A recent report by the National Community Forum (available here) has once again highlighted how some white working class people in today’s Britain feel that their concerns on a range of issues are being ignored. In fact many believe that the Labour Government have abandoned them completely.
Based on a series of interviews that were undertaken on four predominantly white housing estates around the country, the report found that some in the white working classes felt a sense of resentment, unfairness and betrayal. As a result, many were prone to believe the many rumours that are routinely spread by the far-right about migrants and other minority communities thus exacerbating tensions between them.
One particular issue was the belief that white working class families were failing to be allocated their rightful social housing due to immigrants who were – or so it is alleged – going straight to the ‘front of the queue’.
Look back and history is peppered with great speeches. From Jesus’ sermon on the mount to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream…’ and even taking in Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, words delivered by mere humans have been repeatedly shown to be able to move people, shift attitudes and even change the whole direction of humankind and the history attached to it.
Given the gushing praise that surrounded Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference this week, you would imagine that we were indeed witnessing history in the making. Far from it. Despite the fact that almost every commentator and Cabinet minister were literally falling over themselves to heap praise on Brown – Neil Kinnock even cried so I believe !!! – the speech was little more than nothing. No great rhetoric, no great policy announcements, no need to rush out and join the Labour Party as a catalyst for a new wind sweeping through British society. Instead, it was a return to the good old days of Labour Party spin and little of anything else.
Beginning with the ‘surprise’ of his wife Sarah introducing him to the delegates, Brown went on to play down his ‘celebrity’ status, arguing that because he was a serious politician for serious times, he didn’t do ‘celebrity’ with his family because his children “aren’t props, they’re people”, Given that he’d just been introduced by his wife in front of a bank of cameras and onlookers, isn’t that just a tad hypocritical?
Even beyond this vain attempt at trying to woo voters with a more personal and friendly fronted Gordon Brown, the content of his speech was far from revolutionary. Invisible was the rhetoric of the Left, devoid was it of ideas that would reinvigorate and renew a credible alternative to the personality-obsessed (obviously Gordon’s bug-bear), centre right politics that we have had to endure since the late 1990s.
Instead, we got bland statements about building a “fair society” for all little more than a week after hedge fund ‘gamblers’ and corporate fat cats made huge fortunes on the back of others’ misfortune. Fair to those 40,000 HBOS employees now facing the possibility of job cuts and forced redundancies? A “Britain of fair chances for all and fair rules applied to all”, that is unless you’re an international banking corporation and then you merely sidestep the monopolies commission and its safeguards whilst sipping champagne with the Prime Minister in Canary Wharf.
He apologised for the 10p tax debacle, it “stung me because it really hurt that suddenly people felt I wasn’t on the side of people on middle and modest incomes – because on the side of hard working families is the only place I’ve ever wanted to be”. Maybe as a sweetener to those on ‘modest incomes’ – is that poor to everyone else Gordon? – he unveiled a £300m plan to offer free computers and internet access to more than a million children to boost their chances in the jobs market – even though they won’t be able to pay for the fuel to power the computers given Labour’s reluctance to act against rising fuel costs and spiralling food prices. At least their parents might be able to try and rectify the tax credit system errors that have seen some of the most needy people being forced into debt millions of pounds worth of errors in the tax credit system that continues to punish those who need support the most.
In a message to the Daily Mail/ Daily Express angry mob: “The dole is only for those looking for work or actively preparing for it. That’s only fair to the people pulling their weight..And let me be clear about the new Labour policy on crime; taking action on the causes of crime will never mean indulging those who perpetrate it. Fairness demands that we both punish and prevent”.
He repeated his plan to extend free nursery places for all two-year-olds over the next 10 years as well as offering free prescriptions for cancer sufferers and other long-term illnesses – at a time when the ‘progressive privatisation’ of the NHS via Public Finance Initiative schemes are already well under way and where multinational drug companies take immense profits from the NHS
And then of course, Brown went into ‘bankrupt’ political mode taking a swipe at David Cameron/ George Osborne/ David Milliband (delete as applicable to the newspaper that you read): “I am all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice” before ‘attacking’ the Tories suggestion that society is “broken”: “I think it’s the best country in the world – I believe in Britain”
I believe in Britain too Gordon but I don’t believe in either you or the Labour Party at the moment. Rid yourselves of the spin and personality politics and get back to offering credible and real policies. No matter how many times the GB – Gordon brown rather than Great Britain – sycophants tell us that things are great we have to take this with a pinch of salt. Yes, one speech can metaphorically move mountains as history has shown us. But all history will show us about this speech is that it has a memory only for the memorable.
Having been invited to open the ‘Love Music, Hate Racism‘ festival in Kenilworth at the weekend, below is the transcript of the speech that I made. Special ‘thank yous’ to the organisers and everyone that supported the event…
Unlike this summer, the summer of 1976 was the hottest since records began.
Things weren’t just hot because of the sweltering temperatures: temperatures were also rising on the streets because of the growing spectre of racism.
In London that year, the far-right, neo-Nazi National Front attracted over 100,000 votes in the local government elections.
Whilst at the Notting Hill carnival, the rise in the levels of policing from 200 officers in 1975 to 1,600 in 1976 resulted in confrontations between London’s black community and the Metropolitan Police. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s tabloids reported these events as ‘race riots’ the following day.
In music, David Bowie was photographed giving a Nazi salute from a limousine whilst at the Reading festival, a number of black artists were forced to leave the stage following a barrage of racist abuse.
And then on the 5th August 1976, Eric Clapton began his set at the Birmingham Odeon by asking whether there were any foreigners in the audience. Asking them to raise their hands, Clapton declared, “I think that we should all vote for Enoch”.
For those of you too young to know who he was referring to, Enoch Powell was a Conservative MP whose name became a byword for racism, having declared in 1968 that within 15 to 20 years Britain would see the white man fall to the whip hand of the black man. In what became known as his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Powell concluded by stating that continued immigration would end in racial confrontation and bloodshed on the streets of Britain.
Describing Powell as a ‘prophet’, it was the response to Clapton’s comments that bring us here today. Musicians and political activists were mobilised, and as a direct response to Clapton, the Rock Against Racism movement was born. Hastily arranging small gigs that saw black reggae artists play gigs alongside white punks, less than a year later, the Rock Against Racism movement was drawing more than a 100,000 people to a gig in London’s East End where the Clash headlined.
In the words of one of my favourite bands the Long Blondes though, “that was then and this is now” and in the summer of 2008, Britain is a different place to what it was back then.
On the plus side, racism has been largely marginalised from general society where through good legislation and various initiatives, such views and attitudes are no longer accepted as being the norm.
Marginalisation however doesn’t mean that racism has been eradicated.
Unlike 1976, Britain today is a far more diverse place where communities are no longer identified solely by their skin colour or ethnicity. These haven’t gone away, but nowadays we have a much greater focus on religion or nationality for instance, and with this, so the markers and discourses of racism have changed.
Take for instance how the BNP focused on Muslim communities, campaigning for the local elections in May 2006 under the banner of ‘Islam Referendum Day’. And let’s not forget that the BNP won a seat on the London Assembly this year and are the official party of opposition in the Barking & Dagenham council chambers.
Or how the Daily Mail and Express repeatedly publish stories about immigrants and asylum seekers taking ‘our jobs’, ‘our houses’ or ‘our benefits’. So much so, that just a few weeks ago, the Daily Mail published an apology to Britain’s Polish community.
And so in music, artists and activists are again coming together all over the country, where small gigs and festivals are being put together to show solidarity: solidarity against all forms of racism, all forms of oppression, and all forms of discrimination.
Whether its against blacks, Asians, Whites, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Poles, Turks, women, the young, the old, gays, lesbians, the disabled or whoever, the message underpinning racism, oppression and discrimination is the same: a message that is fuelled by hate.
I want to end my slot and open this festival with a quote from the musician, political activist and Rock Against Racism stalwart, Billy Bragg. In his book “The Progressive Patriot”, a book that sets out to reclaim a sense what it means to have a British identity and to be proud of that identity – an identity and heritage that I am extremely proud to have – he says something that all of us can take away from this festival today:
“although you can’t change the world by singing songs and doing gigs, the things you say and the actions you take can change the perspective of others”
Love Music, Hate Racism – enjoy the festival !!!
Having written for the Post for about a year now, I’ve often wondered how many people read this column. Beyond a few friends and family members who I obviously bribe and given the lack of fan mail, I have been known to echo the latest X-Files movie, ‘I want to believe’ that people are out there. It’s just very hard to do so.
Recently though, I was approached by the organisers of the Kenilworth ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’ (LMHR) festival. What surprised me most was that they had read my Post column and as a consequence, wanted me to open the festival for them. Obviously flattered, I immediately accepted and will now be on stage at midday on Saturday 30th August. What’s worrying me now though is not just what to say, but also what to wear: what does a 40-something non-rock star wear to open a festival when that same 40-something also knows that very few people in the audience will know who he is? Too rock and roll and I run the risk of looking like many in the audience’s dad in the middle of a mid-life crisis: not rock and roll enough and I run the risk of just looking like their dad. Not good either way.
LMHR is a relatively new movement that seeks to bring people together through music by offering a vibrant celebration of our multicultural and multiracial society. Set up in 2002, LMHR was a direct response to what it saw as rising levels of racism as well as the electoral successes of the far-right. To date, it’s shows have been supported by acts such as Ms Dynamite, Babyshambles and Basement Jaxx amongst others.
