Mike Makin-Waite , a militant anti-fascist, was working for the borough council in Burnley when, after riots in the town in 2001, it became a stronghold of the British National Party. On Burnley Road explores the complexities of these events, not least as a way of explaining the fall of the ‘Red Wall’ nearly twenty years later. As a young man in the mid-1970s, Makin-Waite became involved in a campaign against two councillors from the National Party (an offshoot of the National Front) who had been elected in Blackburn, like its neighbour Burnley a former cotton town. He became ‘a serial participant in varied and contradictory activities with socialists, communists, pacificists, anarchists and myriad “counter-cultural” groups’. A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in its dying years, he ran community centres and youth projects in Blackburn and on Merseyside before taking what he assumed would be a quieter job, running council leisure activities in Burnley. ‘Of course we saw it coming,’ he writes of the 2001 riots. ‘The pity was that we only saw it coming afterwards.’
Like the riots the same summer in Oldham and Bradford, the events in Burnley were triggered by far-right attacks – or in some cases the expectation of them – on the town’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities (which made up just over 8 per cent of the population). Battles developed between young whites and Asians, and between both of these groups and the police. All three riots were subsequently analysed in official reports: the former trade-unionist and chair of the Labour Party Tony Clarke was harsh on the Burnley rioters, insisting that ‘what was described as a “race riot” was in fact a series of criminal acts.’ Makin-Waite rejects the labelling of rioters as mob-like but is wary of romanticising the participants: ‘Those who described the 2001 riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford as “resistance”, “uprisings” or “rebellions” projected onto them a positive purpose that they did not have.’
Yet they did have political causes. In all three places, there were plausible threats to the Asian population from the far right. In Bradford in particular (where hostilities between Asian youths and the police had broken out six years earlier over prostitution in Manningham), the riots were in part a response to heavy-handed policing in Asian areas. At the same time, resentment in white communities over the putative special treatment given to Asian areas was stoked by government regeneration schemes that required places to compete for funds, and thus, as Herman Ouseley’s report on Bradford put it, to demonstrate that ‘your area is more deprived and dreadful than the next.’ These resentments – along with complaints about the amount spent on interpreters and the translation of council documents – brought about the emergence in Burnley of a group of independent councillors led by a Labour defector who harried the ruling Labour group and helped prepare the ground for the BNP.
Other reports on the disturbances – notably an overview by Ted Cantle, former chief executive of Nottingham City Council – seemed to provide evidence of the failures of multiculturalism, the emergence of ‘parallel communities’ (others used the word ‘apartheid’) and the need for ‘community cohesion’. This thinking gave rise to New Labour’s introduction of citizenship tests and ceremonies, and Gordon Brown’s infatuation with Britishness. (Cantle wrote of the need for ‘a meaningful concept of “citizenship”’ that would acknowledge ‘the contributions of all cultures’ but establish ‘a clear primary loyalty to this nation’.) Opposition to multiculturalism became a key part of the Ukip platform, and of David Cameron’s attempt to protect his government’s right flank from Nigel Farage.
Punitive prison sentences (often four or five years long) were handed out to the young British-Asian men charged with rioting in Bradford, many of whom had been taken by their parents to hand themselves in at the police station. Copycat rioters from the white Ravenscliffe estate, meanwhile, were charged with the lesser crime of violent disorder. In Burnley, where the majority of those charged were white, the most visible consequence of the riots was the success of the BNP, which won three council seats in 2002, increasing its tally to eight the following year, when it became the second largest party on the council. Makin-Waite describes the challenges of serving the BNP as a council employee. Should he agree to send Alan rather than Abdul to service BNP councillors’ computers? Absolutely not. What should be done when the BNP issued leaflets accusing the council of employment discrimination in favour of Asians? He should tell the BNP that they were wrongly claiming the council was acting unlawfully, and send a solicitor’s letter telling them to stop. Was advising the BNP on how to stay within the law helping protect a fascist party from rightful prosecution? Did it come close to ‘I was only obeying orders’? Makin-Waite argues that it was not his job as a council employee to take on the BNP politically. By winning elections, he believes, the party had won the right to be argued against. In 2012, when it lost its last seat on the council, it may have seemed plausible that its opponents had won the argument. In fact, the BNP had simply handed on the baton.
