How the 2001 northern riots boosted the far right – and reshaped British politics

Twenty years ago this summer, a series of riots broke out in parts of northern England that would have a profound effect on British politics. They began in Oldham in late May 2001, spreading to Burnley in June, and Bradford in July. All had their own specific local triggers, but all involved clashes between men of white and of south Asian background. This racialised dimension ensured that they became a matter of national concern, prompting warnings that some of the country’s diverse communities were, in the words of an official report, living “parallel lives”.

In national debate, this quickly became a narrative that “multiculturalism” had failed, and helped to cement two powerful stereotypes that continue to dominate our politics. One is of the immigrant community – frequently Muslim – that fails to integrate, and stands repeatedly accused of creating “no-go zones” in parts of our towns and cities. The other stereotype is of the disaffected, “left behind” white working class, rarely treated as more than a caricature.

The most immediate effect of the riots was to help Britain’s far right to an unprecedented wave of electoral success – which further entrenched this simplistic narrative. Those first riots in Oldham came after several weeks of agitation by far-right activists, who were hoping to capitalise on recent local tensions between white and Asian residents. In the aftermath, the British National party leader, Nick Griffin, positioned himself as a voice for the white community, advocating Belfast-style “peace walls”; he was invited onto the BBC’s Today programme to have his say. The following year, BNP candidates won a string of council seats in Burnley, heralding a series of victories in English local government.

This might seem like ancient history today, but for Mike Makin-Waite, a former Burnley council officer who saw up close a fascist party’s first serious incursion into UK politics, it was the forerunner to a much bigger shift. As he recounts in a new book, this was just a precursor to the ultimately successful effort by the right to “link people’s sense of abandonment to the idea that a strong and exclusivist sense of national identity is the answer”.

The BNP’s explicitly racist politics only ever had limited appeal, but other more adept politicians – first Nigel Farage, then Boris Johnson – took the problems the BNP had exploited and went much further. In 2019, Burnley – a former mill town with a strong Labour and trade union history – elected a Conservative MP for the first time in more than 100 years.

Makin-Waite, a long-time anti-racist activist who was appointed council officer in the wake of the riots to lead Burnley’s efforts at “community cohesion” (the official jargon of the time), has an instructive account for anyone who wants to understand today’s politics. He recalls the dilemmas he faced as a formally impartial official in working with representatives of a party whose leaders were veteran neo-Nazis, and writes with frustration about the distance between the reality on the ground and the way places like Burnley were talked about nationally. This was an era when the New Labour government was losing support among working-class voters, but the attitude of some of its leading figures was “they’ve got nowhere to go” – as the former minister Peter Hain characterised the view of his colleague Peter Mandelson to me.

While the causes of racial division were complex – mutual distrust between communities that had little daily interaction, the legacy of racist housing policies, persistent deprivation and an effectively segregated school system, for instance – people on either side of the divide were caricatured in public debate as “problem” communities. Those of Asian heritage were accused of being backward – in July 2001, one Labour MP appeared to blame arranged marriages and a failure to learn English for the riots. Meanwhile, white voters susceptible to the BNP’s messages were either dismissed out of hand (Makin-Waite recalls leftwing friends in the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge describing voters who selected a BNP candidate in neighbouring Halifax as “scum”), or patronised by New Labour politicians who promised tough action on immigrants in an attempt at triangulation.

Makin-Waite is clear that the BNP’s offer to voters was profoundly racist – deliberately aiming to foster white resentment – and that many of its voters accepted that premise. But he sees its brief success as raising a wider and potentially more unsettling question about the state of democracy in the UK. Imagine a political movement that had made some local residents, young and old, feel like they had a voice for the first time, Makin-Waite would tell visitors who came to Burnley to study the town during its years of notoriety. After years of low turnout, elections seemed to matter again. “Only one problem,” he’d say. “The movement is the BNP.”

It’s easy for liberals to recoil in horror at the suggestion that people might find a kind of empowerment in such a form of politics. But a better response would be to ask how badly mainstream politics must have decayed to produce this outcome. In other words, why would people come to feel that they had lost any voice in decisions about their lives to the extent that some saw voting for the BNP as the best remaining option? As one former BNP voter told me when I was reporting from Burnley a decade ago, “Once you vote for them, people listen.”

While explicitly far-right parties are at a historically low ebb – turning in a dismal performance at last month’s local elections, for instance – that’s mainly because the mainstream right has been so successful in claiming their territory. Whatever Johnson’s commitment to “levelling up” might turn out to be in reality, its appeal rests on a promise that it will restore power and dignity to parts of the UK where people feel economically and socially neglected. As a recent analysis of the levelling-up agenda by the political scientist Will Jennings and colleagues notes, the right’s version of this is heavily symbolic, offering the prospect of national revival through Brexit, coupled with selective, targeted investment doled out from Westminster. The government, though, remains hostile to the forms of devolved and local democracy that would put actual decision-making power into the hands of communities around the UK.

If we think the right’s promise is false, then the challenge is to think about what a genuine form of empowerment might look like, a comprehensive redistribution of economic resources and political power that rejects both the racist division on which the far right insists, and the nationalist culture-war politics of our current government.

As Makin-Waite puts it, recalling a meeting with Whitehall civil servants in which council officials were essentially asked what the point of Burnley was now that its industries had largely died: “Towns and communities do not vanish simply because the system’s ‘justification’ for them has been taken away. People have the bad manners to carry on living, and having families, and holding proper hopes for a decent life, even after capital no longer has a use for them.”

Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right

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