When London’s Melting Pot becomes a Volcano: ethnic and religious conflict in London

The melting pot of London, sucking in peoples and ethnicities from all over the world, creates enmities between some ethnic groups. English labourers, whose quality of life is most keenly affected by cheap foreign competition, are not particularly shy in giving their views on foreign competition. A plasterer, a man who uses the term ‘Paddy’ to refer to Irishmen he knows of, complains about gangs of Polish labourers, who work for less than the minimum wage and who sleep in the back of transit vans, undercutting English firms for loft conversion contracts in Muswell Hill. He explains that the Polish labourers work in freezing conditions, which is dangerous because ice crystals form in the cement, which makes the walls they build weak and prone to collapse.

The far right has never been a dominant political force in the United Kingdom. However they have over the last twenty years had successes in London. In 1993 Derek Beacon won a seat on the Isle of Dogs Council fighting for the National Front. In 2008, Richard Barnbrook won a seat on the London Assembly after the British National Party polled five per cent of the London vote. One in every twenty voters in London, who decided to vote, voted for the British National Party. By 2010 the party had won twelve seats on the Barking and Dagenham Council, making it the second biggest party after the Labour Party.

Sometimes the melting pot has sometimes become a volcano, with the bigger ethnic groups sometimes trying to dominate London’s smaller groups. In early 2010, Tower Hamlets, which had a newly elected Somali mayor, the first Somali mayor in the history of the United Kingdom, put forward plans to site a number of new monuments in Brick Lane, celebrated high street of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, but also home for many artists and financiers with bohemian sentimentalities. It turned out that the plans seemed to suggest a cementing of the Islamic identity of the Bangladeshi community. This was to be done by inserting a couple of new sculptures or monuments within Brick Lane itself. This was to include two arches, one at either end of Brick Lane, which the Evening Standard reported had been dubbed as ‘hijab gates’, because they took the form of a woman’s headscarf. The paper reported that some felt the monuments unfairly concentrating on the Muslim component of Brick Lane, forgetting its Jewish and Christian history, and also eschewing the fact that many of the people who stroll up and down Brick Lane are hedonistic heathens.

Sometimes the attempts of one group to dominate the other spills outside of the political process, and on to the streets. The East End of London, which has often been home to various impoverished and newly arrived immigrant groups, has traditionally been the seen of attempts to intimidate. In 1936 the Black Shirt Fascists of Oswald Moseley arranged to march through the mile long Cable Street, from the Royal Mint towards the docklands, in what as then known as a Jewish area, inhabited by Jews who had set up home in London having fled the pogroms in the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. Crowds of anti-fascists and Jews met the Black Shirts of Oswald Moseley, and the two sides fought running battles, in what became known as The Battle of Cable Street. In more recent times small groups of vigilantes, looking to enforce what they believe to be the teachings of Islam, have begun patrolling Bethnal Green, intimidating and bullying people into behaviours, which they believe are consistent with Islam. This has included intimidating men, who dress in a metrosexual manner, and scalding men and women who hold hands whilst walking in the street. Comments made towards secular types by these vigilantes include ‘this is a Muslim area‘ indicating that some people within the Muslim community have the intention of imposing their own particular Islamic hegemony on local people, perhaps creating an enclave or ghetto, by scaring off non-Muslims. This kind of behaviour is mirrored by The English Defence League, a group of men, Black, White and Asian, with anti-Islamofascist sentiments, would hold demonstrations in and around Tower Hamlets, home of a large Muslim population.

On occasion mobs have formed and have attempted to lynch members of another ethnic or religious group. In 1780, a mob of Catholic hating Protestants took to the streets and carried out a physical assault and murder of Catholics residing in London, together with the sacking of several Catholic churches, in an event, which came to be known as the Gordon Riots. On the 7th July 2005 four men exploded bombs in central London, killing 52 people and injuring 700, in what they appeared to think was a strike against non-Muslims. Three bombs went off on underground trains just outside Liverpool Street and Edgware Road stations, and on another traveling between King’s Cross and Russell Square. The final explosion was around an hour later on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, not far from King’s Cross. Two weeks later on 21st July 2005, four attempted bombings took place around midday at Shepherd’s Bush, Warren Street and Oval stations, and on a bus in Bethnal Green. No one was hurt and five suspects arrested for the incidents were tried in September 2006. Debarah Orr, writing about London on the day of the bombs wrote.