In 2004, the BNP gained more than 800,000 votes in the European elections, some 700,000 more than it had previously, but Ukip won two and a half million votes with a manifesto claiming that Britain was ‘full up’. As Makin-Waite argues, the BNP’s exploitation of the right to free speech (at the 2001 general election, the party leader, Nick Griffin, appeared at the Oldham West and Royton count wearing a gag) expanded the boundaries of what was allowed to be said about immigration. The assertions of special treatment for Asians helped build resentment that would fester for the next two decades. In the years after the riots, Burnley’s BNP councillors complained that regulations were applied less stringently to Asian businesses; in Beyond the Red Wall, published last year, the pollster Deborah Mattinson relates an Accrington voter’s complaints about an allegedly unhygienic Asian cornershop that the council fails to deal with.But Labour’s attempts to appease voters who were tempted to defect to the BNP (in 2009, the then Burnley MP, Kitty Ussher, ran a ‘local immigration survey’ to invite approval for the Labour government’s plans to deport asylum seekers) were matched by Cameron’s efforts to woo Ukip supporters with stringent restrictions on the benefits to which immigrants were entitled.
In 2002, the BNP’s first candidates included a pub landlord, a self-employed civil engineer and a woman who worked in a car-parts factory (‘people like you’). In 2019, the Ukip biographer turned right-populist advocate Matthew Goodwin identified the Brexit Party’s core vote in the European elections as the self-employed, aspirational plumbers, electricians and factory workers. But the BNP vote was not confined to those sectors, any more than the Brexit vote was dominated by ‘left-behind’ voters in the North and the Midlands. The largely white and deprived Burnley Wood ward never returned a BNP councillor, sticking firmly to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The first Burnley ward to fall to the BNP was picture-postcard Cliviger, in the Pennine foothills. For a while the party represented the Brontë village of Haworth on Bradford council.
The language used by the BNP soon seeped into the mainstream. Like any far-right party, it thrived on the narrative of a sinister conspiracy led by international finance capital to destroy the nation-state. In 2016, the New York Times reported Donald Trump’s allegation that ‘Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.’ In her Conservative Party Conference speech the same year, Theresa May claimed that ‘citizens of nowhere’ were ‘people in positions of power’ in thrall to ‘international elites’. In National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy (2018), Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell describe Viktor Orbán’s conspiracy theory about ‘billionaire Hungarian Jewish financier George Soros’ seeking to flood Christian Europe with Muslim refugees ‘to create a borderless world that is subservient to capitalism’ as ‘not entirely without credence’. There are substantial political differences between these actors, but they share the fundamental belief – crucial to nationalist politics back to Enoch Powell and beyond – that cosmopolitan globalist elites are mobilising sections of the population against national majorities. Although this narrative is being pushed hard by the populist media, it’s patronising to assume, as Makin-Waite writes, that working-class people are incapable of coming up with racist ideas of their own. But ideas gain traction when placed in a totalising framework: national-populist conspiracy theories link hostility to immigration with resentment of liberal ideas and the corporations that purportedly promote them. In Beyond the Red Wall, Mattinson puts quotes marks – implying terms ingested from elsewhere – around the terms ‘left-behind’, ‘politically correct’ and ‘elites’.
How and why have these ideas proved so appealing in a town like Burnley, where The Communist Manifesto was first translated into English, which protested against the Napoleonic Wars and the Peterloo massacre and boycotted Southern cotton during the American Civil War? At the start of the 1980s, 45 per cent of the workforce in Burnley had a job in manufacturing; ten years later, this figure had fallen to 36 per cent. By 2002, 56 per cent of households in Burnley had a gross income below £15,000. The following year, nearly 20 per cent of the town’s working-age population were economically inactive. For Makin-Waite, ‘industrial ruination was a key contributing factor’ in the town’s move away from its radical roots. But why did decline lead not to a return of militancy, but to an embrace of the party responsible for deindustrialisation? ‘In post office queues, hairdressers and over drinks at Burnley Miners’ Club, people were encouraged in a beleaguered sense of lost entitlement,’ Makin-Waite writes.
They were told that the party founded in their name, and which had run the town as long as anyone could remember, was favouring ‘certain others’ over and above them. A new political identity was constructed, processing people’s sullen sense of being badly done by, but also enabling them to feel assertive and proud. Long-established social bonds had been dissolved, threatening people’s sense of identity and purpose. In such circumstances, the idea that there is a national collective to which you belong helps to meet strong emotional and affective needs.
