Magazine article The Spectator

Indiscriminate Violence

Magazine article The Spectator

Indiscriminate Violence

Article excerpt

THE riots in Bradford and other northern towns are signs of a more profound crisis. We are witnessing not simply the deaththroes of an entire culture, but the terrifying vacuum which exists once that culture has perished. The working class which was called into existence by the industrial revolution has vanished. Workers no longer at the end of the day pour from the great textile and textile-machinery works, or from the mines, shipyards and steelworks, as only a generation ago they still did.

This is a catastrophe for the last group of labourers to be drawn from the countryside to our industrial areas by the ready availability of work: after (among many others) the English, the Irish, the Jews, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and West Indians, came the Asians. Like all their predecessors, they would within a surprisingly short time have been assimilated into the industrial working class, their interests represented by the trade unions and the Labour party.

But where are the trade unions now that the old industries have vanished? A mere shadow of their former mighty selves. And where is the Labour party? In love with the middle classes and the rich. There is nothing left for respectable, hard-working members of the Asian working class to assimilate into. The white youth culture which some of the Asian youths have instead been tempted to adopt is brutish and violent, and has reduced many districts to a state of simmering lawlessness. One does not wish, in a fit of pessimism, to underestimate the abilities and aspirations of many of the Asians: a considerable number manage to found businesses or acquire professional qualifications and thereby rise within a generation into the middle class. But what of those who find the ascent too steep?

The Asians started with few advantages but their willingness to work. They came, notoriously, because they would do jobs which the English found too dirty and unremunerative. In the words of Edmund Gartside, one of the last industrialists to try to make a success of cotton-spinning in Oldham (a town that in its days of world supremacy had 320 mills with 17 million spindles): `We employed a lot of Asians, very good ones too. They would work all sorts of inconvenient shifts, especially night shifts.'

The collapse of manufacturing industry, which has been going on for a long time but in sectors like textiles has continued at a precipitate rate since Tony Blair came to power, has reduced these valuable workers to a state of humiliating uselessness. Yet economic decline has hardly been discussed in the press as a factor in the recent disturbances in Bradford and other northern towns. The Conservatives believe, rightly, that merely losing one's job, or getting no job in the first place, is no excuse for antisocial behaviour, while failing to acknowledge that it must at least increase the temptation to cause trouble. The Labour party has borrowed from the previous government the convenient view that the state can do absolutely nothing to help manufacturing industry, so might as well ignore its plight.

David Smith, chief economist at the stockbrokers Williams de Broe in London, takes an interest in the textile industry because from 1830 down to his own father the male members of his family worked in it in Leeds. He points out that, according to the government's own figures, if production of textiles, clothing and footwear in 1995 stood at 100, today it stands at only 71.

Mr Gartside, whose firm in Oldham was founded in 1874 and recently sold its last cotton-spinning interests, believes this understates the decline in textiles alone. There has been an unnoticed crash, because, as Mr Smith adds, `Unless you work for an organisation that can spend L85 a head on lunch, the financial press won't take any interest in you whatever.' As Mr Smith also points out, the government's policies of high spending (requiring high taxes), high regulation and a high pound are fatal for industries such as textiles which compete on price: `The group who've got absolutely screwed in all this are the people in places like Oldham. …

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