The streets, in the first hours, were silent, as were the people marching along them, clutching their phones in their fists. The buses drifted back to their depots, empty, all heading in the same direction like migrating creatures acting on instinct. Londoners acted on instinct, too, and headed, if they could, for the nearest telly. It was the shock, of course, that made it all seem so unreal, like a spectacle we could watch, open-mouthed. In those eerie early hours, London seemed to be engulfed in a cloying soup of silence. People were not emerging from the tunnels, so we knew how bad it had been. Later, those underground in the trains when the explosions happened spoke of a chilling period of silence before the screaming began. This same effect, vastly attenuated, happened to the whole of London. The sirens started across the city, police, fire, ambulance, and they didn’t stop, day and night, for ages, one shrill whine fading as another rose. For the next few days and weeks there was a rising cacophony of information, too, saturating the media and being greedily absorbed by viewers, readers, listeners, even though, very strangely, people just didn’t talk much about all that was happening. Unless, of course, they were in the teensy minority who had really been involved in the bombs.

On occasion London itself has been attacked, irrespective of the ethnic groups and communities that reside within it. In the first millennia London was frequently found shaking, traumatized by invasion, rape and pillage. In the early days of London, the Roman city was subject to a sacking from Queen Boadicea, leader of the Iceni tribe, hailing from the unlikely warlike bastion of East Anglia. The Icenis were keen to eliminate the inhabitants of the city, bearing a grudge against the Romans. For the next thousand years London was consistently sacked, pillaged and the womenfolk raped by Danish Vikings, who made regular supermarket sweep style shopping trips as and when they pleased. In the 1940s London was the target of the Luftwaffe, German planes sent to destroy London’s buildings, people and spirit.

At any one point in time Britain and London has welcomed certain types of foreigners, but has been keen to expel others. Currently, as is often the case, London has been keen to welcome foreigners with a lot of money, those that are members of the European Union or the old Commonwealth, and asylum-seekers with a genuine fear of torture. However the is constantly making one kind of effort or another to root out economic migrants, mainly poor people from non-EU or Commonwealth countries, and send them back to wherever they came from. In December 2009 Martin Bentham writing for the Evening Standard reported that ‘eighty illegal immigrants have been arrested after a crackdown on unlawful working at the London Olympic site. Half were caught using fake passports or other false documents to obtain a job. The others were detained for overstaying their visas or working despite being barred from doing so under immigration or asylum rules.’

The recent Conservative administration, led by Theresa May, have been keen to send messages to immigrants, who the United Kingdom, for one reason or another does not want, that they will be sent back home. Apparently the Home Office sent a tweet out stating that ‘there is no hiding place’ and had vans ridden round London, making clear May’s distaste with the presence of certain foreigners and immigrants in London. Currently the UK Independence Party, headed up by Nigel Farage, is experiencing an unparalleled phase of popularity, which is partly down to its insistence that immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania should not be allowed to come into the United Kingdom, with the opening of the European Union’s borders to these countries.

People who do arrive in London, to seek asylum can wait a long time. Some asylum seekers have been waiting 16 years for a decision to be made on their claim. Some asylum seekers are put in detention centre. Hafez, an Iranian who was in a British detention centre for two years, used the analogy of a shipwreck to explain the experience of being in detention. Sat on the decking of an outdoor shisha café in Harrow-on-the-Hill, he explained to Oscarr Rickett of Vice that, “When you’re in the ocean, you don’t feel completely hopeless if you can see the island you are swimming to. That’s what prison is like. Detention is like this: you’re in the ocean, but you can’t see the island you’re swimming to.”

There has also been an age-old enmity towards new arrivals whoever they may be. Perversely, each generation of new arrivals, who settle down, themselves feel some degree of enmity toward the next generation of new arrivals. Over the last ten years TV news interviews with residents of London, have shown not just white people, but Indian and Afro-Caribbeans complaining about the rate of immigration into the country. I think this demonstrates that anti-immigrant attitudes are more about established residents not wanting newcomers competing for resources, than they are about racist attitudes. Ethnicity is sometimes just an easy way of galvanizing established residents against newcomers.



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