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Gary Younge
Bradford needs hope, not teargas

Instead of tinkering around the edges with the New Deal, community partnerships and affirmative action, they have finally embraced a bold initiative: water cannon and teargas. Twenty years to the month after Brixton, Handsworth and Toxteth went up in flames, it appears as though nothing has been learnt.

A section of politically disenfranchised and economically marginalised youth has been branded mindless criminals. The police have been praised for their bravery. Local "community" leaders, with varying degrees of political legitimacy, are called before the cameras.

While rarely summoned to the microphone in more peaceful times, they are in great demand when it comes to condemning wayward members of their community.

But the fact that nothing has been learnt since 1981 does not mean that nothing has happened. First, there has been the decimation of manufacturing, which has shifted the focus of discontent from the south to the north and from Caribbeans to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

In 1985, following the uprisings in Broadwater Farm estate, the Guardian wrote: "Britain's Afro-Caribbean population tragically lacks the kind of middle-class leadership which has already begun to develop amongst the Asians here."

The intervening 16 years suggest it is not leadership for the middle class, but jobs for the working class that staves off social unrest. Ethnicity describes the protagonists; economics shapes the narrative.

Second, there has been the Macpherson report. Among its many achievements, the report into Stephen Lawrence's death established the link between the activities of hardened racists and the endemic exclusion of non-white people that infects and afflicts all our institutions.

The former is blatant, the latter is banal and Byzantine. But combined, they are deadly and corrosive. It is a report the government should be proud it commissioned - and ashamed that it will not heed.

The problems it highlights are seen in the segregated housing and schooling that prevail in areas like Bradford and Oldham. This situation has been at best facilitated, and at worst encouraged, by local councils presiding over a form of municipal apartheid.

It was in the course of compiling the Macpherson report that the deputy chief constable of West Yorkshire police conceded that his force "did not have the full confidence of the minority ethnic communities" in his area. It is to this same force that the home secretary is now considering giving water cannon and teargas to turn on the same minorities.

To comprehend how a situation can be so completely misread, we need look no further than David Blunkett's understanding of the past. "All history shows that if you allow disorder to take over from democracy then fascism can win," he said at the weekend.

Whatever else he learnt at the education department, it was clearly not history. The lesson of the 30s was that despondency, rather than disorder, paves the way for fascism. The preconditions for rightwing extremism are an ailing democracy, limited alternatives, available scapegoats and economic misery.

Which brings us back to Bradford. At the last election the turnout in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham dropped by about 18%. According to the electoral commission chairman, Sam Younger, the reason for the low poll nationwide was not apathy, but the failure of political parties to connect with voters.

It is precisely those who shunned the ballot box - the young, the poor and the non-white - who have now taken to the streets to attack either each other or the police. Worse still, they are - both Asian and white - part of Labour's core constituency. Yet their needs and aspirations have been sorely neglected.

It is a sign of the lack of government interest that, in the two months since this spate of unrest started, the prime minister has yet to visit any of the towns involved. It is difficult to imag ine any other country - including a far more segregated US - where a leader would show so little concern over so much unrest.

The party's obsession with middle England has left marginalised England bereft. So long as the Tories were in power, the most alienated could at least live in hope of a better government. With Labour at the helm, they feel they have run out of options.

Parliament is a long way away, but Asians are just down the road. Where the British National party succeed, it is largely because mainstream politics has failed.

Recent events notwithstanding, the far right's strength should not be exaggerated. But while they are small in number, they are potent in message. The swelling of their ranks is a sign of desperation among the white working class. While the party and its leaders must be ostracised, its supporters must be won over.

Until that time, the young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who took to the streets have every right to defend themselves against racist attacks. No sane person would suggest that burning cars and throwing bricks at the police is a way to get jobs, better housing or investment into your community.

But by the police's own admission, they have not established sufficient trust for local youths to believe that the authorities will protect them. If Lord Macpherson has been effectively silenced by fear of racist attack - following a campaign of hate mail he has refused to give any more interviews - what hope is there for Asian youth in the north?

Politicians need to convince them that Britain is a country where they can not only survive but thrive. They do not need water cannon or teargas. They need hope.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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