Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, poses during a press conference in the Ace of Diamonds pub in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
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The blighting of Burnley

How the far right gained a foothold in England – and how the political establishment failed to stop them.

On Colne Road, one of the main thoroughfares leading out of Burnley and into the surrounding Lancashire hills, sits an old library building. Its heavy grey stone exterior, a relic of municipal grandeur from Burnley’s heyday as a mill town, now houses a community centre staffed by volunteers. As I arrived there late one Thursday afternoon in the summer of 2011, it was closing for the day and a stream of people – white and Asian, young and old – filed past me on their way out. The visitors had been taking lessons in English and maths; burnishing their CVs; doing whatever they could to improve their chances in a job market where the odds were stacked against them.

“This is neutral territory,” the centre’s genial manager, Richard Chipps, told me. “Everyone feels comfortable in here.”

At first sight, it was unremarkable: an image of everyday multicultural Britain, no doubt repeated in towns and cities across the country. But here on Colne Road, which divides the predominantly Asian districts of Daneshouse and Stoneyholme from their largely white neighbours, I was watching a minor miracle. Just a few years previously, Burnley was the scene of the British National Party’s first electoral breakthroughs under Nick Griffin: the nadir of a series of events that led to the town being branded “racist capital of Britain”.

Chipps, himself a former BNP voter, was one of many Burnley residents determined never to let it happen again. “I thought, I can’t cope with another generation living through these problems,” he told me, explaining why he and Ishtiaq, a Muslim youth worker, had tried hard to make the centre a place where whites and Asians could mix. “You think about Enoch Powell and you think perhaps his timing were off – perhaps in the future what he said will happen and that it’s just going to take longer. Well, this country is too good for that, I don’t want it to happen.”

Ten years ago, Colne Road was at the centre of a riot. On the night of Friday 22 June 2001, a fight between rival drug dealers – some white, some Asian – broke out in front of a Burnley nightclub. The fighting spread up Colne Road and several cars were damaged. Later that evening, an Asian taxi driver who stopped to inspect the damaged cars was attacked with a hammer by a group of whites. Thanks to the radio network over which Burnley’s mainly Asian taxi drivers communicated, rumours that the driver had died spread quickly through the town. The following evening, a group of Asian men attacked the Duke of York pub on Colne Road; its white customers ran out on to the street with make - shift weapons, before police managed to drive the two groups apart. Over the weekend, what had begun as a turf war developed into ethnic conflict, with arson attacks on both sides.

The Burnley riot was one of a string of “disturbances”, as they are known by official euphemism, that broke out across the north of England in the spring and summer of 2001, bringing communities that had been excluded from Labour’s New Britain to national attention. In Bradford, then Oldham, then Burnley, then Bradford again, local tensions spilled over into violence between whites and Asians. All three shared the same broad patterns of economic deprivation and racism – and in all three towns the situation was made worse by the BNP and its fellow-travellers on the far right.

It was in Oldham, a satellite of Manchester, where the BNP had seen the greatest potential. As far back as 1998, Griffin had identified Oldham as a target for BNP campaigns. That year a branch was established, surprising party leaders with the rapid take-up. Above all, one issue seemed to be driving BNP support – a perception among some white residents that Asian youths were given an easier ride by police, and that certain parts of the town were “no-go” areas for whites. The grievances continued to simmer, amplified by the local press. On 3 March 2001, as complaints grew more vocal, the BNP held a Rights for Whites rally outside the police station.

In April, two months before the general election, this was turned into a live political issue when Greater Manchester Police drew public attention to an allegedly high level of assaults on whites by Asian youths in Oldham, claims that were picked up by the national press. The next day, the situation grew worse when a white pensioner named Walter Chamberlain was beaten up by a group of young Asian men in the town centre. The bruised and battered face of Chamberlain, a D-Day veteran, was pictured on the Oldham Chronicle’s front page. Now white resentment had its symbolic victim.

At this opportunity, Griffin announced he would stand for parliament in West Oldham. Clearly he would benefit if race relations worsened – and while the BNP had to be seen to distance itself from violent activity, other farright groups had no such worries. Throughout May, the National Front (a remnant of which had survived largely in England’s north-west) joined forces with Oldham-based football hooligans and Combat 18 activists and repeatedly tried to march through Asian-inhabited areas. Griffin tried to ingratiate himself with these groups but the rivalry was vicious and on 26 May he was chased out of an Oldham pub by Combat 18 activists.

