[mid july01]

The 'friends' on the Left are to blame for Bradford

By Sin Simon (Electronic Telegraph)

News: We were overwhelmed say Bradford riot police


IT is fitting to begin, in seeking explanation for what's been happening in the mill towns of the North, with E P Thompson's Making of the English Working Class. That great masterpiece hums with the early industrial life of the very places now plunged into convulsions. Bradford, Burnley, Oldham and Leeds have 71 page references between them. Yet the following distinction drawn by Prof Thompson in his passage dealing with riots remains pertinent today:

"In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons 'above' or apart from the crowd." As a revisionist Left-winger writing in 1959-63, Thompson's thesis was that historians had too often favoured the latter interpretation of riots, thereby devaluing the notion of the riot as a positive response to working-class disfranchisement, poverty and alienation.

Forty years later, the positions have reversed. The general assumption of the liberal establishment is that riots must necessarily be an outpouring of tensions so seethingly underlying that they were always bound eventually to boil over. My first premise is that this is not true here: the recent events have tended to be caused by the cynical intervention of outsiders, and would not have occurred were it not for that manipulation. True, "you can't agitate a man on a full stomach"; it is no coincidence that these riots were in Manningham not Mayfair; but that was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition.

My second point is one that has been neglected by the media: the most effective agents provocateurs have not been the neo-Nazi Right but the revolutionary Trotskyist Left. I know this for sure because what they succeeded in doing in Bradford on Saturday and elsewhere in previous weeks, they failed to do in my constituency on the final Saturday of the general election campaign.

A seemingly innocuous sentence from the front page of yesterday's Observer (one similar to which was carried by the rest of the media) conceals the sinister truth: "Two people were stabbed and 80 police officers injured after a protest march against the National Front turned violent." Not by the National Front, you will note, but against it.

Decent people, reading such a sentence, may fail properly to examine what it means. They might well assume that concerned citizens naturally want to march against the National Front, that the phenomenon is similar to the food riots of the late 18th and early 19th century which, according to Thompson, were "legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy", being "popularly regarded as acts of justice, and their leaders held as heroes".

What happened in Erdington, in which a National Front and a Trotskyist Socialist Alliance candidate were standing, was that the National Front initially threatened to march down the High Street. Local reaction was so uniformly appalled that the threat was withdrawn. However, the local Anti-Nazi League - exactly the same handful of militants who made up the Trotskyist Socialist Alliance, but with a different letterhead - absolutely refused to cancel its planned "counter-demonstration". It was now to be a "celebration" that the streets had been reclaimed from the fascists.

And on the day that the NF march was supposed to have taken place it was the ANL, not NF, supporters who poured in from outside wearing balacavas and frightening people. It was against them that the shops pulled down their shutters and the riot police lurked warily. Fortunately, the NF was nowhere to be seen, so there was no one for the Trotskyists to fight, and there are greatly fewer young Asians to be incited in Erdington than there are in Bradford so, after a while, the militants left.

Given that the recent riots have been such a fillip for the neo-Nazis - giving them publicity, exciting fear and xenophobia and thus promoting the recruitment which is their prime objective - one might have thought the supposed anti-Nazis would recognise their own leading role in bringing it about as counterproductive. Such thinking ignores the ruthlessness of revolutionary socialists. For them, there is no difference between the proto-fascist skinhead youth and the Bangladeshi militant: there is only one working class, only one class struggle. Cities on fire. Police under siege. Oppressed urban proletariat rises up against the agents of the boss class. They love it.

Which is sickening, because the only way they can get these mini-revolutionary kicks is by cynically playing the race card. After all, they constantly invite people to meet, march, protest and generally overthrow the decadent institutions of capitalism. And they are constantly, roundly and spectacularly ignored. In Erdington, after fighting a vigorous and vocal campaign, they polled less than the National Front, which fought no campaign at all. (Neither got 700 votes.)

The only way the revolutionary Trotskyists can get a response is to go into Asian communities and frighten people with the spectre of neo-Nazism. And in so doing, the Trotskyists - deliberately and for their own purposes - give the fascists a credibility they don't deserve. Yes, the NF "starts it" by turning up in Asian communities. But the Trotskyists are the catalyst without which these terrible conflagrations would not occur.

The NF is a pathetic and puny group of stupid and cowardly hooligans rarely capable of more than getting drunk, shouting idle threats and scuttling away. They're so disgusting, on the other hand, that their mere existence in the pub around the corner is bound to inflame the passions - when stoked by professional agitators bused in from outside - of young Asian men whose economic condition gives them every right to feel neglected and resentful.

As the summer swelters on towards autumn, I implore such men to pause and reflect. It's not the fascists you need protecting from. They are just rubbish that will blow along the gutter to the next place if you pay it no mind. It's the other strangers who kindle the pyres, the ones who say they are your friends, but who have the same interest as the Nazis in seeing you burn your streets down. Like the fascists, they will be gone by morning.

Sion Simon is Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington