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
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 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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