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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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.