That evening, the far right finally managed to provoke a riot in the Asian-inhabited area of Glodwick. As national media descended on Oldham, Griffin used the opportunity to position himself as the voice of the town’s disaffected whites. He was invited on to Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme Today, drawing strong criticism from anti-fascists for breaking the BBC’s long-standing policy of “no platform” for fascist politicians. In interviews, Griffin pushed a racist interpretation of events, advocating Northern Ireland-style “peace walls” to keep communities separate. In keeping with the BNP’s new rhetoric, he claimed it was not the Asians’ colour that was the problem, it was their culture – specifically their Muslim religion:

“[Muslims are] the biggest problem at present, for several reasons, because they have the highest birth rate, which means their communities need living space – that’s what the ethnic cleansing is about. They have political corruption in their own countries, and when they have a chance to get council places they are there for graft. Most important of all is that Islam is an aggressive religion.”

At the general election, against a background of widespread apathy (a record low turnout nationally, and down by 18 per cent in the northwest), Griffin came third with 16.4 per cent of the vote. He used the night of the count for some further posturing, appearing on the platform with a gag around his mouth and a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Gagged for Telling the Truth”. It appeared to have the desired effect. As one woman told the Times, “I voted BNP and I don’t worry who knows it. Everyone in the street voted for them. This morning I feel like someone is actually fighting for the white people of Oldham, for their rights.”

But while Griffin was busy trying to turn Oldham into the front line of a race war, the party’s candidate in Burnley – a local man with no media profile – had fared almost as well as Griffin at the general election, coming fourth, with 11 per cent of the vote.

Steven Smith lives in a modest cottage in Cliviger, a small hillside village on the outskirts of Burnley. Known locally as “Stone Wall Smith”, this former accountant runs a dry stone walling business – a skill much in demand in the pretty Lancashire countryside. He is also regarded as something of a crank: when I first called, Smith was out, walking the town centre wearing a wooden sandwich board. Immigrants, Islam, “political correctness” and the town’s Asian population are his usual targets – when I managed to contact him a few days later, he told me that his current target was a newly opened deli that had allegedly been serving halal meat without informing its customers. “He seems a lovely man, ever so polite,” one of Smith’s stone wall clients, the owner of a farmhouse near Cliviger, told me. “But then you see the vitriol of what he writes in his leaflets. You can hardly believe it’s the same person.”

When I finally tracked Smith down, he was indeed polite, turning prickly only when I asked if he considered himself a racist: “That word’s only been in circulation for the past twenty or so years and it’s just an invention of the left to stop people like me and others complaining about what’s happening in the country.”

It’s not that he denied being a racist, only that he didn’t see anything wrong with it. “You’ve got to step outside the box: a racist is basically someone that believes in preserving who and what they are, and by bringing tens of thousands if not millions of black and brown people into this country, eventually you’re going to finish up with a mongrel race of people. Now I don’t think all them boys and girls that fought in two world wars did so for that, and had they seen or known what was going to happen, I doubt very few of them would actually have gone to war.”

Smith had been a presence on Burnley’s political scene since the early 1990s, when he chained himself to the town-hall railings in protest at a twinning project with a village in Pakistan. In another town, at another time, that might have been the highlight of his political career – a bizarre headline in a local newspaper. But in 1999, he set up a branch of the BNP; in 2001 he stood as the party’s general election candidate; and in 2002 he helped three candidates win seats on the local council. The majority of Burnley’s voters may not have shared his fears about a “mongrel race”, but something in what Smith had to offer evidently touched a nerve. Visiting the town, a decade on, would I be able to find anybody who could tell me why?

After Wendy Graham, a Burnley community activist, picked me up from the station, the first thing she did was drive me out to Towneley Park, the landscaped grounds of a country house that once belonged to the local aristocratic family. The detour was meant to serve as a gentle warning to a journalist, freshly arrived from London, not to let their prejudices get the better of them. The day before I arrived, Burnley had made national headlines for boasting Britain’s cheapest house – a three-bedroom terrace that had sold at auction for £10,000. “They called Burnley a run-down former mill town,” she said. “It makes me see red. Does this look rundown to you?”

