things about the Third Reich, who have just about managed to win fifty council seats, few of which they will retain?

Short answer: because I have read a great deal of Northern Irish history.  If you look at the towns in the English North and Midlands where large Asian and white working-class populations live near each other, there are just too many similiarities with the Northern Ireland of 1967, just before the most recent bout of ‘The Troubles’ got properly going.  

Northern Ireland had a population of 1.5 million in 1969: much of the Province was quiet then and remained so in the years to come. Ever been to South Belfast? A lovely place, if a little twee.  And yet this tiny population, many of whom never participated in violence in any way, and most of whom rejected extremist politics, generated a conflict which lasted three decades, and killed over three thousand people. A disproportionate amount of the violence came from the Falls and Shankill roads- both of which one can walk up and down in the span of a single afternoon.Is this alarmist? It could be. But consider this. In 1969 the leading racist demagogue in Northern Ireland- the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley- was unable to win a seat in the local Stormont assembly, and struggled in council elections. The leading ‘loyalist’ terror group, the UVF, murdered three or four people in 1967-69; the IRA managed no killings until they defended the Catholic ghettos in the riots of ’69. Only sociopaths and weirdos attended the meetings of the UVF, or kindred groups like ‘Tara‘.

The IRA existed: as an ineffectual mixture of an Old Comrades Association and a semi-Marxist discussion group. There were areas of segregated housing, but many more streets were Catholic and Protestant families lived alongside each other. In parts of modern Britain- in Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, in the West Midlands and the East End- the de facto segregation of ethnic communities is comparable and the death toll from terrorist violence, with 53 murdered in London under two years ago, is much higher.

 9) To summarise:

There may or may not be a process of ethnic polarisation in certain areas of modern Britain.  I think that there is pretty good prima facie evidence in three of the links above, but Ludi Simpson’s paper puts the opposite view with considerable force.

But if – if- there is racial polarisation, then we do need to worry about the BNP – and their Salafi  or Takfiri counterparts at work in the Asian communities. Of course there won’t be an elected fascist government or even an elected fascist council in this country. But when large communities live near by each other and find direct communication difficult, the hate-filled messages of weirdo minorities might help increase that polarisation, and turn polarisation into hostility. It has happened: only weirdos wanted violence in Northern Ireland in 1966 or 1967. Two years later, they had their wish, and then violence stopped being the preserve of the oddball fringe. If there is ethnic violence in the streets of your town you may not wish to participate but you cannot ignore it.  

This is what I am worried about: not the elections, but what election results may say to people living in a society which to some extent is dividing on communalist lines. We have seen something rather like this before, and it didn’t turn out well.

The abolition of playtime

May 9, 2007

It is always necessary to mock people in authority, except when they do it too well themselves. Who wrote these guys’ scripts?

 “We are not intending to have any play time,” said Alan McMurdo, the head teacher.Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored.”…Miles Delap, project manager at the academy, said: “…We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy.” Delap, who has run the academy project on behalf of its sponsor, Perkins Engines, and the Deacon school trust, said that playgrounds did not fit into the concept.’

This story, by an excellent journalist called Geraldine Hackett,  needs to be read in full. (Hat tip to Natalie Bennett.) At one level, this is just a cheerless gaggle of middle-management types who have forgotten what it was like to be fourteen years old, who don’t care if they are taking some kids’ childhoods away, and who won’t be the ones who have to impose discipline on a room full of adolescents who have spent all day cooped up indoors. Nothing new under the sun: every society known to us has produced people with a total lack of imagination and a relish for exercising power.

But why are they getting away with it? That is rather new, surely. Geraldine Hackett provides the necessary context:

‘Thomas Deacon… will be one of the biggest schools in Europe… and is one of the showcases of Tony Blair’s academies programme.

‘Academy schools remain in the state sector but are independent of local councils. They are sponsored by private sector firms which have some say in the management. ‘

So we can draw some wider lessons beyond that of the foolishness of Delap, McMurdo and their cohorts. The local parents were not consulted as to whether they wanted their children to be sent to a playground-less school. They now have no democratic way of changing this decision- short of hoping for a change of policy in London. That’s it, because the management of the school is answerable only to central government,  not to anybody elected locally.

 Yes, they can vote for someone else as their MP, and hope that this leads to a change of government in Westminster, and eventually to a change of policy for their academy. But perhaps the voters of Peterborough have other reasons for not voting against the Labour Party. Perhaps- very likely- they will vote against them but their votes will hardly be enough to change the party in power. And perhaps- even likelier- the local Tory candidate will make all the right noises about playgrounds and the Tory party itself, when and if it reaches power, will find it convenient to go on ignoring local parents’ wishes. A school playground in one town, whilst it is a very big deal indeed for a few thousand parents and children, is a very small matter for the government of the world’s fourth or fifth biggest economy. 

Here  we have a clear example of why local democracy can’t be dismissed as the obsession of a few anoraks.   Petty authoritarians, grasping architects, empire-building managers: these have always existed and will always do so. The way that we can keep them from doing too much damage is to give the people most affected by their policies the democratic right to vote them out of power. 

Updates: the King’s Cross violinist and email notices

May 9, 2007

If you’d like to receive emails alerting you to  new posts on my blog, just send an email with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line to: 

To unsubscribe, just email the same address with ‘unsubscribe’ in the title line. I’ll set up a proper webform in time.

