The title won’t appear on any bestseller lists, still less be a favoured choice for holiday reading. But last week saw the publication of a book which has the potential to shake our political Establishment.
Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has described it as ‘one of the most important books he has read for a long time’.
He is right. The book, The New East End, takes the lid off a society deeply troubled by massive immigration over the past 30 years. It has lessons for us all as we move on from naïve multiculturalism to confront the real problems of our inner cities, especially the disaffection of some second-generation immigrants.
We hear constantly about the supposed benefits of immigration, but these accrue mainly to the middle classes who welcome the influx of cheap labour that provides them with domestic help and low-price restaurants.
Now this book brings home the heavy price for such complacency paid by the white working class, who are in the front line of the conflicts that develop and are largely ignored by the political and media classes.
Though it focuses on London’s East End community, the profoundly important issues that it raises could equally apply to any of our major post-industrial cities, where uncontrolled immigration has given rise to tensions between communities.
Rather than repeat the usual accusations of racism, it provides a refreshingly frank account of the very real consequences of a too-rapid pace of immigration.
The thrust of the book seems to have emerged almost by accident. The authors, from the Young Foundation, a think-tank on social issues, were following up a study of working class life in the East End conducted in the 1950s.
That study resulted in a seminal book, Family And Kinship, which threw light on the tight bonds within and between families which had held cockney society together through thick and thin, and became on the of most influential non-fiction books of its time.
The aim of the new study was to see how much that same social landscape had changed over 50 years. Would those same bonds of family and kinship still exist? The answer, quite simply, was ‘no’.
The researchers were taken aback by the deep well of bitterness they uncovered among the white working class population, in particular towards the immigrant Bangladeshi community around them.
Instead of sweeping these feelings under the carpet, as so many previous studies have done, this one recognised their existence and attempted to understand them. Many of those who were hostile to the Bangladeshi community as a whole got on quite well with them on a personal level.
It was the competition between communities for scarce resources that generated the friction. Housing, education and benefits were the major areas of conflict, as they were, no doubt, in other British cities.
The East Enders of Bethnal Green used to be a particularly closely-knit society. They had always been poor but they were proud. They were especially proud of their—often heroic—contribution to the war effort when the docks were the prime target for German bombers. They had expected, as a result, that the post-war era would bring them the reward they felt they deserved.
Things did not turn out like that. Most housing in Bethnal Green was council housing and used to be allocated largely on the basis of a waiting list. The result was that longer-term residents were given the priority they felt was their due.
Young couples might spend the first few years of marriage living with their parents but were then able to move out into housing nearby. As a result, the extended family system was preserved within its own locality.
National housing policy changed in the early Seventies so that houses were allocated on need, not on a waiting list principle. The effect of this was that the Bangladeshi families, which were then starting to arrive in large numbers, could demonstrate a greater housing need—for reasons that I shall come to—and were moved to the top of the queue.
This infuriated the locals. One elderly man told researchers: ‘The Asians definitely get a lot of preference here. We’ve got people who’ve lived in this borough all their lives, and they can’t get a place. But when the Asians come here they get something quickly.’
In theory, Bangladeshi families were not supposed to be admitted to Britain unless their relatives could provide accommodation for them.
What happened in practice was that the new arrivals would stay with their family for the first year until they were granted residence. They would then declare themselves homeless and the local authority would be obliged to house them.
Young white families were forced to move out of the area, so the system of extended families broke down and grandmothers, previously the hub of family life, were left behind, often in isolation.
The Bangladeshis also had their complaints. They felt, with some justification, that they were offered the older and more run-down properties.
They also found themselves in far more crowded conditions than their white neighbours, partly because their households were very much larger (the average number of dependent children was seven times higher for Bangladeshis than for whites).
Education was another serious bone of contention. Traditionally, the white working class had not been much interested in education. Most of their jobs were manual and were found through family or personal connections. Qualifications mattered little.
By contrast, Bangladeshi families were extremely keen on education, seeing it as a way out of poverty for their children. But first they needed to learn English. The local authorities provided substantial extra help for this purpose, but this was seen by the white community as favouritism.
Resentment became all the stronger when Bangladeshi children began to out-do white (and black) children in examinations. The sheer pace of Bangladeshi arrivals had an impact of its own. In the 1971 Census Bangladeshi children hardly figured, but by 1981 a third of pupils at primary schools in Tower Hamlets were Bangladeshis and by 2004 that figure had reached two-thirds.
The Bangladeshi pupils, especially the girls, worked hard and did well despite the difficulties stemming from poor housing.
But the white population did not see things in the same way. They did not want their own children to be a minority at school.
Some parents manipulated the system to get their children into schools which were largely white, such as the Roman Catholic schools. Others sent their children out of the borough and still others simply left the area altogether.
The result sticks out like a sore thumb. In 2002 some schools in the area had 90 per cent Bangladeshi pupils while others had fewer than 10 per cent.