For all those 40-somethings like myself, LMHR is very much the offspring of the ‘Rock Against Racism’ (RAR) movement from the 1970s. Interestingly and somewhat unknown, it was events in Birmingham that prompted RAR. In August 1976, whilst performing in Birmingham Eric Clapton made a drunken declaration of support for former Conservative minister Enoch Powell: famous for his anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Wolverhampton. Clapton ranted that he felt that England had become overcrowded and that the only way to stop Britain from becoming ‘a black colony’ was to vote for Powell. Sadly, Clapton ended his tirade by repeatedly shouting slogans about keeping Britain ‘white’. On the back of this, RAR grew rapidly and reached its pinnacle in 1988 with an open air concert in London’s East end – neither in Walford nor Albert Square I hasten to add – where 80,000 people watched bands such as The Clash, Buzzcocks, and Steel Pulse uniting against racism and fascism.
Without being disrespectful, I doubt Kenilworth will attract a similar number. Yet whether that audience is 1, 100, 1,000 or more, they will be coming together to unite against what they see as the same threat: the threat from racism and fascism today. Some things never change.
Sadly, there always seems to be a new form of racism waiting to rear its ugly head. Whether that be black and Asian communities in the 1970s, or Muslims and Poles in the noughties, the fact remains that racism, discrimination and prejudice are still out there. Racism – unfortunately – hasn’t gone away despite the valiant efforts of many.
Nor though has the fear of 40-something men making fools of themselves by trying to be ‘too young’, ‘too cool’ or ‘too hip’ (do young people even use this term any more…???). But that – given the context – has little weight in the grander scale of things. Taking the moral high ground then, if you’re at Kenilworth and I look like your dad – either with or without the mid-life crisis – be kind. We’re there to add our voice of dissent against racism, not worry about what I actually look like. Love Music, Hate Racism and don’t worry about the old guys.
More details about the Kenilowrth ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’ festival can be found by clicking here…
The BBC2 documentary ‘The Primary’ focused on Welford Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham, a school that brings together children from no less than 17 different ethnic backgrounds. As the website went on to describes it:
“The school has never had many white children, “There’s never been more than 10 within the school community of 480,” explains headteacher Chris Smith, and the mix of nationalities means that no ethnic group is predominant. Filmed over one autumn term at the school, this inspiring documentary follows the headteacher as he leads his diverse intake of children through the daily rituals of school life, working to maintain harmony while striving to promote an awareness of the children’s different cultures.”
All well and good, but what relevance did this programme have to the ‘White’ season and its focus on the white working classes? Beyond the programme identifying that there were only two ‘white’ pupils in the school – who didn’t appear to be from a ‘working class’ background – all the other ‘white’ people in the documentary (namely the teachers) would appear to have been ‘middle class’. I hasten to acknowledge that by suggesting this, assumptions are being made about the teachers and about how they would themselves offer a self-definition of their socio-economic status.
The reality at the school was far from a place where ‘rivers of blood’ would flow, as per the warnings from Enoch Powell that were dissected earlier in the series, but it was also a place where the programme makers were not futile enough to portray it as a modern-day educational Utopia either. Yet despite outbursts of interracial nastiness and minor instances of racism being highlighted between a handful of the pupils, Welford came across as a warm, inclusive place, filled with energy, vitality and lots of life. As the grandmother of one of the white children in the school put it, “Children are children…It doesn’t matter what sort they are.” But what role or relevance to the white working classes?
It seemed that underpinning the programme was a far more insidious message, one that had nothing to say about the white working classes but seemed to offer something more reflecting a warning or rallying call to them instead. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s controversial comments from the early 1980s about Britain being “swamped by an alien culture”, the documentary seemed to root itself more specifically in the comments made by David Blunkett from April 2002. Despite (allegedly) being from the opposite sides of the political divide, Blunkett – who was supported by most of the Labour frontbench – reiterated Thatcher’s observation but with a greater sense of clarity. For Blunkett therefore, it was migrants and asylum seekers that were “swamping our schools”. Whilst being far from as arrogant or obnoxious as Blunkett, it did seem that the documentary’s message was one which amounted to little more than ‘we told you so’.
Without doubt, the documentary was a warm and touching one that shows the way in which multiculturalism can – and indeed does – work when allowed to. However, having read reviews of the series and its various programmes elsewhere, much has been made in terms of the series being something of a covert campaigning tool for the BNP. Without making such strong assertions, ‘The Primary’ did seem to be more concerned about sending a message to the white working classes rather than sending a message to others about them.
BBC2 has commissioned a season of documentary and drama focusing on the white working class in modern Britain. Beginning tomorrow evening (Friday 7th March 2008), the following programmes are to be shown:
Fri 7 March 9pm
The members of a Working Men’s Club in Bradford speak out
Rivers of Blood
Sat 8 March 9pm
Exploring the legacy of Enoch Powell’s controversial speech
Mon 10 March 9pm
Drama about a white working class family who move into a Muslim area
The Poles are Coming
Tue 11 March
An entertaining look at the impact of immigration from Eastern Europe
Wed 12 March 7pm
A term inside a multicultural school in Birmingham
All White in Barking
Fri 14 March 9pm
Observing a diverse group of neighbours in East London
Over the next week to ten days, I hope to respond to each of the programmes in the series and to the vital issues they raise.