Woolwich deserves better than the attention of murderers and EDL racists

An eyewitness account from last night's disturbances in south east London.

It’s just before 9pm on Wednesday evening, and the handful of customers in Woolwich Wetherspoons are distracted by the giant TV screen playing looped footage of a crime scene about half a mile up the road. It’s the main topic of conversation, and even the barman is arguing with the waitress, like people everywhere have been arguing: who did it, why, what it means. A few minutes later, a dozen men – youngish, in windbreaker jackets – enter the pub, looking jumpy. Several are talking into their mobiles. As his companions approach the bar, one steps back outside and unfurls a St George’s flag with “EDL – Bexley Divison” written on it.

As details of the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier near to the barracks in Woolwich filtered through yesterday afternoon, the leaders of the EDL set about trying to exploit it. Their street movement has all but collapsed, under the weight of public revulsion at its bigotry and violence, and the determined efforts of anti-fascist campaigners. Their only hope now is to provoke some kind of serious disorder: earlier this month, on the day of the Oxford grooming trial verdict, EDL leader Stephen Lennon and his sidekick Kevin Carroll spread unfounded rumours on Twitter of a child rape by “Muslims” in Luton.

Yesterday, the Woolwich killing – a personal tragedy for the victim’s friends and family, a shock for the local community, but with a political context guaranteed to make it front-page news – appeared to give them another opportunity. Jihadist terror and the rise of anti-Islam sentiment is widely discussed – but since 2008, with far less comment, the military has become an increasingly sensitive element of British culture. Uniformed soldiers play a ceremonial role in major sporting events; politicians use the issue of soldiers returned from Iraq or Afghanistan for rhetorical effect – as the communities secretary Eric Pickles did at last year’s Tory conference, when he accused “foreign immigrants” of being unfairly given housing ahead of “those who fought for Queen and country”. Is this a natural effect of more than a decade of war, or does it speak to a deeper unease? It was, after all, an incident at a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in 2009 – an insulting protest by a small group of self-styled Islamists – that sparked the creation of the English Defence League in the first place.

At the pub, more men arrive. The first group head off, while one of the new arrivals says “let’s get a round of sambucas in”. Leaving, I cross the central square – newly refurbished and overlooked by a giant, curvy new block of aspirational apartments – to find out where the first group is headed. If the “Bexley Division” flag is anything to go by, these EDL activists have come over from the neighbouring borough: whiter in ethnic make-up than Woolwich, and where in a little-reported subplot to the 2011 riots, a gang of EDL activists gathered to “defend” their neighbourhood from rioters.

There is an echo of that incident as, suddenly, a group of men come charging towards the lower end of the square, throwing bottles and chanting “E-E-EDL”. A train station borders that side of the square, and a mainly black crowd of onlookers scatter. I catch a look somewhere between disbelief and panic on the face of one man as he passes me. The EDL – along with their more respectable cousins in the political mainstream – claim that their islamophobia has nothing to do with race. Yet it’s striking how quickly one can slip into the other, as indicated by the careless description of the murder suspects as being “of Muslim appearance” that found its way into the main BBC News reports yesterday. Video footage later revealed them to be two fairly average-looking men of African or Caribbean origin, dressed in everyday clothes.

But the chaos is fleeting. The police, who had lined up on the other side of the square, catch up and block the road; the EDL crowd isn’t as big as it first seemed, numbering around 60. Confronted, its members run off down a street alongside the railway tracks, towards the Queen's Arms, a pub with a huge St George’s Cross flying from the flag pole in its front yard. As the EDL crowd regroups, their numbers swelled to a hundred or so, some have slipped into balaclavas. I see one of these men stuff what looks like a weapon into the waistband of his shorts. Their plan is to head towards the local mosque, which lies on the other side of the estate behind the pub, but their way is blocked by a line of police. Instead, they head back to the square, where they’ll play cat-and-mouse with riot officers until they get bored, or until the TV news crews pack up and go home.

My lasting image of the night is not of the EDL, but of the crowd that gathered to watch them, outside the the Queen’s Arms. These were local people – men and women on their way home from work, teenagers out for the evening – in a neighbourhood that only gets serious media attention when it plays host to a murder, or a riot. The mood was uneasy, but convivial all the same. When a dog starts sniffing a little too enthusiastically at someone’s leg, its owner jokes “don’t worry it’s not a police dog!” There’s a ripple of laughter when a newspaper reporter gets out his iPad to take a photo of the scene. A car drives past and its occupant swears in the direction of the police. The car is flying a stick-on Union Jack from its roof. Behind me, a man gestures towards the EDL, and says to his girlfriend, “I get where the anger’s coming from, but this is not the way.”

Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman and the author of "Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right" (Verso Books). Follow him on Twitter @trillingual

Members of the EDL in balaclavas as they gather outside a pub in Woolwich in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.