They want jobs, not playgrounds

Riots take place where the ground is fertile. That is certainly true of the Bradford disturbances, whatever the role of fascist outsiders, of thugs and criminals, and of young men just seeking a little excitement. But we need no more inquiries, no more fact-finding missions, no more tortuous discussions of white or Asian "identities". A riot is invariably succeeded by a torrent of platitudes and good intentions. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, demands "dialogue which transcends differences" and tells the Commons that ministers will encourage "recreation and other activities over the summer". Are we to play tennis and strum guitars while Bradford burns? Lord Ouseley, after reviewing "race and equality issues" in the city, demands "a centre for diversity, learning and living" and a "workplace behavioural competency framework". Are we to be saved by bureaucrats who use words as though they were Lego blocks?

We all know perfectly well what is wrong. Members of ethnic minorities in Britain find it harder to get jobs than members of the indigenous white majority. Whether this is anything to do with "workplace behavioural competency" is for Lord Ouseley to say. But the figures are tiresomely familiar, or ought to be. In 1998, the employment rate among white people of working age was 75 per cent. For all blacks and Asians, it was 57 per cent; for those of Pakistani background, 41 per cent. In the current economic boom, the difference between white and black chances of employment is greater than it was in the last one a decade ago. The New Deal and Modern Apprenticeship schemes have both done far more for young whites than for young blacks and Asians.

Yet all new Labour's policies are based on the premise that work is the only route to social inclusion. Labour also insists that, if people acquire more qualifications and higher skills, the jobs will follow. Try telling that to black graduates. As the NS reported in March, a black person can get the same class of degree in the same subject from the same university as a white, but his or her chances of getting a job will be only half as good. Almost any young Asian knows that to put Khan or Patel on your job application is to reduce your chances of an interview.

This kind of treatment was accepted by first-generation immigrants, who had no illusions about making their way in a society where they were strangers. That was why they opened corner shops. But why should anybody born and bred in Bradford or Burnley, speaking with a Yorkshire or Lancastrian accent, put up with it? And why should Asian "community leaders" be interrogated by television news presenters about how they will restrain "their" young people? Are Tony Blair or David Blunkett or the Mayor of Bradford asked how they will restrain "their" employers who discriminate in the job market?

White politicians and black or Asian race relations "experts" babble endless nonsense. They talk of the need for black judges, black chief constables, black generals and other "role models". Nobody on the streets of Bradford or Burnley could give a toss. Westminster deals in symbols and soundbites; the young Asians of Manningham deal in realities. They would trade any number of Mr Blunkett's adventure playgrounds and Lord Ouseley's centres of diversity for the prospect of decent jobs. Intercommunal festivals are meaningless if one community is largely unemployed and the other largely at work (see Darcus Howe, page 38). David Blunkett's "dialogue which transcends differences" might be achievable if he, as education secretary, had tried to design a school system that might reduce segregation. But, prattling about diversity and choice, governments create ever more opportunities for the white middle classes to keep their children away from the black underclasses. Incredibly, at Mr Blunkett's instigation, Labour now proposes to create dozens more "faith schools". Since the main faiths in Britain are now Muslim, Hindu and Christian (the last usually worn by white parents as a badge of convenience), this creates the prospect of ethnic division on a scale never seen here before.

Except in Ulster. The Catholics of Belfast and Londonderry tolerated rank prejudice and discrimination for the best part of 50 years. Now their chances of work are almost as good as those of their Protestant fellow citizens. This was achieved not through rock concerts or jolly afternoons in sandpits, but through a statutory commission that requires employers to report the numbers of Catholic and Protestant workers at all grades and in all positions. And that in turn, along with much else, was achieved by stones, and then by bullets, bombs and rockets. These may not "transcend differences" in Mr Blunkett's sense, but they certainly speak a language that everybody can understand. How sad that, to all else, our political leaders remain so deaf.

Just carry on balloting

The Schleswig-Holstein question, the Common Agricultural Policy and any system of central government support for local government: these were traditionally the great unknowables. Of the first, Palmerston said only three people understood it: one was dead, a second had gone mad and the third had forgotten. To this list of the incomprehensible must now be added any system invented by any modern British government for running a railway, and any system designed to elect a Tory leader. Perhaps the present system - whereby 166 MPs split five ways and then announce that they all have to vote again for the same candidates - was designed by the same genius as designed Railtrack. If so, he or she should continue the good work. Just as Maoists once aspired to permanent revolution, so the Tories could aspire to permanent leadership election. A ballot could be held each week, and the winner become leader for the next seven days. In this way, all the party's many factions could be satisfied.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?