Meeting such needs can hold society together, but ‘it can also be socially divisive, where you believe that your own community is suffering because of some other people’s behaviour, resources and existence.’
In Burnley, this sense of loss gave the BNP its opportunity. The co-founder of the local branch, a former Conservative council candidate called Steven Smith, ran his accountancy business from what he called Burnley Heritage Centre, from where he also sold sepia photographs of Victorian Burnley and artefacts of its industrial past. When I visited the town to research Playing with Fire, a play about the 2001 riots for the National Theatre, it was clear that people in the white neighbourhoods east of Colne Road saw in the Asian communities to the west a way of life – neighbours chatting over garden fences, extended families living on the same street – they themselves had once enjoyed. The role of nostalgia in the reconfiguration of British politics explains the paradox noted by Tom Hazeldine in The Northern Question (2020): it is precisely the places with a strong tradition of working-class solidarity – the constituencies dominated by traditional industries – which have defected from left to right. In 2019 Bishop Auckland in County Durham, a former mining town (with a median age of 46), went Tory, while Manchester Gorton, dominated by retail and the public sector, median age 29, stayed with Labour (the party won 77.6 per cent of the vote). Between 1981 and 2011, the number of 16-24 year-olds in newly Conservative Hartlepool dropped by a quarter, while the population of over-65s increased by the same amount. Many of Hartlepool’s working-class voters are now homeowning pensioners.
The other notable difference between Bishop Auckland and Gorton is that the population of the latter is 30 per cent Asian heritage, while the former is 99 per cent white. Responding to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published in March, Goodwin gave the cosmopolitan-elite theory an explicitly racial twist. Writing in the Daily Mail, he attacked the ‘“woke” dogma’ promoted by ‘highly educated whites’ in alliance with multinational firms as evidence of an ‘informal alliance between white elites, corporations and minorities, against the white working class’.
There is something quite particular about East Lancashire’s industrial past – a past it shares with towns and cities across the North – which contributed to the abandonment of its radical traditions in the 21st century. From the late 18th century well into the postwar era, Burnley was dominated by cotton weaving, but of course, as Makin-Waite writes, ‘there are no cotton plantations on the moors above Accrington and Nelson.’ The industry’s raw materials came largely from slave plantations, and the cloth produced was itself exported to West Africa, to pay for more slaves. The other major non-domestic market for Burnley cotton was India, a market protected by the deliberate dismantling of India’s own cotton industry in the 19th century. As late as the 1960s, mill-owners and local Conservative MPs persuaded Harold Macmillan to limit cotton imports. The eventual and belated modernisation of the industry required the mills to work 24 hours a day in order to recoup the investment. When married women millworkers refused to work nights, immigration from Mirpur filled the gap.
It’s not surprising that immigration was seen as a visible symbol of decline (as it was in other ‘left-behind’ towns across the North and Midlands). Throughout the era of cotton’s dominance, millworkers had been persuaded of the virtues of the imperial network of harvesting, manufacture and distribution. Workers who had once woven their own cotton didn’t benefit materially from industrialisation; they toiled long hours for low pay. But as their industry flourished, their identity was increasingly defined in relation to the slaves on whose labour it relied. ‘Most workers in towns like Burnley,’ Makin-Waite writes, ‘took pride in imperialist arrangements through which they were exploited and impoverished.’ England was defined as an internally coherent but externally distinct entity, constructed, as the sociologist Satnam Virdee puts it, ‘in opposition to the racialised other’.
Makin-Waite’s analysis of the historical construction of today’s ‘white working class’ is complemented by Robbie Shilliam’s Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (2018), which charts the racial distinctions made between workers from the motherland and the colonised and enslaved elsewhere in the world. As far back as the Elizabethan poor laws, the English state sought to distinguish between the orderly, prudent and hardworking poor, and a disorderly poor prone to idleness, licentiousness and anarchy (the 1547 Vagrancy Act prescribed slavery as a punishment for refusing to work). The distinction was underlined by social reformers such as Cobbett, who supported freeborn Englishmen rioting against industrialisation, but thought slavery a suitable fate for ‘fat and lazy’ negroes. The 1834 Poor Law institutionalised the deserving/undeserving distinction by imposing what it described as slavery for those consigned to the workhouse. As the orderly, skilled and patriarchal working class was incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon imperial family through the expansion of the franchise, so the disorderly residuum was defined by William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, as ‘colonies of heathens and savages in the heart of our capital’.
