A talented agitator exploits Britain’s dangerous social fracture

George Galloway has cleverly, and worryingly, exploited a sense of abandonment that actually unites many Muslims and indigenous whites in places like Bradford, with his own, unique brand of populism

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A talented agitator indeed...
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Tom Gallagher
On 30 March 2012 10:56

Before his electoral triumph in the Bradford West by-election yesterday, George Galloway had already earned his place in history as a political mould-breaker. This fiery critic of Britain’s intervention first in Afghanistan in 2001 and then in Iraq two years later, successfully launched a form of communal politics in which Islam was extolled as the progressive religion of the dispossessed.

In 2005 when the unpopularity of the disastrously planned removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was at its height, he defeated Oonagh King, the popular Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in London, who had supported Tony Blair’s gamble. But his Respect party failed to blossom as a far-left and clericalist alternative to Labour even as Labour’s presence in inner-city seats, with large immigrant populations, was waning.

Galloway was unable to combine his oratorical skills with a dedication to the painstaking grassroots work necessary to sustain a London power-base. He shunned Parliament for much of the time and often he seemed to be a more familiar presence in the Middle East, aiding Hamas in Gaza, than in Bethnal Green and Bow. When he declined to contest the seat and was electorally crushed in a nearby constituency, he was written off in many quarters as a gifted but undisciplined opportunist, someone primarily interested in goading the establishment in order to nourish his own restless ego.

There may still be plenty of truth in this characterisation. But he has shown an astounding capacity to bounce back by exploiting the disconnect between specific groups of mainly British-born Muslims, principally young men and much of the rest of society.

At first glance, the city of Bradford is an unlikely setting for a Galloway surge. With the burning of copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses in 1988 and demands for its suppression, it may have been the first British city where the insistence that Muslim religious sensibilities be protected by British laws was first heard. But this North of England city of 300,000 inhabitants, nestling in the Pennine halls, did not grow into a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

The pious, contemplative and largely apolitical strand of south Asian Islam exemplified by the Baralwi tradition has, until recently, held its ground here in the face of advances from its rival, the Deobandi version offering a more modernist and militant version often based on a literal interpretation of theKoran. The predominance of the clan-based biradari system which ranks people according to their place in a social hierarchy, has delayed the emergence of Muslims as a dominant force in Bradford politics even though they are around one-third of the population.

But given the wholesale economic decline of much of the West Yorkshire region outside its largest city, Leeds, there are few enduring local symbols or institutions to which locally-born Muslims can easily relate. Bradford was once the world centre of the woollen industry but its collapse has turned the city into a British Detroit, a place where the bottom has fallen out of the industrial economy and where it is the state that guarantees most economic activity and consumer spending.

Bradford was the scene of a violent riot in July 2001, involving large numbers of young Muslims, overwhelmingly men, this at a time when Islamic Jihad and al Q’aida had an impact only on scattered numbers of people. They were effectively in revolt against authority – as much that of their enclave communities as that of the local state – and systematic looting revealed frustration about their inability to fully partake in the consumer society.

The extent of the disconnect was chronicled in government reports and it soon became clear that a dangerous social fracture extended beyond Bradford along a fault-line extending from Oldham and Burnley in Lancashire to Dewsbury and Bradford in Yorkshire.

In these post-industrial towns the jobs which had brought South Asian migrants in the 1950s had vanished and they had become places where they and the indigenous white inhabitants often lived parallel and unconnected lives. Such social arrangements were reinforced by state policies that extolled multiculturalism. A far-seeing Bradford head-teacher, Ray Honeyford, who tried to promote Britishness in the school curriculum, was driven out by far-left agitators and abandoned by the council even though his recommendations are today widely seen as common sense if social polarisation is to be avoided.

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