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28 April 1999

Is this a race war?

The nail-bomb attacks in Brixton and Brick Lane in London do not represent an upsurge in racism, argues Duleep Allirajah

Cities throughout Britain with large black or Asian communities have been put on a state of alert, following the recent racist nail-bombings. Volunteers are planning to patrol Southall, a London suburb with a large Punjabi population, to keep a watch for suspect packages. Suresh Grover of the Southall Monitoring Group has declared that the bomb attacks amounted to 'ethnic cleansing on a small scale'. But is Britain really on the brink of a bloody race war?

The bomb attacks appear to have been racially motivated. The timing of the attacks, coming only a few weeks after the publication of the Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, certainly suggests a racist backlash. A number of miniscule far-right groups have claimed responsibility, though it has not yet been established whether this is the work of an organisation or a lone individual. Black politicians and celebrities have reportedly received death threats in recent weeks from right-wing groups.

If far-right groups are responsible it certainly represents a tactical departure. However, although nail bombing is a brutal tactic, designed to inflict maximum harm indiscriminately, it also highlights the absence of any political influence . Combat 18, one of the groups which has claimed responsibility, had until now been better known for a bloody internal feud, which resulted in a murder conviction for its leader Charlie Sargent. The group enjoys a high media profile, not because of anything it has done or achieved, but largely thanks to salacious TV documentaries and newspaper articles exposing the violent underworld of the neo-Nazis.

However, outside the fanciful imaginations of liberal journalists the far right is in disarray. Overtly racist politics has found itself among the casualties of the redrawn political map. The predictions by anti-racists of far-right electoral gains in the early 1990s failed to materialise. The reason we are shocked by the bombing of immigrant areas is precisely because such violent incidents are so out of the ordinary.

The far right has been left behind by today's changing political climate. The 'Rule Britannia' politics of British nationalism, on which the far right relied, is no longer useful to those who govern Britain. Today, the authorities try to gain new moral authority and a sense of community through official anti-racism. The Macpherson report was significant because it marked the culmination of a process in which anti-racism has replaced British chauvinism as the outlook of the British establishment. Where young black males were vilified by newspapers and politicians in the 1970s and 80s, today it is more likely to be white working-class racists. The Lawrence murder suspects were demonised by all sections of the media, notably the Daily Mail, a paper which notoriously backed the Blackshirts in the 1930s.

The police and the Home Office are at the forefront of the new official anti-racism - ironically so, given these institutions' responsibility for the second-class treatment of black people in Britain. Such has the politics of race changed that anti-racism is today seen as a policing issue requiring the regulation of racist conduct and speech. Meanwhile, the government's Asylum and Immigration Bill which will tighten restrictions on asylum seekers and remove their benefit entitlements - barely raises a critical comment as it passes through parliament.

The despicable nail bombs in Brixton and Brick Lane may be the work of racists, hitting back after the Lawrence inquiry. However, these incidents do not represent a movement on the rise, but the desperate acts of people whose political cause is redundant. Moreover, planting bombs will never galvanise racist sentiment or precipitate a race war. Unsurprisingly, all shades of opinion have joined in the condemnation of the bombings. Even the right-wing British National Party has disowned such violent tactics. If a small right-wing group has turned to violence, it is very likely to be crushed. The only potential beneficiaries of these attacks are likely to be the official anti-racists, who will cite them as evidence of the growing problem of racism. Already, the anti-racist lobby is demanding that the government acts now to ban membership of far-right groups. New Labour, which is no friend of civil liberties, may well be happy to oblige.

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