Racialised by metaphor, justified by eugenics, the undeserving poor didn’t disappear from public policy until 1948, with the introduction of a welfare state that included everyone, without moral distinction. But a lower caste was immediately and covertly reintroduced through the colour bar that privileged British-born workers over the descendants of Afro-Caribbean slaves, who came to this country to do the work indigenous workers turned down, including night shifts in northern mills.
In the 1980s, the white working class was redivided into deserving and undeserving as a way of explaining (and condemning) the behaviour of what came to be called the underclass. As with its ancestor, the Victorian residuum, the underclass was a racialised concept, borrowed from right-wing American social scientists like Charles Murray. When riots broke out across England in 2011 David Starkey and others portrayed the rioters as young white people imitating the behaviour of black ones (‘The whites have become black’).
For Shilliam, today’s white working class – now returned to the deserving column in the ledger – is ‘left behind’ in the sense that a national compact that ‘at one point granted white workers an institutionally advantaged position’ no longer applies. However, the most obvious case in which this advantage does persist – despite right-wing mythology – is housing, from the notorious landlords’ sign ‘No Blacks No Dogs No Irish’ onwards. The majority of children currently living above the fourth floor of English tower blocks, accommodation seen as undesirable, are black or Asian. The Grenfell disaster exposed the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s efforts to ethnically cleanse its housing estates.
The ‘white working class’ category sustains more than a century’s worth of metaphors, analogies and practices that make an unjust distinction between white and black. It’s also inaccurate, in that most British workplaces are now multiracial. And misleading: in the same way that racist views of Pakistanis or Afro-Caribbeans essentialise (‘They’re like this’) and universalise (‘They’re all the same’), the white working class, as Shilliam writes, is generalised as comprising ‘sullen, dejected racists’, ‘retrograde, parochial and backward-looking’, and thereby divided from working-class people of colour. The term ‘white working class’ implies that race and class are two separate disadvantages, in competition with each other. As Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it, ‘affixing the word “white” to the phrase “working class” suggests that these people face structural disadvantage because they are white, rather than because they are working class.’
To his own surprise, after he was appointed to lead Burnley’s drive for community cohesion, Makin-Waite was persuaded that it might be possible to break down the barriers between the town’s warring communities. Workers from Mediation Northern Ireland were brought in to share their experience of creating effective civil dialogue. At first Makin-Waite dismissed mediation as a fluffy distraction from the need to address underlying political and economic contradictions. Within a couple of months, though, he had changed his mind: as BNP voters and people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin discussed shared and unshared resentments, as well as domestic arrangements, religious beliefs and the performance of Burnley FC, ‘there was genuine dialogue and real learning.’ But racism is still being promoted as well as challenged: last summer, when Burnley were playing away at Manchester City, a light aeroplane pulling a banner reading ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ flew across the stadium just after the two teams had taken the knee.
Despite the attempts at mediation (concluded too soon, in Makin-Waite’s view), and the efforts to attract new manufacturing and build good-value housing, Burnley remains the eighth most deprived local authority area in the country. Boris Johnson in Westminster might stress the myriad benefits of ‘levelling-up’ to new Conservative constituencies, but local government has been hollowed out: the number of people directly employed by Burnley Borough Council has fallen from around 2200 in 1983 to fewer than two hundred now. The voluntary sector (which is commissioned by councils, including Burnley, to undertake much of their conflict resolution work) has been particularly hard hit.
Halfway through his book, discussing ways to revitalise democratic debate, Makin-Waite recalls talking to visiting liberal journalists and think-tank researchers in the early 2000s. He would describe how Burnley residents (including many women) were taking part in voluntary work and political education, going to the polls in increasing numbers, feeling that (at last) they had a voice, and forging a new politics outside the confines of the status quo. ‘Only one problem’, he’d then say: ‘The movement I’m describing is the BNP.’ The BNP has long since ceased to exert any significant impact on the body politic, in Burnley or anywhere else. The same cannot be said of the influence of their toxic politics.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.