No one asked Blackburn’s people what they wanted
The far right is feeding on the dislocation of the industrial north
The resurfacing of the extreme right is a symptom of an old elided political argument. That it focuses narrowly on racism is only part of the largely silenced, but epic story of the north. The upheavals of the past 50 years took place, not only without consent, but also without any discussion with the people who live there. These changes involved more than bringing labour from south Asia. The heart and psyche of the north – defensive and proud in the certainty that, however grimy and gloomy the mill towns, this was where the real wealth was created – took a severe blow with the decay of their social function. The very names of these towns were synonymous with making textiles. Their reason for existence was based on them.
With the passing of this, there was no recognition of the violence it did to the people, and no acknowledgement of grief and the loss of identity involved. Even to speak of such things in the 1970s was to be derided as a victim of nostalgia. These convulsive shifts in sensibility were scarcely a result of free choice. A council official admitted after the byelection result: “The questions were never asked. And they can’t be asked now. It is too late.” This does not, however, prevent answers being given – some of them very ugly indeed.
In 1970 I published a book which reflected the resentment and bitterness of the people of Blackburn then. Beneath the vehemence lay the assertion “they have no right here”. Under the influence of Enoch Powell, the remedy was “send them back”. Today, few people advocate mass deportations. But this doesn’t necessarily indicate a more liberal temper. Feelings have hardened into a sullen estrangement, while invisible frontiers create a de facto social apartheid. If you ask “what would you like to happen to Blackburn?” more often than not, they say “I’d like it to be the way it was”.
In the cotton towns, racism has become an embittered, contorted position of defiance in a discussion that never took place. The idea of Blackburn being “restored” is obviously an unreal wish. But it continues to haunt the imagination of people, because they have never been consulted on anything that has happened to them. People who worked in the mills were scarcely taken into the confidence of those companies that ended their operations in Blackburn, stranding skilled spinners and weavers and others working in the textile industry. (Of course, they were never invited to express an opinion about its beginnings either, when handloom weavers were starved out of their domestic occupation and compelled to yield to the harsh rhythms of factory machinery – any more than the people of South Asia had elected to live under the imperial mercy of the Raj.) An historic deficit continues: social and economic change remains unchosen. Whoever voted for globalisation?
If resentment focuses on racism, this is mainly because south Asians are the most conspicuous embodiment of these involuntary changes. There has been no space to explore whether they, too, might have been evictees of agriculture and rural life, just as the people of Blackburn had been. The fact that more recent migrants cling to religion, which the whites have ceased to do, that they live in “close-knit families and communities”, is levelled as a complaint against them. Yet only the day before yesterday these were the proudest characteristics of the old Blackburn. When they see children in their new clothes at the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, something tugs at the heart, as they remember a decayed chapel culture, children in new suits and dresses parading through the town on Whitsun walks. Part of the resentment of white communities lies in this encounter with their former selves.
There can be no reconciliation where there has been no recognition. Elected representatives only emphasise their distance from the people when they intone their reedy denunciations: “there is no place in our society for racial intolerance”. They believe that the election of a BNP councillor is a little local difficulty. The people, they say, have nowhere else to go; they will come “home” to Labour at the next election. People always have somewhere else to go, however squalid the destination.
The well-meaning majority in Blackburn say: “my hope lies in the young people. Maybe after a couple of generations they will become like us”. Thirty years ago, Barbara Castle, then Blackburn’s MP, advised me “don’t play up the race issue. It will die down with time. They will become like us”. Become like us. Forfeit their faith, abandon the networks of kin, lose a sense of belonging, jettison solidarity? Is that how we are? Is that what is required of people if they are to “fit in”?
These are painful issues. But to fail even to broach them is to conduct the life of the country behind the backs of the people. It is to infantilise, as well as to deny strong feelings that become more virulent the more they are repressed. It makes us not active participants but objects, not agents but victims, at the mercy of an increasingly remote global market. The collusive silences, the unrecognised losses, the growing disengagement from politics – it isn’t good enough for the people of Blackburn or of any of the other mill communities, pit villages or factory towns blighted by drugs, crime and a pervasive sense of powerlessness. It is in these places that New Labour now performs its rituals of “modernisation”, and tries to exorcise the ghosts of those it once regarded as its own people.
· Jeremy Seabrook is author of Freedom Unfinished: Fundamentalism and Popular Resistance in Bangladesh Today