Like many others I met, Graham was fiercely proud of her town. But as we drove around the centre, it became clear that Burnley, too small and too tucked away in the Pennines to attract the glitzy, property-market-driven regeneration schemes of a city like Manchester, had not benefited from the boom years. Its crumbling textile mills sit derelict. Now in her fifties, Graham can remember the clatter of the looms, but they fell silent in the 1980s. The area in which the mills sit has been optimistically renamed the Weavers’ Triangle, but they were still waiting to be converted into shops and flats.

Burnley is one of the few towns in England with a declining population: the number of residents fell by 4.7 per cent between 2001 and 2010, to just over 85,000. It is a town marked by emigration, not immigration – and many residents feel abandoned: “You feel like you’re being kept at arm’s length,” Graham told me. “People do still have a sense of pride in the place, and the BNP appeal to people’s sentiment and nostalgia.”

The other thing the BNP appealed to was a feeling, shared by some of the town’s white residents, that “Asian” areas of the town were being favoured with what little public money there was. In 1995, a former Labour councillor named Harry Brooks, then sitting as an independent, gave an interview to the Burnley Express in which he claimed the council had been disproportionately allocating funds to Asian community groups for “political” reasons. The paper gave these claims the front page – the start of a campaign that grew throughout the late 1990s. In truth, the “Asian” areas were receiving the funding because they needed it the most, ranking among the most deprived wards in England. Daneshouse and Stoneyholme were no ghettos: some 40 per cent of the ward’s residents were white, but Brooks’s campaign racialised Burnley’s economic neglect.

Yet that “Asian” areas existed at all in Burnley was itself a legacy of racism. During the 1960s and 1970s, workers from Pakistan had been encouraged to come and prop up the region’s faltering textile industry. Because of the unsociable hours they were asked to work – often filling vacancies on the night shift – and because of local councils’ refusal to house them on the smarter white estates, these immigrants tended to settle in the most run-down parts of town, close to the mills.

When the mills finally closed in the 1980s, these communities were cut off from the economic lifeline that had enabled some of their white forebears to save money and move out to more salubrious parts. Groups of young, unemployed Asian men pooled their resources and started taxi firms or kebab shops: these small economic success stories exacerbated resentment among whites who had lacked the wherewithal to do the same. There also developed a perception that having Asian neighbours would bring down house prices.

Shahid Malik, a former Labour MP who grew up in Daneshouse, described his childhood to me as a “racist hell on earth”. He continued: “As we saw white people moving out you’d get some Asian people thinking why don’t we try to move out as well, to places like Padiham [a village on the outskirts of Burnley], but when the excrement through the letter box and the graffiti came they started to move back to the places where they felt most secure.”

At the same time, a younger, British-born generation of Asians were not as willing to put up with the racist abuse experienced by their parents. As Malik explained, “When I was growing up, the violence was one way: it was racists and it was whites on those of Asian origin. It was initiated one way, but that’s not how it ended up. And later on you did start to see some indiscriminate racist attacks on white people as well.”

A perception that crime committed by Asians was not taken as seriously bred resentment among the town’s whites. “It’s one law for them and another for us,” was how Paul, a white taxi driver, put it to me. “The police are scared to deal with them [Asians] because they’ll be called racist,” he said. “You read all this stuff in the newspapers – you see an Asian lad doing 120 down the M65 and he’ll get a sixmonth driving ban for speeding. Then the next day there’ll be a white lad who’ll get a 12-month ban for doing 80.”

According to Mike Waite, a senior council manager in charge of community cohesion, the cause of such problems was not so much political as practical: a lack of adequate training meant that council officials “had an anxiety that they would be called ‘racist’ for taking action – for example, to enforce a planning regulation, or a health and safety rule in relation to the taxi trade or a fast-food business”. Such failures only encouraged feelings of mutual suspicion between white and Asian inhabitants.

