Northern Democracy

Howard has no answers to the failed state

Roy Hattersley suggests in the Guardian today that Michael Howard was guilty of double-speak in his visit to Burnley and says:

Unsuspecting readers might well have believed that the leader of the opposition had gone to Burnley to excoriate the British National party and all its racial works. In fact, he had used the occasion to repeat and re-enforce Conservative policy on asylum and immigration.

Well of course. It would have been somewhat surprising if Howard had not mentioned his party’s policy on immigration and despite the broadly positive media coverage, I think we can assume that Howard was in Burnley, above all, to try and win votes for the Tories.

My fear when I heard Howard was going to Burnley was that we would get a repeat of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ speech which undercut the rise of the NF in the 1970’s, so, unlike Hattersley I think Howard deserves some credit for saying the following in Burnley:

We are a stronger and better country, rich in our cultural diversity, because of the immigrant communities that have settled here. People of all races and religions are to be found in every walk of life, doing as well as their individual talents and efforts deserve. Many of them came to Britain and had to start again from scratch. But hard work, ingenuity and determination have propelled them forward. They are a credit to our community.

If Howard was seeking the vote of the racists in Burnley those words, if reported locally, would not go down well. (In fact the local papers chose to lead on the attack on the BNP as thugs and paid little if any attention to the positive comments about immigrant communities). .

Of course if Howard is successful and the BNP voters switch back to the Tories, or other mainstream parties, the attitudes won’t change and the problems facing Burnley and other towns won’t disappear – they will just vanish from the media spotlight. Racists voting Tory is obviously much more palatable for everyone and much less of a story for the papers.

But what was really missing from the whole Howard trip to Burnley was any attempt to look at the broader issues facing the town and others like it. In the wider context there was really nothing extraordinary about Howard’s visit at all.

Howard, as a representative of a party that ruled for 18 years while towns like Burnley were left to slump further into crisis, as the leader of a party which still rejects any attempts to construct a revival for such towns, could do nothing more than repeat the same old mantra that the people of Burnley and other towns should make sure they show some faith in ‘their’ politicians in London.

There is only one way to really deal with the festering bitterness and frustration which the BNP thrive on in places like Burnley and it has nothing to do with race.

In fact it has everything to do with taking race out of the equation and it is the real reason why Howard and his party have no answers for Northern towns. It requires an understanding of what has happened in Northern towns and why they have started to behave in a manner which leaves the champions of multiculturalism in London bemused.

Jeremy Seabrook understood what is behind the crisis in the most insightful article I have read on the subject:

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.

…….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.

…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.

The London political and media elite, of both left and right, has ignored this process for the entire 50 year period that Seabrook refers to. It is banale to have to point it out but it still needs saying that it takes a race riot for documentary crews to turn up in Burnley and it takes the election of fascists for party leaders to make visits out of election time. Even then all we hear is more of the same from all parties – keep to the mainstream, we will deliver.

Yet the British state, run from London, has utterly failed to deliver. It is in almost every sense a failed state in these parts of the North. For all the problems associated with a ludicrously over-centralised state like Britain’s, it still has the means to at least attempt to tackle the issues that need addressing but crucially it lacks and has always lacked, the will to act.

When a state fails people will eventually stop to believe in it and either give up on any notion of a community or civic society or turn to alternatives. If you look at other parts of the world where the state has failed to deal with the effects of a free market failing to deliver you will see similar phenomenen. In southern Italy the mafia replaced the state as the organisation that will ‘look after’ the poor. Thankfully the BNP haven’t yet risen to the level where they provide such an alternative. The radical left, always run from London, has almost no presence in these towns and in any case is still tied to a centralised concept of social change.

In most cases in the North the reaction to the failure of London to tackle the problems has not been to turn to fascist parties but has been a disengagement from politics and many areas of community life. Remember the Tories can’t even find candidates to stand in Burnley and the situation is not much better in the other parties. People have not entirely given up common activity – they still work together on campaigns but it is more likely to be an effort to save the local football club than to improve housing.

The situation is hardly helped by the brain drain, in which Northern towns suffer an exodus of the most educated and skilled who are sucked away to London. All of the North suffers a net loss of graduates which London and the South East benefit from.

The choice is therefore very stark. Either there is an attempt to revive these communities or they will be left to become ghost towns in which thugs of either the political or the criminal variety will fill the vacuum left by the failed state.

That is one of the reasons why I support devolution for the North. For all the limitations and problems with the Prescott proposals they do offer at least the beginings of a mechanism in which the people of the North can start to get a grip on their own futures.

For a start, the process of voting yes in referendums requires the conscious expression of regional identity – a vital first step on the road to taking matters into our own hands. Such talk willl be derided as “regional chauvanism” by the London ‘opinion makers’ who find the very idea of a political North to be midly amusing but that should not deter Northerners from asserting the right to self-government. It didn’t deter any of the other peoples who over the past 50 years have broken free of rule from London in the face of varying levels of ridicule.

Even if the politicians and newspaper columnists in the capital cannot take seriously the idea of the North of England leading its own revival or even running its own affairs, the alternatives should focus their mind a little.

After all at the moment the people offering an alternative to the London mainstream in places like Burnley talk about ‘Rights For Whites’ in public and “White Pride” in the pub.

So is talk of “Rights For the North” and “Northern Pride” really so hard to stomach?