»  National Review Online

May 31st, 2001

  The Island Race … Riots


"What's all this about race riots in England?" my American friends keep asking me. "Who are these 'Asians' that are throwing rocks at the police? What's their beef? Can you explain this?" You bet I can. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

It is important to understand that England's race problem is nothing like America's. The U.S.A. began her existence with three different races in residence, and has never had any choice but to make the best of things. No white American, whatever he might think privately of his black or red fellow-countrymen, could ever, with a clear conscience, say to them: "You don't belong here. Go live somewhere else." His black neighbors came here in bondage, and the red ones were already here long before either black or white showed up. Nobody is going anywhere. The actual answer to Rodney King's famous question — "Can't we all just get along?" — is still not clear, at any rate not to me; but we must surely try our best.

England is a completely different case. The country was essentially monoracial until the 1950s. Multi-culti propagandists try to fudge this, saying that the English have always been a gorgeous mosaic of different peoples — Romans, Saxons, Normans, and so on. These arguments do not bear close examination. The English have no folk memory of the Romans whatever; the Romans made their impact on the Celtic British (who have since turned into the Welsh), not on the English, most of whom arrived long after the legions had left. The French-speaking Normans and Plantagenets were, demographically speaking, a thin layer painted on to the top of Anglo-Saxon society, and had been completely absorbed into that society by the 14th century. Of later influxes, there is nothing to report but a few thousand Huguenots (i.e. French Protestants) in the 17th century, and a similar number of Russian Jews in the 19th, all of whom were easily accommodated and soon melted into the general population. The last really big influx of foreigners into England, displacing masses of ordinary English people, was that of the Danes in the 9th century; and since the Anglo-Saxons had themselves come from Denmark and its neighborhood three or four hundred years previously, this was an invasion of cousins. (It made a great impression on the English, though. I grew up a mile or so from Hunsbury Hill in Northamptonshire, an old Iron Age hill fort. The locals referred to it anachronistically as "Danes' Camp," still remembering the great events of eleven hundred years before.) The immigrants who arrived in the 1950s found the English, as a people, pretty much undisturbed since the Peace of Wedmore, a.d. 878.

These differences of origin explain the differences of feeling. The most important, most fundamental feeling behind America's race problem is the anger nursed by black Americans over the enslavement of their forebears, and over the indignities and insults of the "Jim Crow" century that followed. The driving force behind England's race problem is utterly different: it is the resentment felt by native English people towards the floods of foreigners that have taken over large parts of their towns and cities. Most of these foreigners are dark-skinned: blacks from the Caribbean and West Africa, and south Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, though I am using "race problem" as a convenient short-hand for the topic under discussion, it is not clear that the issue of England's black and Asian population is anything to do with race. It is easy to imagine that very similar problems would have arisen if the hundreds of thousands of foreigners flooding into English cities had been Portuguese or Polish. Indeed, some of the nastier "racist" incidents of recent years have featured attacks by white Englishmen on "asylum-seekers," most of whom are white-skinned Slavs from the Balkans.

It cannot be said often enough that the immigration policies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were a great and terrible injustice on the English working class. I have an aunt who lives in the Aston district of Birmingham, a large industrial city in the West Midlands. (Samuel Johnson, who hailed from the much more sedate city of Lichfield nearby, said: "We are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.") When my aunt went to live there as a honeymooner in the early 1950s, Aston was a sleepy working-class neighborhood with a community life centered on churches, pubs, schools and corner shops. Now it is all Asian. My aunt and uncle are the only white faces in their street, and feel, as they will tell you with much bitterness, "strangers in our own country." The neighboring Lozells district has suffered even worse, being taken over by Caribbeans. In the 1950s it was a cut above Aston, very nearly lower-middle class — "Very bay window over there," as Birmingham people say. Now it is a bedlam of vice and crime, and there was a ferocious race riot there in September 1985 when police launched a campaign against drug trafficking.

The fact that these immigration policies were cruel and unjust to the English working class, who had to bear the brunt of the social consequences, does not, of course, mean that the immigrants themselves were to blame for them. The immigrants were seeking a better life, just as I was when I moved to the U.S.A. England in the 1960s was not an especially wonderful place to live; but if your standard of comparison was a village in Bangladesh, or a slum in Jamaica, England looked like paradise. The first generation of immigrants kept their heads down, worked all the hours they could get, and put up with the hostility of the natives. Their children have a different outlook. Those who were bright and disciplined enough to take advantage of the educational system rose easily into the middle classes. The last time I had a job in England — I was a systems analyst at an investment bank in 1991 — my department head was black, and my team leader from a Sikh family. Race relations in the middle class are very good — much better than America's, in my opinion. The problem is with the left-hand end of the bell curve: educationally unsuccessful young people from immigrant families. They simmer angrily in derelict post-industrial cities like Manchester, where this week's disturbances took place, and organize themselves into gangs. There is, of course, no easier way to mark gang membership than by race.

In the case of the Asians there has been an unsettling transformation of manners and even appearance. The first generation of south Asian immigrants had the physique of people raised on a subsistence diet, and the manners of those who, to survive at all, have had to fawn and scrape for centuries before callous, arrogant landlords and bureaucrats. When I started doing office work in London, the companies were full of Indian bookkeepers who had to be restrained by force from beginning their business letters: "Esteemed Sir … " and ending them: "I beg to remain, esteemed Sir, with consideration, you most humble, most obedient servant … " Their children (who are sometimes called "boscos" from the census-taker's category: "British, of Sub-Continental Origin"), raised on an ample diet, tower over them, and are physically a match for any gang of white English skinheads. Products of modern western culture and an educational system steeped in psychobabble, they esteem no-one but themselves.

Many of these young boscos say: "Why shouldn't we be here? The English came to our parents' countries without being asked, and lorded it over them, and insulted them, and milked their economies, and looted their historical relics, for 200 years. Well, now it's payback time!" There are a number of things to be said in response to this. (Other than the obvious: "Do you promise to leave after 200 years?") The U.S.A., a nation that broke free from the Imperial grasp, is naturally hostile to imperialism, and most Americans probably believe that the British Empire was what George Orwell said it was — an exploitative racket. I don't agree with this myself. It seems to me that the British Empire was one of the greatest civilizing forces the world has ever seen. At the very least, the post-Imperial history of places like Uganda suggests that there are worse things that can happen to a country than to be ruled by Englishmen. (And I recall, from my Hong Kong days, the 12-foot fence that separated that British colony from mainland China, erected so that the mainlanders would be unable to act on their inexplicable impulse to flee from the delights of Chinese government into the horrors of British Imperialism.) But be all that as it may, and whichever side of that particular argument you come down on — please don't write to tell me, I've heard it all far too many times — there are two things that cannot seriously be denied: one, that the British authorities could have kept the country closed to immigration if they had wanted to, whatever the rest of the world thought about it, and two, that those Englishmen who profited from the Empire were not the ones whose neighborhoods were flooded with strangers.

It is not easy to lay blame for this situation. As I have said, you can't blame people for trying to better themselves; and the black and brown young Englishmen who are now busily erecting ghettoes for themselves had no choice about where they were born. Though I am not a big fan of victimological poses, if the blacks and boscos are victims of anything, they are victims of stupid policies enacted by British governments. The British ruling classes were the ones who actually opened the country's doors, and people like the late Duncan Sandys, Commonwealth Secretary in the critical early 1960s (and a son-in-law of Winston Churchill — this English surname is pronounced "Sands," by the way), have much to answer for. Their motives as stated at the time, to the limited degree that they bothered to explain themselves to their people, were "to relieve labor shortages." This is not very plausible. Any economist will tell you that there is no such thing as a labor shortage, only an unwillingness to pay sufficient wages to induce people to work. My own neighborhood here on Long Island is currently infested by illegal immigrants from Mexico who work as laborers for local contractors and landscaping firms. "Nobody else will do the work," moan these employers. Well, there is some level of wages at which plenty of local people would be glad to do it. Heck, for forty bucks an hour, I would do it.

The real motivation of British elites seems to have been guilt and sentimentality. Most of these people, especially those from the upper- and upper-middle classes like Sandys, had done pretty well out of the Empire. Their natural cast of mind was a guilt-soaked paternalistic indulgence towards the black and brown folk they and their parents had ruled over. And of course, it was not to their neighborhoods that the immigrants poured. People like Sandys were in the happy position of being able to assuage their post-colonial guilt at zero cost to themselves. To the degree that they were share-holders in industries that used cheap immigrant labor, they actually profited from unrestrained immigration. The costs fell on those like my aunt and uncle, factory workers who were paid on a Thursday and flat broke the following Wednesday. Or on those like 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain, a veteran of WW2, who was attacked by a bosco gang in Manchester last month, thrown to the ground and kicked in the face for having had the impertinence to stray into "their" part of the city.

Yet as satisfying as it may to pin it all on Britain's insufferably arrogant ruling elites, the country is a democracy, and the people had plenty of opportunities to make their voices heard. In 1968 a leading English politician, Enoch Powell, made a well-publicized and colorful speech in which he deplored the incoming flood of immigrants, and predicted, pretty accurately, the problems his country would face in the future if the process was not reversed. Powell was promptly sacked from his posts in the Conservative Party (then in opposition) and all the panjandrums of the British establishment denounced him. Yet a poll taken at the time showed that 74 per cent of the public agreed with his opinions. Why did that 74 per cent not translate into actual government policies through the ballot box? Presumably because, when time came to vote, people thought other things were more important; and also because citizens were willing to be browbeaten by their elites into being ashamed of their own feelings — to believe, because politicians, intellectuals, clergymen and TV talking heads told them so, that their own instinctive national pride, which had preserved their country's independence for a thousand years, was a sinful thing, a species of that greatest of all modern sins, "racism."

Orthodox modern thinking, of course, blames the whole business on "racism," and sees the solution as one of education and enlightenment. Even if there were any truth in this, which I do not believe, it would still be a deeply unhelpful point of view. These kinds of conflicts turn up everywhere in the world that people of different cultural backgrounds are obliged to live close together, so if there really is such a thing as "racism," it seems to arise from deep within human nature. And if education is a solution, the prospects are dim indeed, since the British educational system, like the American one, is increasingly unable to instill even the rudiments of literacy and arithmetic in youngsters, so that it is hard to see how it will be able to get across sophisticated ethical concepts like the brotherhood of man. And in any case, as I have noted above, it is not certain that race has much to do with it. Visitors to England since at least Chaucer's time have noted that the English simply do not much like foreigners.

There is, of course, nothing that can be done now. England has become a multicultural society, though no large number of English people ever wanted it to be. Through the folly, arrogance and sentimentality of their well-insulated ruling class, and by their own inattention, deference, disorganization and reluctance to appear unkind, the English have given up large tracts of their country to foreign peoples, whom they dislike and who dislike them right back. The English have created their very own race problem from scratch — possibly the greatest act of self-destructive folly perpetrated by any civilized nation in the twentieth century.