By 2000 Burnley had 11 independent councillors. Led by Harry Brooks, they formed the main opposition to a Labour Party that had long dominated local politics. This group campaigned for the council’s translation unit to be closed down, and for funding to be withdrawn from the Bangladesh Welfare Association and other Asian community groups. The effect was to racialise the whole political culture, with other parties moving to compete on the territory carved out by Brooks. In 1996, the Lib Dems were criticised for distributing false information in their campaign material about the funding of Asian voluntary groups; in 1998, the Tories criticised the council for neglecting problems such as litter and preferring instead to “spend ridiculously high amounts of money on certain areas” (my italics). Burnley Labour Party politics was shaped by this rightward drift: in 1997, there was controversy when a number of its own councillors were investigated and disciplined for putting pressure on council officers not to house Asian families in their wards. The local racial equality council had its funding withdrawn by Labour during the late 1990s.

Brooks and his independents did not stand a candidate in the 2001 general election. The BNP’s Steven Smith stepped into the gap. His tactics were crude but effective: Smith estimates, for instance, that he personally delivered 30,000 leaflets to homes before that election.

He was helped by a new national narrative that developed in the year after the riots: neither economic deprivation nor white racism was seen to be the root cause; rather it was the deficient culture of an Asian Muslim minority. This view appeared to be endorsed by some Labour MPs. In July 2001 after riots broke out in Bradford, provoked by the National Front and exacerbated by Asians’ anger at the police’s failure to protect them, the recently appointed home secretary, David Blunkett, threatened to deploy water cannon and tear gas.

The same month, Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley, near Bradford, suggested that arranged marriages and poor English skills were responsible for Muslims failing to integrate. In December, a series of official reports into the riots was published, chief among them one by Ted Cantle which identified communities’ “parallel lives” as the main cause of unrest. White racism, and the failure of New Labour to set out a vision that could give hope to an industrial working class decimated by Thatcherism, were played down in the discussion that followed. Two years previously, Jack Straw had proclaimed that the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence had “opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today”. Now, the government was blaming the victims.

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion surrounding British Muslims also intensified after the 11 September 2001 attacks. With no small irony, Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that “certain categories” of immigrants, “from certain often highly troubled parts of the world . . . imported their own internal issues, from those parts of the world, into the towns and villages in Britain”.

This gave an opportunity for the BNP to broaden its own propaganda. In the autumn of 2001, the party distributed leaflets claiming that “Islam” stood for “Intolerance, Slaughter, Looting, Arson and Molestation of Women”. It also sought to exploit religious divisions among British Asians. Griffin’s “ethnic liaison committee” claimed to have made contact with Sikhs and Hindus, whose contributions were distributed on an audio cassette.

In February 2002, matters were made worse when Blunkett attempted to address fears over both British Muslims and asylum-seekers in a government white paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven. This merely conflated the issues of race and immigration, according to his critics.

The challenge for the BNP was to turn this rising anxiety into seats at the 2002 local elections. In Burnley, Steven Smith extended his DIY publicity techniques, hanging a banner from a 30-foot mill chimney that overlooked the town’s busiest road. BNP cards were left in pubs and at the football ground, directing the public towards a website, Burnley Bravepages,which featured rumours about preferential treatment for Asians and asylum-seekers being allowed to jump the queues in doctors’ waiting rooms. Smith also began building a database of potential supporters by trawling the telephone directory: “We knew that our core support was obviously white, for the most part workingclass and to a large extent self-employed. Most, if not all, of these could be found in the Yellow Pages under the headings of builders, joiners, electricians, mechanics, etc.”

Backed by an election manifesto that promised regeneration money for “British” council tenants, plus a crackdown on crime and asylumseekers, BNP canvassers wheedled their way into voters’ minds on the doorstep with the slogan: “Use one vote – make it count!” In 2002, every council seat in Burnley was up for election, with three councillors per ward, so BNP canvassers presented their party as a convenient way to get the attention of mainstream politicians, telling voters to “give” one out of their three votes to the BNP and the remaining two to mainstream parties, with the plaintive refrain: “Give us a chance, what do you have to lose?”

Richard Chipps was one of many Burnley residents to whom this offer appealed: “I voted for them because it was a protest that no one was paying attention to the problems we had. Very few people are actual BNP members. But once you vote for them, people listen.”

By April, the government had become alarmed. Blair gave a front-page interview to the Lancashire Telegraph warning people not to vote BNP, and his press secretary Alastair Campbell, a well-known supporter of Burnley Football Club, came out of a self-imposed media silence to do the same. But it was too late. On 2 May 2002, the repackaged BNP made its first step on to the bottom rung of Britain’s political ladder, winning three council seats – two in one of the better-off working-class wards, and the other in an outlying village that normally voted Tory.

