A new book on London’s East End blames multiculturalism, and especially the sharing of welfare benefits with ‘newcomer’ Bengalis, for white working-class racism.
Let’s face it, the Left just doesn’t know what to do about working-class racism. From that doyen of working-class history, E.P. Thompson, who praised the bloody-mindedness of the English jury that acquitted Kingsley Read to the ultra-leftist activists in the 1980s who argued that the McDonnell family should not be evicted from their Canning Town home, the Left has proved grossly uncomfortable with reining in white, working-class, racist behaviour.
The old arguments about racism being a form of false consciousness and workers’ unity as a given had, of course, to go out with the end of large-scale industrial production. But with the settlement of black working-class families in the most socially deprived areas of the conurbations, has come another mode by which the Left explains away white, working-class racism – not false consciousness this time but the lived, real experience of whites being rendered an oppressed minority in their own spaces by multiculturalism.
According to the much-heralded book, The New East End: kinship, race and conflict, hostility directed towards Bangladeshis by white East Enders stems not so much from racism but from the way in which the ‘state’s reception of newcomers has ridden over the existing local community’s assumptions about their ownership of public resources, and that this has precipitated a loss of confidence in the fairness of British social democracy’. Decoded, this means that we have moved from ‘They’ve taken our jobs’ to ‘They’ve taken our benefits’.
The New East End, for all its claims to another pedigree (see blurb, press release, introduction and in myriad opinion pieces in the media), is in fact in the tradition of new vogue academics who find existential and psychological explanations for white racism.
To the pedigree. In 1957, Michael Young (the socialist director of the Institute of Community Studies) and Peter Willmott (a worker-turned- sociologist) published a sociological milestone: Family and Kinship in East London – an ethnography of the working-class family based on in-depth interviews with Bethnal Green residents. This book, which became a classic on every sociology syllabus, described a community ‘village’ where family relations thrived and the culture was one of mutual support.
The New East End, according to its authors, was merely a follow-up study to repeat the simple 1953 inquiry and make a 50-year update of the East End’s people. They used the same questionnaire and tried, despite boundary changes, to revisit the same area. (Michael Young was part of this fourteen-year project until his death in 2002.)
But these claims are somewhat disingenuous. First, the original study had a clear strategic purpose: to stop planners and local authorities from disrupting family life with their slum clearance programmes that decanted families miles from their Bethnal Green homes. (Actually only half the original book was on Bethnal Green, the second half was on Woodford and the destruction of community.) And it had a political thrust in that it celebrated something hitherto ignored by politicians and policy-makers: working-class culture. In that sense it was the sociological counterpart to the post-war cultural Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart and the social realism of novelists like Alan Sillitoe.
Second, the questionnaires were not the same in a crucial respect. The one used for the recent book had additional ‘open questions’ which asked how respondents thought the area had changed – rather an obvious prompt, one would have thought, to sound off about the Bengalis (who now form a quarter of Tower Hamlets’ population).
According to the authors, it was ‘the importance of community relations’ that emerged from the open questions in the initial questionnaire survey, plus Michael Young’s ‘defensive’ stance towards the local white working class ‘who were vilified nationally as intolerant racists following the election of a BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets in 1993’, that moved ‘community relations’ to the centre of the study and led to the careful and extensive ‘probing’ required ‘to discover the roots of hostility’.
The book is essentially an examination of Tower Hamlets, an inner-London East End borough, in terms of its separate white and Bengali working classes, their access to schooling and housing and attitudes to each other. It is part-based on in-depth interviews following a sample survey and part-based on research from secondary sources and published statistics.
In a sense it is not one book at all but two and a half. One book looks at the Bengali community – relatively sympathetically – including background on Sylhet and interesting insights into Bengali (Muslim) attitudes to charity, welfare, duties and obligations. Another book is based around interviews with white respondents – many of whom are now old, most of whom are deeply resentful of the fact that their locality is being ‘taken over’ and that their legitimate claims, particularly for the housing of their relatives locally, are not only being over-ridden by officials (who give priority to newcomers) but also misconstrued. Legitimate complaints, they believe, are being interpreted as evidence of racism – another form of victimising white residents. (Those whites that aren’t old and resentful are the middle-class, newly-arrived ‘yuppies’ who seem, by their more liberal responses and lack of racism, to muddy the waters for the authors.)
And the half book is the explanatory (theoretical is too grand a term) theme which weaves its way through the introduction and the conclusion. The conception of the welfare state has changed from one of reciprocity, which the white working class understands and accepts as fair, to one based on need, which has placed Bengali newcomers ahead of local whites, and is perceived as unfair. And the Britishers of the East End are, or feel themselves to be, the epitome of Britishness because of what they and their forebears had suffered as fighters in the war and as victims of the Blitz.
These ideas are not of course new to the area. A typical example of East End conflict arose in 1990. Following an attack, apparently by Asian youth on his grandson, George Happe led a vocal campaign in Globe Town (across the road from Bethnal Green) of ‘East End for the East Enders’ and justified it in a Guardian interview as ‘nothing to do with racism. It’s resentment … We took more stick than anybody in this country in the last war.’
This idea of the welfare state having to be stretched to accommodate the ‘ethnics’, so penalising the whites in their own homelands is not new either. ‘Rights for Whites’ has been the cry of fascists in the area for decades, and the notorious Liberal Focus Group exploited and, some would say, created local fears about Tower Hamlets’ Bengalis taking priority in education and housing in the early 1990s. 
