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Shadowy Party Heats Up British Racial Tensions

July 4, 2001

Shadowy Party Heats Up British Racial Tensions


BURNLEY, England -- The sudden spasm of racial violence that tore through this former mill town the last week in June, leaving in its wake burned-out stores, boarded-up windows and a shaken and angry population seemed on the surface to have come from nowhere.

But many Burnley residents say the growing influence of the shadowy British National Party, with its fascist roots and its implacable belief that England should be for whites only, was responsible for the violence as surely as if party leaders had stood in the streets and personally distributed firebombs to the rioters.

"They're causing a lot of trouble," said Helen Smith, 52, a charity worker, pushing her baby granddaughter down St. James Street. "Because of the B.N.P., whites here have become totally obsessed with the thought that the Pakistanis are taking over. And if you've got that obsession, it just gets bigger."

Mrs. Smith said she knew exactly when the trouble had begun in Burnley, which has 92,000 people, about 7.5 percent of them nonwhite: when the party got 11.3 percent of the town's vote in the June 7 national elections.

Until then, few people realized that the party -- a more reasonably spoken, less confrontational version of the neo-Nazi National Front, which had its greatest influence in the 1970's -- had found such a foothold here.

"It's taken us a long time to realize what was happening," said Stuart Caddy, the Burnley Borough Council leader, "and we've been very poor at counteracting it. It's been a knock back for us, and we realize we've got to work hard to engage with the communities here and get a clear message across."

Like Oldham, about 20 miles southeast, which had its own racial violence in late May, Burnley became ethnically mixed in the 1960's.

During that era, tens of thousands of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background took low-paying jobs in the cotton mills that fueled the economy in towns across the industrial northwest.

The newcomers settled in this town mostly in two predominantly Asian housing developments, Stoneyholme and Daneshouse, which together form the sixth most economically deprived spot in all of England, but many lost their jobs when the mills closed in the 70's and 80's.

Those of Asian background in Burnley who do work tend to own small businesses, like corner shops and fast-food places, or to drive taxis.

There was always low-grade racism here, people say. The largest outbreaks of racial violence in Britain before have been concentrated in Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods in the south, like Brixton in London. The ethnic picture across the country began to change in the 1990's, when asylum seekers began arriving -- first in a trickle, and then in a flood, hundreds of thousands of them.

Encouraged by often provocative language from the Conservative Party and, to a lesser extent, from the Labor government, Britons have become increasingly afraid that illegal immigrants are overrunning the country -- diluting Britishness and using scarce resources.

Race relations has become one of the biggest anxieties facing the British electorate, recent polls indicate, and it is in this context that the British National Party has begun to thrive in a few areas.

It is a small party, with fewer than 10,000 members nationwide and dependent on grass-roots support, said Nick Griffin, the party chairman, who on June 7 took 16.4 percent of the vote in Oldham West, running for a seat in the House of Commons -- the party's best showing anywhere.

Aside from the 11.3 percent the party won in Burnley, and 11.2 percent in Oldham East, it got 2 to 5 percent in other races around the country.

Steve Smith, the regional organizer in Burnley, said the party's message -- that whites should fight for their heritage, that the multiracial society should be dismantled and that nonwhites should be given financial incentives to return to their countries of origin -- had touched a nerve.

"The race relations industry is simply a massive propaganda machine designed to make people feel guilty about wanting to preserve their racial and cultural identity," Mr. Smith said. "We've had multiracialism imposed on us for too long, and the indigenous population is being sidelined by the politically correct politicians who are running the country."

Mr. Smith, 41, an accountant, spoke in his office on St. James Street, down from the town center, its windows boarded up as security against possible attacks.

The office has a dramatic decor with dark blue fleur-de-lis-patterned wallpaper and a chandelier overhead. On one wall an enormous red party banner calls to mind an old Soviet-realism poster. It bears a picture of Alfred the Great, the ninth- century king who is a nationalist symbol, and the party slogan: Freedom, security, identity, democracy.

Downstairs, where Mr. Smith runs a shop and museum devoted to Burnley's heritage, an enormous German shepherd snoozed peacefully on the floor. In the copy machine tray there was a picture of Hitler.

To many whites in Burnley, Mr. Smith appears to be speaking plain good sense, particularly when he argues that the local council doles out too much money to Asians at the expense of whites. It is a sore point and a widespread perception, though one that is not true, the council says.

"Asians get a much better deal," said Christine Witter, 29, pushing her 8-month-old baby -- her fourth child -- down the street. First there is housing, she said: Asians seem always able to jump the line ahead of whites for subsidized apartments and houses.

"I'm not racialist," Mrs. Witter said, "but if they come to our country they should abide by our rules, and not get houses over us."

Her husband, Colin, said he did not vote for the British National Party in the recent election -- he did not vote for anyone -- but that he sympathized with its message.

When he monitors the police radio from his truck, he said, all he hears are accounts of Asians' cars being stopped and searched, and invariably drugs or weapons are found. But it is the whites who are more likely to be harassed by the police and arrested, he said.

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