Many children can now pass through the education systems without encountering many pupils from the other main ethnic group living in the same locality. This obvious failure of multi-culturalism will surely hold dangers for the future.
There must be countless people throughout Britain who share at least some of these East Enders’ views and who are tired of being accused, if only implicitly, of mindless racism.
The authors of this study have found a clear correlation between the age of white respondents and their hostility to immigrants but they came to the view that this reflected the East Enders’ commitment to their local origins.
Most of the older white people were born and bred in the area. Many felt that not only was society in general losing its direction, but that their own little corner of Britain was changing for the worse. That it was being taken away from people like themselves and given to those from other countries.
By contrast, the yuppies who have moved into the new Docklands area are much less concerned about the influx of immigrants. But their higher qualifications enable them to escape whenever they wish, so they can afford to take a more ‘principled’ view of the problems of the area.
Thus a central government housing policy, which looked entirely logical to well-meaning professionals in Whitehall, often left older working-class East Enders feeling isolated from their family roots and strangers in their own land.
This new book’s frank appraisal is a breath of fresh air. The problems the authors identified are certainly not confined to Bethnal Green.
In many other parts of London a similar process in under way as the flow of immigrants accelerates under the present government. And the disturbances in the northern cities in 2001 speak of similar tensions there.
For while the authors are honest about the effects of such immigration on the indigenous population, they are equally frank about the problems involved for this new immigrant community brought by the sheer weight of numbers coming in from abroad every year.
At school migrating children were heavily outnumbered in the early years, and were often bullied. Immigrants in some housing estates were harassed until they left for estates that had become largely Bangladeshi. In one year, 90 per cent of Asians offered housing on predominantly ‘white’ estates refused to go there.
So the Asians formed gangs to take on the white gangs that were harassing them. Meanwhile, well-intentioned antiracist experiments had little chance.
One young male Bangladeshi told researchers: ‘I did a course on “tolerance and diversity” at the youth club. It was designed to counteract racism by working closely with white youths.
‘The course did not last long. We got into more fights with these white boys.’ Indeed, by 1998 more whites in Tower Hamlets were reporting themselves as the victims of racial incidents than were reported as perpetrators.
Immigration has not, by any means, been the sole factor in the enormous changes that have taken place in East London. But the new report makes clear that it has been the central social issue for a generation.
The East End has always been a gateway for immigrants, but it is the sheer pace of change that has created much of the difficulty.
The Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets increased from fewer than 3,000 in 1971 to over 65,000 in 2001. And, nationally, foreign immigration has trebled under the present government to over one third of a million in 2004.
No society can integrate immigrants at such a pace. We are simply building up problems for the future.
It is the failure of integration that this report highlights and it is this failure which holds serious dangers for our society.
Consider the atmosphere of fear and suspicion, described in this book, which is the climate in which young British Muslims are often brought up. Add to that a widespread distaste in the Muslim community for many aspects of British society—drunkenness, the breakdown of family values, and so on.
Then add the propaganda to which many of them are subjected about the hostility of the West to Islam.
They hear endlessly about Christians invading Muslim countries, unquestioning American support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and so on.
Perhaps it should not have come as quite such a shock that volunteers could be found to conduct suicide attacks against civilian targets in Britain. Still more ominous are polls that show some 5 per cent of British Muslims apparently supporting the principle of such attacks.
Many people are deeply concerned and are asking what can be done.
The first step must be to stop ducking the issues and face the facts. This book is a valuable start.
BBC please note. The Today Programme, the vanguard of Radio 4, carried an item on this research. But the word ‘immigration’ did not pass the presenters’ lips and was mentioned only once by the participants. The casual listener would have thought they were talking about housing policy.
It is time that the BBC management took a serious look at their failure to provide the impartial cover of this subject which is no less than their duty as public service broadcasters.
The second is to go where others fear to tread. Namely, to make the link between the scale of immigration and our success or otherwise in achieving integration.
Here there is an issue which applies particularly to the Indian subcontinent. Large numbers of second and even third generation immigrants are bringing wives and husbands from their country of origin, rather than choosing partners from their own immigrant communities or the wider population.
The effect of allowing immigration for this purpose is to set back integration by a generation. It is time to move on in the longer term interests of society as a whole.
The picture is by no means all gloomy. There are some second and third generation Bangladeshis who are succeeding, some staying with their community and others moving out. But the authors express concern that those who are unable to find work will slide into a demoralised underclass of inner-city poor.
In a recent speech Gordon Brown told us that British Muslims are twice as likely to be jobless, twice as likely to be on low incomes and twice as likely to live in a deprived area. He called for greater focus on tackling these inequalities.
Indeed so. But part of that focus must be to avoid an already struggling community being continually increased by immigrants who speak little English, are often poorly educated and ignorant of British culture.
The conflict and resentment this breeds is now clearly set out before us.