A lot of people have read the first post on this blog, about the violinist at King’s Cross Station. The day after that incident, I left the UK for Singapore, and I wrote the post three and a half days after I saw her play. Since I got back to London two weeks ago I’ve been to King’s Cross a few times. There’s been no sign of her, which could be quite good news if she is off the streets, or very bad news if she is still on the streets and looking for money somewhere else. I now remember that I had seen her playing at least once before at the station: very well but with nothing like the desperation I saw that night.

The very real rise of the BNP

May 4, 2007

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls the ‘Mythical rise’ of the British National Party: it is witty, intelligent, thought-provoking and entirely wrong. UPDATE: Dsquared replies to my piece here, without (to my mind) rebutting it or properly understanding it; and no doubt he thinks the same of my latest post on the same subject, which (sorta) replies to his.

Of course, one type of BNP alarmism is equally  wrong: ReichsFuhrer Griffin will never raise a pudgy hand to salute a hundred thousand goose-steppers on Whitehall, as Parliament’s ruins smoulder in the background. There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain. There will not be a BNP presence in a British Coalition Government. In fact, the party will never win a Parliamentary seat: I’m prepared to take bets on this.

So Davies and I agree, don’t we? If there will be no BNP MPs, then there’s no rise of the BNP, and therefore no need to worry. Right? No, wrong; deeply and dangerously wrong.

The rise of the BNP is occurring and it may well harm this country very deeply. At the moment, it clearly affects only some communities, in some places: that is why the rest of us are finding it so easy to ignore, and that is precisely why the BNP will find it all the easier to poison the political atmosphere that everyone must breathe.

 Davies makes three arguments which I want to deal with here.  (There are two others: that BNPers lose seats the first time they face re-election- which I need to check, but which I think was 100% true of their first electoral breakthrough, in 1993, but is now decreasingly true; and that any policy of limited immigration is either racist or appeals mainly to racists, which is  a form of argument one hears a lot and which greatly worries me.)

First, that local election results don’t matter since only weirdos and party hacks vote.

Second, that local election results don’t matter since even if a party gains power at a local level, it is more or less impossible for it to exercise power in any meaningful way: it’s Whitehall what runs things, sonny. 

Third, even if General Election successes for the BNP also show some success, that doesn’t matter: it is simply that the national proportion of fascists is now voting for an openly fascist party, rather than assuming that the Tory Party will faithfully, if shamefacedly, represent its interests.

Let’s deal with these three points in order. It makes sense to run the first and second points together, since they are very likely to be related: there is no point in voting for a tier of government which has little or no effective power, and local councillors who are voted for by a small proportion of the electorate are in too weak a position to demand more autonomy from central government.

(Parenthetically, this prompts one interesting reflection, which doesn’t invalidate Davies’s argument. If we do see a movement to grant more powers to local government- something which the Tories are beginning to promise, particularly on policing, and which any sensible leftwinger is likely to advocate when contemplating Whitehall’s failure to regenerate the ex-industrial regions- then will it be resisted in the name of anti-Fascism? Probably, but then there is a ready-made counter-argument: if local government matters more, a greater number of people will vote and fascist nutters will cast a smaller proportion of the ballots.)

But Davies’s arguments on the triviality of local government are wrong, for these reasons. Firstly, local government administration can affect your life once you go a bit further down the income ladder. It matters for those who are so poor that they can’t rent or buy in the private market, and must instead rely on the dwindling stock of ‘council houses’. There is already a lot of local controversy, which only rarely reaches the national press, on the allocation of council houses, with too many said to be going to this or that ethnic group- the key factor, as it happens, in igniting protests in Northern Ireland in 1968.

But beyond low-rent housing- trivial for a City of London banker like Davies, rather more important for a large number of Britons- local politics  still exist, even if local government has been almost completely emasculated. Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t. The French language makes it clearer: their word for vote is ‘voix’ – voice.

Consider how ‘voice’ works at the level of a particular locality with a strong degree of ethnic separation- and tension. Conditions in (say) Burnley, Bolton or even Barking are very different from those in Surrey, Cheshire or North London: crises can and do erupt in areas populated by a few hundred thousand people. There is already a limited degree of contact, and hence a limited degree of knowledge, among ‘whites’ in, say, Bradford about the local Asians, and vice versa. Limited knowledge is likely to lead to limited rationality. 

So what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression. And of course that will likely make young Asians more aggressive towards whites, and no doubt local young whites will respond in kind and probably up the ante… Don’t we have a delightful spiral starting?

Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. All the more convincing in that the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything, so you’re doing it purely for symbolic effect: and symbols matter like hell in tense situations.

The implication of Davies’s thesis that ‘BNP voters are just the people who used to vote Tory when it was a crypto-racist party’ is that the vote should either be uniformly distributed across the country, or distributed in a way that would correspond to the strength of the Tory vote. This does not correspond to the facts on the ground.

BNP support is very highly regionally concentrated: mainly in the North West of England and the West Midlands (areas where large working class white populations live near by large Asian populations) and in Essex- where a great many white working class people set up when they left the East End of London.

As noted above, we don’t have anything like the threat of a national takeover by the BNP, or even BNP participation in a coalition. But the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.

Davies thinks there is nothing to worry about in the recent electoral success of the BNP. I think it could be one half of the beginning of inter-ethnic conflict on mainland Britain. The other half, of course, is what is happening in the Asian communities, and there too Davies seems to think there’s nothing very serious afoot.  Daniel Davies and I have had a great many arguments. This is one row where I would love it, really love it, if I lost.