Twenty years ago this summer, a series of riots broke out in parts of northern England that would have a profound effect on British politics. They began in Oldham in late May 2001, spreading to Burnley in June, and Bradford in July. All had their own specific local triggers, but all involved clashes between men of white and of south Asian background. This racialised dimension ensured that they became a matter of national concern, prompting warnings that some of the country’s diverse communities were, in the words of an official report, living “parallel lives”.
In national debate, this quickly became a narrative that “multiculturalism” had failed, and helped to cement two powerful stereotypes that continue to dominate our politics. One is of the immigrant community – frequently Muslim – that fails to integrate, and stands repeatedly accused of creating “no-go zones” in parts of our towns and cities. The other stereotype is of the disaffected, “left behind” white working class, rarely treated as more than a caricature.
The most immediate effect of the riots was to help Britain’s far right to an unprecedented wave of electoral success – which further entrenched this simplistic narrative. Those first riots in Oldham came after several weeks of agitation by far-right activists, who were hoping to capitalise on recent local tensions between white and Asian residents. In the aftermath, the British National party leader, Nick Griffin, positioned himself as a voice for the white community, advocating Belfast-style “peace walls”; he was invited onto the BBC’s Today programme to have his say. The following year, BNP candidates won a string of council seats in Burnley, heralding a series of victories in English local government.
As it turned out Griffin was right. Hundreds of – of Pakistani immigrant heritage – men were indeed serially raping hundreds to thousands of underage girls. Why would anyone get upset about that?