These are real race riots, the first since the 1950s

As-salaam aleikum, readers. This Muslim greeting should make it clear that we are returning to Oldham and the issues at large there.

Let me describe the town in its basic outline. The population is divided broadly between generations of white Oldham, the third generation of Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis, and a community of West Indians that could fit easily into a teacup. The three groups used to be disciplined, unified and organised within the textile mills that thrived in days of yore.

All that is at an end. The nimble fingers of the Far East, to say nothing of cheap labour, have attracted production away from places such as Oldham.

Now that the basis of the society has fallen apart, the population is thrown into indiscipline, disorganisation and disunity. The mills have disappeared, but there is nothing to replace them. Local leaders have spoken about regeneration funds. But only a political nut would suggest that a few pieces of silver can replace a mighty industry. This is the situation in several northern towns, where thousands of workers have been displaced into the dark hole of poverty.

Two years ago, I visited Oldham and broke the story of potential racial conflict there. The civic leaders abused me in their reply to the New Statesman.

You see, I had interviewed only white workers. For the first time in this country, I had seen people who fitted the American description "white trash". Their homes had a stench of decay: of damp, sweat and stale food cooked days before. The little picket fences were collapsing. The roofs were leaking, and pallid faces staring. I interviewed a young man, tall and emaciated, and he described the constant fear of physical harassment by Asians. His sister was a heroin addict, a prostitute with a Pakistani pimp.

His elder brother, he said, remembers a time when most whites engaged in Paki- bashing; they were hostile to their "funny religion", which, to whites, was a lot of mumbo-jumbo. In those days, the elders of the Asian community had considerable influence. A young Asian in Blackburn was once beaten almost to death for challenging them and their dodgy leadership.

The municipal wallahs used housing funds to separate the communities. The Labour mafia presided over this process. The quality of the housing they built is a disgrace. The scramble over who got the best of the regeneration funds - mere scraps from the Treasury's table - is the basis for the current conflict.

You cannot elevate the National Front as the cause. Most white workers in Oldham have supported the Labour Party for generations. New Labour has abandoned them while it parades its goods before Middle England. To accuse them now of harbouring fascist ideas is shameful.

The economic base of Oldham and the political institutions it created have gone, leaving the white working classes stripped naked of all they had built for themselves. Speak to them and you will find that they complain that they are neglected, while the Asians are looked after by the government. Such comments have been floating around for years, but modern journalism picks only on the current and dramatic.

Over recent weeks - both the last weekend of May and a couple of weeks earlier - we have seen the first race riots in England since the late 1950s, when white and black clashed in Notting Hill and Nottingham. All the so-called race riots of the 1980s were, in reality, insurrections against the police.

This is deeply worrying. The riots in Oldham involved only minorities from either community, but both sides show signs of belief in racial (or, in the case of the Muslims, perhaps religious) superiority. We know from the 1930s and 1940s where that can lead.

Our political leaders have been strutting on the electoral stage, completely oblivious to the social degeneration that is taking place under their noses. It is a terrible indictment of modern politics.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures