- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

Lost in the shadows of Canary Wharf, Bethnal Green is not the sort of area you normally see in

the public relations photos of 21st-century London. While Monica Ali’s much-feted novel, “Brick Lane,” transformed one part of the neighborhood into a metaphor for the new, multicultural London, much of the district still muddles along in a time-honored condition of poverty and underachievement.

As my more televisually aware readers will know, one of Britain’s most-watched soap operas is called “East Enders,” a relentlessly grim catalogue of brawls, arguments and all-around sourness. The program is not actually filmed in the area, however. Instead the narrow streets and terraced housing have been re-created on the western side of the M25, London’s much larger version of the Capital Beltway.

Never mind. The point is that the locals are renowned for their toughness and their clannishness. During World War II the East End — where the docks were pounded by German bombers — was seen as a symbol of the country’s ordeal. Which is why, after a bomb struck Buckingham Palace, the then Queen Elizabeth (mother of the future queen) famously responded with what amounted to a cry of relief: “I’m glad that we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

This is, or ought to be, the heartland of the Labor Party. But all is not well, as one of Tony Blair’s senior confidants, Margaret Hodge, let slip last week. Once upon a time, Mrs. Hodge, MP for the nearby constituency of Barking and Dagenham, was a leading light of London’s “loony left.” Now, however, after transforming herself into a respectable, fiscally correct member of New Labor, she has acquired a sober new collection of soundbites and currently serves in Mr. Blair’s government as employment minister.

In her time, then, Mrs. Hodge has done her share to alienate working-class voters from Labor, in much the same way as left-wing Democrats have antagonized the party’s traditional blue-collar supporters. So there was some irony in her statement that she feared that voters in her own constituency were increasingly drifting towards the racist British National Party. It is rare for a mainstream British politician to paint the phenomenon in such stark colors: “When I knock on doors,” Mrs. Hodge told a reporter, “I say to people, ‘Are you tempted to vote BNP?’ And many, many, many — eight out of 10 of the white families — say ‘Yes.’ That’s something we have never seen before, in all my years. Even when people voted BNP, they used to be ashamed to vote BNP. Now they are not….

“What has happened in Barking and Dagenham is the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed. Nowhere else has changed so fast. When I arrived in 1994, it was a predominantly white, working class area. Now, go through the middle of Barking and you could be in Camden or Brixton. That is the key thing that has created the environment the BNP has sought to exploit.” Mrs. Hodge claimed the anger is not down to racism. “It is a fear of change. It is gobsmacking change.”

Worrying words. As I myself am the son of a Jamaican immigrant, I have every reason to be alarmed by the potential increase in the BNP vote. Although the party has cleaned up its skinhead image — its Cambridge-educated leader, Nick Griffin, now prefers to be seen in the company of photogenic female campaigners — you don’t have to scratch its surface too hard to uncover the ugly old descendants of Oswald Moseley.

Yet there is also no denying that the BNP’s support (which, it should be said, does not begin to compare with that of France’s far-right Front National) is rooted in socio-economic facts which the country’s elite have been ignoring for far too long. Open the pages of “The New East End,” a compelling sequel to a classic of 1950s British sociology, “Family and Kinship in East London,” and the consequences of utopian social theories and patronizing welfarism are paraded for all to see.

Drawing on the voices of the community’s own residents — white, brown and black alike — the book lays bare all the tensions, all the lost hopes. In most policy-making circles, white working class resentment is treated with a certain amount of disdain, if not outright hostility. One of the great virtues of “The New East End” — which reminds me of another book I have written about in this column, Michael Collins’ “The Likes of Us” — is that it treats its subjects with genuine respect, acknowledging the bewildering effects of a wave of immigration which has seen the Bangladeshi population rise during a 30-year period from just over two percent to more than 33 percent of the local borough.

“Their [working-class East Enders] feeling of loss within the system has been enormous, given the failure of the state…to appreciate the degree of change to which they were subject… Some of our Bangladeshi interviewees themselves acknowledged this,” write Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and the late Michael Young, the book’s authors. “Middle-class Britons, on the other hand, have been in a position not just to avoid conflict with newcomers but to benefit from them.”

You could, of course, point out that the East End has played host to one generation after another of immigrant groups, all of which have been stigmatized in one way or another. Jews were accused of being seditious and money-grabbing, the Irish were supposed to be shiftless and dirty. The crucial difference, according to the authors, is that post-World War II immigration coincided with a breakdown in social cohesion. Individualism undermined traditional family structures, ill-conceived redevelopment schemes splintered communities.

And there is another factor, too, one which has hardly if ever been expressed so explicitly. For this we have to go back to World War II again. East Enders saw the conflict as a watershed in their rise to full citizenship. Having won the respect of their fellow Britons, they naturally expected to benefit from Labor’s promise of a “New Jerusalem” after 1945. (Here I should point out that Michael Young, who was also the author of that mischievous classic “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” actually co-wrote Labor’s 1945 manifesto.)

But in the age of austerity, the new dawn was not as full of riches as people had hoped. For all the promises, the East End was not transformed. Yes, new homes were built for the residents, but they were either soulless tower blocks or new estates on the outskirts of London. The old communities were left to fend for themselves. Even more importantly, in the decades that followed, East Enders came to feel betrayed by the welfare state. Believing that the relief system had been created to reward those who had contributed to building the economy, they resented the arrival of “foreigners” who did not seem to have invested the same amount of blood, sweat and tears. As welfarism grew increasingly indiscriminate, the sense of grievance grew.

How to turn back that tide? The book talks about strengthening family ties and giving individuals responsibility. Good ideas, of course. But would you trust the likes of Margaret Hodge to implement them? No, I wouldn’t either.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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