The carnival is not yet over. Hot on the heels of the English riots came the event that is usually the focus for riotous behaviour — the Notting Hill Carnival, which took place last weekend, on a rainy, indifferent summer’s day. The carnival began in the late ’50s, after the area, once well-to-do, and then bedsit-land, became a focus for West Indian migrants. Indeed, the carnival was designed as a response to a series of attacks by white gangs on black people, which resulted in the so-called “Notting Hill race riots” of 1958 — although white pogrom would be more accurate. Since its foundation, the carnival has had its good and bad years, and was nearly banned in the ’70s, after black and white youth rose up after increased harassment of black people by police (the founder of the carnival was a woman named Claudia Jones — a US Communist activist. Dig deep enough into most anti-racist activism across the century, and you’ll find that Communists kicked it off).
A London cop-out. Since then, the carnival has been prodded, promoted and regulated into something that is much an adjunct of London tourism as an expression of community spirit — with a million people crowding in over two days, it’s a good thing to go to once or twice. That double character was all the more on display this year as everyone freaked out about the prospect of the whole of west London erupting in mayhem. The answer? This spontaneous expression of community life would have 5000 police officers attached. Yes, five thousand. Some organisers later said that the carnival spirit emerged successfully only because of the OTT police presence. And that’s the UK today — where people have become so fearful of each other, that the essential ingredient of any spontaneous, disordering activity — such as a carnival is meant to provide — is a massive police presence.
Tories a class act? While the carnival goes on, so too does the Tories’ culture war. In education, despite having no money to continue Labour’s school-building program, they have managed to find ample funds to fast-track the “free schools” program, by which faith groups, parents groups and corporations can set up their own subsidised quasi-private schools. The program is a massive subsidy of the already well-connected, at the net cost of schools in poor areas. It was rammed through parliament double fast, and one of its key pilots was working for education minister Michael Gove, and for the “New Schools Network” group — intended to be the autonomous body co-ordinating them. Gove is a fierce opponent of multiculturalism — yet the new free schools, replacing secular, universal schools, are being run by groups from half a dozen different religions — all, by definition, promoting the notion of separate sub-communities, which is the leitmotif of multiculturalism. It doesn’t make sense, but it isn’t meant to.
Blow for the God-botherers. Nor does the new push on abortion reform, coming from energetic Christian Tory Nadine Dorries. Dorries’ forthcoming private members’ bill was designed to remove the mandated control of counselling services for abortion service clients from two groups — BPAS and Marie Stopes — who also run services providing abortions. There’s a case for splitting those functions, but Dorries’ bill is designed to allow an evangelical group, CareConfidential, to tender for the services. That push has run into trouble after a training manual by the group surfaced, explicitly stating that “abortion was a sin against God”, sin and hellfire, etc. The groups claimed that the manual was “outdated” (presumably the nature of sin changed after it had gone to printers), etc, etc. But the scandal has been enough for the Lib-Dems and the Tory centre to back away from it, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg announcing they would vote against it. That’s a big blow for the God-botherers, because the change could have been made purely through regulations — no bill was required. They wanted a fight, they got it, and they’ve lost for the moment. But there will be years of this trench warfare.
Hit below the belt for gypsies. Trench warfare, and bigger battles too. The weekend will see a double-fixture, as Basildon Council in Essex prepares to evict the residents of “Dale Farm”, a “Traveller” (i.e. Irish gypsy) community that has lived there for two decades. The announcement has seen an influx of activists to the “farm” — really a self-created, small estate of about 500 people, and dozens of houses and buildings — determined to defend the community. Interviews with non-Traveller locals manage to turf up the most appalling racism, and the hard Right are as keen to construct it as a race issue, as are the activist Left. But it’s a little more complicated than that. For a start the Travellers actually own the land in question — but part of it lies across the green belt, the swathe of country around major towns, which can’t be built on. It’s that area that is being demolished, after 10 years of legal wrangling. So there is a genuine dilemma, because if such incursions on the belt are allowed, then they become general — and those taking the biggest bite will be prosperous farmers who have the green belt running through their land. There’s also a good argument for abolishing green belts per se too, but unilateral building-over probably isn’t the way to do it. Whatever the ins and outs, they will not go quietly.
From the terraces to the East End. However they may well be drowned out by the other fixture — a march by the English Defence League, the rabid anti-Muslim group formed around a nucleus of football gangs in Luton several years ago, who now have a national presence. Smart and focused (they eschew anti-Semitism, and other fascist bugbears; they have not only a swathe of Hindu and Sikh members but also a GBLT section), the EDL has all but replaced the chaotic British National Party as the focus for the racist/Islamophobic Right with city-by-city rallies that are merely a political form of the old football hooligan circuit — get on a chartered coach, go to Wigan/Birmingham/Mile End, drink, biffo, drink, home. Their choice of an East End venue is uber-provocative, because next month marks the 75th anniversary of the “Battle of Cable Street”, when a march by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts through a Jewish area of the East End was confronted by radical and communist activists, Jewish groups, and locals. The ensuing melee served to bust the Blacksirts’ claim that they were expressing local feeling.
Marching to a different drum. With the EDL announcing this rally, and peak group Unite Against Fascism (UAF) announcing a counter-rally, things were all set for a clear confrontation. Then, following the English riots, Home Secretary Teresa May banned all marches in London for a month, around any issue (including a commemoration of Cable Street!) This has proved to be a problem for the UAF, which had lobbied for EDL marches to be banned, but not their own — and are now in the difficult position of arguing that they should be allowed to continue their own march. Not a good look nor a consistent position.
Bring sandwiches and bandages. But now that doesn’t matter, because the EDL has announced that it will march in defiance of the law — and so UAF has announced that its counter-rally is still on. So the whole thing will be a messy three-way fight between two antagonistic groups and the police trying to prevent both sides gathering. Should they fail to do so, it is neither the hard Right nor the Left that will suffer most, but the legitimacy of the Cameron government, and its ability to enforce its will. If you’re in London, come along and make a day of it. Bring sandwiches, and bandages.