Our streets are aflame. Now black Britain will be allowed its say

The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia.

Like most of those leaping on the flaming bandwagon of Tottenham, I have no idea what lay behind the weekend's disturbances. It may well be, as some have suggested, that the chaos represented a realisation that the idyllic existence enjoyed by black inner-city youth during our years of plenty is now drawing to a close. Perhaps the Metropolitan Police is now so cash strapped it is no longer able to deploy significant manpower to low priority targets such as the prevention of a full blown riot. Or maybe we've simply been made aware of the full length to which London's drug gangs are prepared to go to defend their lucrative trade.

But now these issues will be debated. Crime, the cuts, drugs, social policy, policing policy. Oh, we'll debate them. There's nothing like a burnt out high street or two to get us debating.

And something will happen during the course of this debate. Something different.

We will invite black people to contribute to it. To be precise, we will invite members of the Afro-Caribbean community to participate in our political discourse.

There will be youth workers. Community leaders. Street kids. A local politician or two. They will all be allowed to articulate their case. Tell us about what it's like to be black, as opposed to white or Asian, in Britain. Because we are happy to let black people speak about politics, just so long as they have flames or body bags as their backdrop.

The riots of the 1980s produced some positives. The police finally dropped the 'one or two rotten apples' mantra, and embarked on a far reaching, and genuine, process of modernisation and reform. Casual social tolerance of racism became the exception, rather than the norm. Politicians of all persuasions began to focus seriously on inner-city, not jut regional, regeneration.

But those advances came at a price. And one of them was the de-politicisation and marginalisation of Afro-Caribbean politics, and with it the effective political disenfranchisement of an entire section of society. At the start of the 1980s, the black community had tribunes. Black politicians like Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng were elected to parliament speaking openly, honestly and provocatively about the issues affecting their communities.

Where are those voices and advocates today? Before this weekend when did you last see David Lammy on your television screen? Probably not since the brief period when Tony Blair put his arm round him, told him he was a future leader of the party, then dumped him.

A quarter of a century after our first black politicians were elected, how many currently sit around the cabinet or shadow cabinet tables? How many senior black parliamentarians chair our select committees? How many senior black advisors are part of either David Cameron or Ed Miliband's inner circle?

This is not an issue about the exclusion of minorities. There are influential Asian politicians across the political spectrum. And they form the spearhead of similarly influential lobbying groups. Our Jewish community, our Indian community, our Muslim community; all have effective advocates who sit at the heart of the political process. The Afro-Caribbean community, almost uniquely, has no such representation.

Of course there is Chuka Umunna, the great black hope of British politics. But he is totemic, his profile a symbol of what we have lost, rather than what we have achieved. And even Chuka is careful to represent himself as a politician who happens to be black, rather than a black politician.

No one is expecting Chuka Umunna to stand at the Despatch Box at the next session of Treasury questions and give a black power salute. But there is no point pretending that black politics and politicians have successfully broken into the political mainstream. Nor that the handful who have made it have brought their community and its agenda with them.

The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia. At worst, it has been pushed into a cul-de-sac of British Jobs for British Workers and cups of tea with Mrs Duffy.

And as our streets burn, what plans are afoot to address this political gagging of black Briton? None. Our selection processes are geared exclusively to tackling the under-representation of women. Our policy agenda to addressing the plight of the squeezed middle, not those at the economic margins. Our entire political narrative built around an appeal to the White Working Class.

And so there is silence. About the appalling levels of educational attainment by black male youth. About the scourge of gang culture that blights black communities. Or if there is not silence, the voices that are raised are not strong enough to force these issues to the top of the political agenda.

But we've had our riot. So now we can have our debate. And once again, for as long as the flames continue to flicker, black Britain will be allowed to have its say.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.