If voters in Burnley wanted the government’s attention, now they had it. Over the weekend of 15 and 16 June, write Nigel Copsey and David Renton in British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State (Palgrave Macmillan), Tony Blair met with senior strategists, chief among them his pollster Philip Gould, who warned that thousands of “angry young working-class men” were poised to desert Labour for the BNP. There were also danger signs from Europe, where far-right parties were on the rise. In Austria, the slick political operator Jörg Haider had briefly pushed his anti-immigrant Freedom Party into a coalition government in 2000, and in May 2002 Jean- Marie Le Pen of the Front National shocked France’s political establishment by reaching the run-off stage against Jacques Chirac in the presidential elections.

France provided a salutary tale: it was the Socialist Party’s ratcheting up of anti-immigration rhetoric during the 1980s and 1990s that had paved the way for Le Pen. But New Labour was in thrall to triangulation, the strategy which had helped the party defeat the Conservatives by occupying the political space normally held by the right, pushing them further away from the centre. What would it mean to “occupy” the space held by fascists? After the BNP’s shock local by-election victory on the
Isle of Dogs in 1993, Labour had won back the trust of voters by promising to tackle the housing shortage that had fuelled racist resentment. This time, Gould advised, the party should embrace voters’ concerns on immigration and asylum.

In fact, Blunkett was already doing so. With his reputation for tough pronouncements on law and order, immigration and the need for Muslims to integrate, the home secretary’s most notorious moment had come during a BBC radio interview a month before the BNP’s first election victories in Burnley, when he had accused asylum-seekers’ children of “swamping” British schools. The term echoed comments made by Margaret Thatcher in 1978.

I visited Blunkett at his House of Commons office in the autumn of 2011. He denied pandering to racism. “My use of the word ‘swamped’ was specific. It means ‘overwhelmed’ and if you look at the dictionary definition they’re interchangeable,” he told me, still testy about the incident. Yet even though he now regretted his incautious use of wording, he defended the strategy: “My concern from 2001 onwards was to ensure that we didn’t allow that considerable progress that [far-right parties] were making in other parts of Europe to be reflected in Britain.”

Blunkett believed he was in an impossible situation during his time in office, caught “like a pig in the middle”, as he confided to his diary, between his critics on the left and a tabloid press in attack mode. “We’re not racists, Mr Blunkett, just terrified for our children’s health,” read one 2003 headline in the Sun, which mounted a campaign accusing asylumseekers of infecting Britain with HIV, tuberculosis and Hepatitis C. Yet the government’s strategy went beyond simply rebutting tabloid criticism; just as Blair, Blunkett and other New Labour grandees made efforts to befriend Rupert Murdoch and the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), so it actively collaborated in their campaigns.

The extent of this collusion was exposed in the summer of 2003 when Downing Street’s media planning grid – a calendar on which ministers’ publicity engagements were noted in advance – was leaked. For the week of 18 August, the grid entry under “Main news for the week” was “Sun asylum week”. On the Monday, the Sun was to run a story headlined “Halt the asylum tide now”; on the Tuesday, “Our heritage is crumbling”; on the Wednesday, it ran yet another health scare story; and on the Thursday, as noted in advance on Downing Street’s grid, was “Blunkett asylum interview”, where the home secretary promised “draconian” measures to clamp down on bogus claimants.

Beyond this, the government lacked any serious policy to halt the BNP’s progress. The riots, followed by the elections in Burnley, had shown that something was wrong in Labour’s heartlands, yet Blunkett claims there was a “lack of collective will” among his cabinet colleagues to do more than triangulate. After the 2003 local elections drew a turnout in England of just 35.6 per cent, Blunkett despaired: “Tony [Blair] is still not of the mind that real disillusionment has set in . . . It is very hard to get across to someone who believes that everything is fine that the electorate are cheesed off with us.”