But what is new is academics joining resentful whites on their terrain and feeding their views – of Bengalis waving wads of notes in post offices and white un-housed children of long-term residents being shunned by housing officers – back to us in academic garb. Thus:
- ‘The evolution of the welfare state had turned it from a mutual-aid society writ large, as it seemed at first, into a complex, centralised and bureaucratic system run by middle-class do-gooders who gave generously to those who put nothing into the pot while making ordinary working people who did contribute feel like recipients of charity when drawing their own entitlements.’
- ‘The state’s reception of newcomers has ridden over the existing local community’s assumptions about their ownership of public resources, and that this has precipitated a loss of confidence in the fairness of British social democracy.’
- ‘One of the unintended and ignored effects on British society of extending citizenship to migrants from former countries of empire … lies in the way that it has strengthened the legitimacy of greater emphasis on citizens’ rights without working to create a national culture of responsibility, mutuality and solidarity.’
It is not, however, the first time that such an ‘excuse’ for white racism has been aired. Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron are drawing on the controversial views of David Goodhart, who, in a Prospect article in 2004, pointed to the tension not only of living ‘among stranger citizens’ but of sharing with them. In a thinly veiled attack on multicultural Britain, he contrasted the logic of solidarity (which draws boundaries) with the logic of diversity (which crosses boundaries). ‘If welfare states demand that we pay into a common fund on which we can all draw at times of need’, he wrote, ‘it is important that we feel that most people have made the same effort to be self-supporting and will not take advantage.’ He quoted approvingly from Conservative David Willetts ideas that as lifestyles and values became more diverse in Britain, ‘it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state’. And Goodhart, in defining citizenship which ‘arises out of a shared history, shared experiences and, often shared suffering’, looks to US theology academic Alan Wolfe’s idea that ‘Behind every citizen lies a graveyard.'
There is so much in the central thesis of the book that is questionable, it is hard to know where to start a critique. Take the shared graveyard. The authors write repeatedly about the importance of the second world war and the Blitz because, they say, respondents raised the issue so often. But that is to imply that feelings about the war spring directly and unmediated from interviewees’ mouths. Whereas, in fact, this emphasis on the East End’s suffering in the war is part of the narrative found on every extremist election leaflet that has thudded through letter boxes in Bethnal Green for the past five decades.
And what about white racist sentiments themselves? They were not there in the original book, but so prevalent in the second. The implication is that this proves that it is the demands of Bengalis that has, as it were, provoked racism. But no one was asked about racial attitudes in the first survey – they were only asked about their family life. Given the strong fascist and anti-fascist traditions in the East End (the Battle of Cable Street was just twenty years before the first survey), Willmott and Young might well have got some interesting views on racism had they inquired.
But from a sociological point of view this is a very flawed study. Views on race issues have been completely shorn from the economic and political forces at work in the area. Scant regard is paid to two crucial economic elements. First, the Bengalis, unlike Pakistani, Indian and East African Asian workers, entered the workforce by-and-large in the 1970s when industrialisation was over. They never, therefore, became part of the working class nor did they have the chance to build their own strong work-based organisations. Bengalis as compared with other Asian workforces came with the least – by way of skills, contacts, capital and experience of urban life. And Bengalis settled in Tower Hamlets, an area which was already deprived, overcrowded and run-down with only a dying rag-trade and a small restaurant economy. Second, when the Docks died, instead of building much-needed social housing on Docklands in the south of the borough, the government decided to extend the financial services industry of the City of London there instead. (‘The economy hardly figures in the accounts that people living in the area …gave us’, write the authors. But surely academics have a duty to interpret seismic external factors even if those living through them do not have the vision to do so?)
And then to politics. Racialised party politics has been part of the East End’s landscape long before Derek Beackon won his council seat on the Isle of Dogs. For, as Sivanandan has written, ‘The BNP did not give rise to racism. Racism gave rise to the BNP – the racism of expediency of the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets, the racism of poverty generated by the Tories in fourteen years of power, and the racism of failed vision engendered by Labour.'
But The New East End sets its face against such an analysis, and especially the importance of the ‘Sons and Daughters Scheme' by the Lib Dems (which controlled the local authority from 1986 to 1994) and the disastrous impact of their housing allocation via new Neighbourhood Offices. In fact, the authors go some way to distance themselves from the views of Danny Burns et al, academics who criticised the Lib Dem experiment in municipal decentralisation, on the grounds that the Burns team had a tendency to see working-class dissenters as ‘living in a fantasy’.
The book purports that its implications stretch nation-wide. But they do not because, as suggested already, Bengali settlement was historically and geographically extremely specific. And, as the book itself reveals, national trends – of white yuppies seeking housing in the borough and thus changing the political currency and Bengalis increasingly moving eastwards out of the borough – are already breaking down the book’s central thesis about the fight over benefits. This is not a contemporary but a historical study.
Trevor Phillips in his puff praises The New East End for its ‘rather old-fashioned contribution: evidence’. But what comes across to anyone who has knowledge of the East End – and since it is the fashion to parade one’s credentials, I have both lived and campaigned in Brick Lane, as well as having the dubious honour of being the first academic to study male Bengali settlement in Spitalfields in 1970 – is the facility with which academics can make answers gleaned from questionnaires and interviews mean absolutely anything, according to their intellectual preconceptions and political predispositions.
But then, this is a politically-loaded book. If Family and kinship read (rather lyrically) as a labour of love, its sequel, The New East End, reads (somewhat toughly) as a love of (New) Labour. The first was born out of welfarism, the second of Blairism.
All of which makes me think that a spectre is haunting this book, the spectre of the Labour Moderniser, Geoff Mulgan, who founded and ran the think-tank Demos and was adviser to No. 10, and now heads the Young Foundation which produced the book.