Barely a month ago I responded to an article in the Daily Telegraph, by a contributor to the Salisbury Review, moaning that Acton (in west London) was full of foreigners, or at least people who look like foreigners, who wear hijab or cover their faces and don’t talk to her in the street. This month it’s the turn of Merton, the borough that starts just down the road from me, to get the treatment. David Goodhart, former editor of Progress magazine and director of the think-tank Demos, complains that it has gone from 90% white to over 50% minority today, and that a particular neighbourhood is “dominated” by what the headline calls a “mega mosque” that attracts “thousands of men in Pashtun dress” who come to listen to a man they regard as “the holiest man on the planet”. He alleges that Merton is symptomatic of the “polite apartheid” which has taken hold, “an accommodation rather than an integration”, in which the “white population has more or less reluctantly shuffled along the bench and allowed others to sit down”.
This is another piece in which I get the impression that either the author does not really know the area he is talking about or is relying on his readers’ ignorance. Merton is a place most people would not know they are in, but would know a few places in it — most notably, Wimbledon. The mosque he is referring to is not in the district actually called Merton; it is just south of the town centre of Morden. Merton is the area around Merton High Street, which is south-east of Wimbledon. Merton is a very diverse borough, which includes the upmarket area of Wimbledon Village and the nowadays wealthier areas around Wimbledon itself, but also the middle-ranking suburbs like Raynes Park and Morden, some post-war council estate housing to the south of Morden, and the lower middle-class suburbs like Mitcham, as well as the back end of Norbury. Merton borough is pure suburban sprawl; the name seems to have been chosen so that none of the three towns that were sucked into it when the urban districts of north Surrey were consolidated into London boroughs in the 1960s could claim to be top dog. Unlike the other outer boroughs like Croydon, Sutton and Kingston, it has no centre. It is split between four postcode areas, so no employment agency can offer jobs across the whole borough (as their branches tend to divide up by postcode area: SW in the north and north-east, KT in the west and CR/SM to the south).
It is quite ironic that he chooses the Ahmadiyyah mosque in Morden to illustrate how “Merton” represents the decline of white Britishness. The sect appears to have chosen this area because it is well away from any other centre of Muslim settlement, which allows them to issue propaganda to local residents and schools, promoting themselves as the Muslims who support tolerance and harmony, with everything from leaflets to adverts on buses, unlike those extremists, radicals etc up the road. The sect are fond of scoring points off the Muslim community in general, which does not regard them as Muslims at all because of an important difference in belief (namely that their first leader was a prophet, something Muslims universally regard as impossible), but the group is not nearly as touchy-feely as their propaganda might suggest. It is in fact cult-like and obedient to its leader; it demands a financial commitment considerably greater than mainstream Islam, and its attitudes to women (and, in the experience of one former friend of mine, disabled people) are as reactionary as anything you will find in mainstream Islam, without the mercy of differences of opinion. As for the mosque, it’s big, but it no doubt contains a lot of facilities for the community besides a large prayer hall (as with a lot of Islamic centres, such as East London Mosque), and having driven up and down the road where it’s situated many times, it does not dominate the skyline in the way the picture accompanying Goodhart’s article suggest. Those pictures have low depth of field, accentuating the background.
The article also does not address the behaviour of the native community which allowed this benign separateness to emerge. It was not that “the Left” embraced immigration and did not encourage integration earlier, but simply because suburban white Britons do not really talk to each other unless they know them. It is possible to live in any suburban English neighbourhood (it is different in small villages) and not know your neighbours, and certainly not to know people more than a door or two down on your street. The reason Merton was able to become “minority majority” was that white owner-occupiers did not mind selling to non-whites as long as the money was right — and, of course, they could not have openly refused to sell. Merton — and certainly south Morden — is an area a lot of people would have wanted to get away from; it is not close enough to the centre of town to be ‘hip’, its nearest town is not big enough to sustain more than a few food shops, and it isn’t close to the country either. It’s quiet, the crime is low, there’s a park, an adult education college, there’s regular buses (and a long, dark, rattly tube line from Morden to central London), but it’s boring and not fashionable. It is, perhaps, the ideal place for a religious sect that’s looking for a refuge.
The accusation of “polite apartheid” is also quite ridiculous, albeit a fairly common trope of anti-multiculturalists since 9/11 (references to “segregation” are also popular, as with this speech (PDF) by Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, in September 2005). Both of these terms refer to legally enforced separateness of races, not to people living in the same neighbourhoods but having little to do with each other. That is a choice they make, and it is one that the native population are as responsible for as the “immigrants”. He also quotes a local white hairdresser who is unhappy that a Muslim “hair cutter” has opened up a salon a couple of doors down — well, that’s the free market for you. And while “many minority Mertonites are doing well in their enclaves”, with the Indians and Chinese doing best in school with Koreans and Tamils not far behind, working-class whites are doing worst, as is the case in many parts of the country. Well, this is also something that cannot be attributed to the inflow of foreigners into suburbs like Morden (and the whites that are doing badly in Merton are most likely those in the council estates bordering Rose Hill, where you will not find many Ahmadis).
Towards the end, he tells us we need “a narrative to inspire and guide us, a new British Dream that encompasses both old and new citizens into this country of ours with its remarkable past”, and claims that “some parts of the British elite are uncomfortable with the idea of ‘nation’”, including schoolboy Lefties that grew into student Marxists like himself, who were uncomfortable with the idea of “boundaries and borders”. As ever for the Daily Mail, it’s only the “liberal elite”, the intelligentsia, that are criticised; the elite of the British wealthy, who promote a free market ideology that allows them to concentrate wealth in their hands while destroying industries that sustain other parts of what, supposedly, is their own nation, remain above criticism. The destruction of the industries have also torn apart the communities they once supported, most notably in the north but also among the likes of the bottlers of Morden, and destroyed the trade unions that fostered ideas of disclipline, loyalty to your fellow workers, and sacrifice. The elimination of industry, not the influx of Asian or Chinese immigrants, led to the loss of hope that there would be a job (as you cannot always expect workers to become entrepreneurs overnight) and a lack of a sense that there is a point in bothering at school.
The real division in British society is between the super-rich and everyone else. White Britons in some suburbs may not speak much to their Polish or Ahmadi Pakistani neighbours, but they are not at war with each other either, nor are they competing to see what benefits and what aspects of livelihood they can strip from each other. By writing for the Daily Mail and moaning about how some nondescript suburb isn’t white anymore, Goodhart is playing into the hands of the rich Right, who seek to sow divisions and make people suspect each other: these people live among us but don’t want to integrate, they’re taking over our cities neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and they’re doing better than us. The talk about a “British dream” where people believe common myths about Britain’s past (always easier for whites) and believe that anyone can become a baron or baroness (British Pakistanis already know this) is hollow; he admits that most minority Britons already “join the ‘we’” and speak English as natives, so what is the problem? The problem that provincial readers will take away from this article is that the cities are not British (read white) anymore, that they are foreign, that they are full of clueless “Hampstead liberals” and ex-working-class whites with no opportunities, and that there are too many foreigners. Whatever his cant about benign patriotism and new narratives, the piece is little more than the usual divisive Daily Mail suspicion-mongering.
Possibly Related Posts:
- Silent liberals?
- Why Aditya Chakrabortty (may have) called himself Paul
- It’s not just the Far Right
- Review: Panorama, “White Fright”
- It was the Muslims