Over the next year, the BNP began to pick up votes away from towns directly affected by the riots – with the asylum panic and worsening attitudes towards Muslims as a backdrop. As the Blair government beat the drums for war with Iraq, a BNP councillor was elected in Blackburn after distributing leaflets claiming that the town was to build replicas of the giant arches made of crossed swords installed by Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The party won a council seat in the Hertfordshire borough of Broxbourne – a white area with no direct experience of immigration – based on a toxic combination of fears about asylum and a deeper-seated hostility to nearby multiracial London.

In the 2003 local elections, the BNP won a further six seats on Burnley Council, making it the second-largest group – and spread out further into Lancashire and West Yorkshire, winning seats in Halifax. In Halifax, as with Burnley, the initial breakthrough came in wards that normally voted Tory.

In fact, there was compelling evidence to show that the BNP remained a party which nurtured violence and racism. A 2004 BBC documentary, made by an undercover journalist, revealed party activists in Bradford boasting about beating up Asians during the 2001 riots and fantasising about shooting “Pakis”. It also featured a secret recording of Griffin addressing a party meeting in Keighley, West Yorkshire, where he expressed his hopes for a riot and described Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith”, claiming that Muslim men were deliberately trying to get white girls pregnant so that they could spread Islam across the world. A young rising star of the BNP, Mark Collett, was also filmed describing asylum-seekers as “cockroaches”. These comments would lead both to be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred. They were acquitted in 2006.

The BBC exposé was accompanied by a front-page story in the Sun, which bore the headline “Bloody nasty people”. But if only it were so easy to separate the “nasty” people from the rest.

When I phoned Sharon Wilkinson, she was putting her two baby granddaughters to bed. First elected in 2004, 50-year-old Wilkinson was one of the BNP’s few remaining councillors in 2011 – and it’s not hard to see why she had retained local support even as her party’s fortunes have receded. Gentle-voiced, Wilkinson explained to me that she joined the BNP because, “as a white person, I was being treated differently because of the colour of my skin. By the police, the  stablishment.” The owner of an off-licence, she felt it was unfair that the Asian-run newsagent across the road had been given a licence to sell alcohol. “Forty-three people attended the hearing to speak against the licence, but they still got it. And that was the whole community that had been ignored. So I stood as a BNP councillor.”

Several Burnley residents I spoke to who opposed the BNP conceded that Wilkinson was good at her job. She certainly seemed to relish the hard, unglamorous slog of local politics, talking enthusiastically to me about her work dealing with dog mess, or successfully winning money for her ward to have traffic calming measures installed

But when the conversation turned towards the BNP’s true nature, Wilkinson became less confident. Did she think the party was fascist? “I didn’t find that.” What about its commitment to the repatriation of non-whites? “It’s not a reality, is it?” She hesitated, and I could hear a murmuring in the background. “I’m not against anyone having their own ethnic whatever it is, but let us have ours.”

There was some more murmuring. “Is that John?” I asked, realising I had been on speakerphone. “Hello, Daniel,” came a gruff reply. John Cave is a veteran BNP member with “a stack of membership cards” who believes “the world needs a leader”. The BNP handbook states that the party should be a “surrogate family” to its members – but for Cave and Wilkinson this has gone a step further: they got married.

Enoch Powell had been right, Cave told me; in 21st-century Britain the immigrant had indeed got the “whip hand” over the white man. He emphasised that grass-roots politics was never anything more than a stepping-stone for the BNP. “Local politics is boring,” he said. “And anyone who gets involved in it has to see it from that line of thought that it isn’t about doing this and moving a litter bin from A to B or getting the grass cut. In reality the only reason you’re there is to give people a chance to say they don’t want multiculturalism, they don’t want integration.”

To me, this disturbing encounter illustrated just why the BNP seemed to have outfoxed its opponents in the early 2000s – and why it took the best part of a decade to drive it out of local politics. As Steven Smith recalled, calling his party “Nazis” did not seem to match up with the local shopkeepers and grandmothers the BNP had convinced to stand as candidates. A few days before the local elections in 2003, he explained, anti-fascists distributed a leaflet that bore a picture of Burnley town hall superimposed with a giant swastika and the slogan: “Is this what you really want?”

“Now then,” Smith said. “Bearing in mind that not many days after that leaflet was circulated, the Burnley electorate voted for another six BNP councillors, there’s one of two things you can say: either people weren’t put off by it – or perhaps they weren’t too averse to it. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” is out now, published by Verso (£14.99).

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

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile