Every time the national spotlight falls on Rotherham it seems to cast only gloom. Currently synonymous with child abuse on a shocking scale, over the last decade the South Yorkshire town has become known as the place where Dolly Parton came to give books to people who can’t read and Jamie Oliver went to teach recipes to people who can’t cook.
Last year, its long-serving MP Denis MacShane was sent to prison for false accounting. In the by-election forced by his resignation, Ukip came a strong second with 22 per cent of the vote. The BNP picked up 8.5 per cent. In the 2008 local council elections the BNP won in two wards.
The people of Rotherham deserve to be known for more than all this. I lived in the town for six months in 2005 while researching my book on the philosophy of the English, Welcome to Everytown. I’ve been back many times since and although I would not want to speak for its residents, I’ve seen enough to understand that there are important links between the various ignominies the town has suffered. Running through them is a thread which commentators have always been uncomfortable discussing: race.
In Rotherham, racism is a real problem but it is often misidentified. Arriving in Bramley, for example, I was horrified to hear the sixtysomething men in the pub causally use the word “Paki”. Yet it soon became obvious that there was no malice in their misguided use of the term. They simply didn’t see why anyone would take offence from the word and would themselves be offended to be accused of being racist just because they uttered it.
Even support for the BNP was not necessarily proof of prejudice, as demonstrated by the British-Asian shopkeeper who happily told me he had voted for the BNP candidate Billy Blair in the 2008 borough council elections. “He’s a good bloke,” he told me. Many settled immigrants and their children fear the changes and disruptions that newcomers bring as much as their Anglo-Saxon compatriots.
Race hatred is actually very rare, and if racism simply means holding a false, negative stereotype about an ethnic group, then it is indeed rife at all levels of society and among those of all ethnicities. To eradicate this, we should not confuse ignorance with animosity, or ignore the fact that some problems are found in some sectors of society more than others. This, however, is exactly what often happens. When people talk negatively about members of a minority community, especially if they use inappropriate language, the wholly laudable desire to stamp out racism often leads to the stamping out of a discussion that need to be had.
The current abuse scandal exemplifies the problem. The recent report by Professor Alexis Jay described how “by far the majority of perpetrators were described as ‘Asian’ by victims” but that “several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist” and “others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so”. Citing a 2013 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report on “Child sexual exploitation and the response to grooming”, Jay concluded “People must be able to raise concerns without fear of being labelled racist.”
This last point has become something of a mantra in recent years, repeated both by populist and far-right parties attempting to deflect charges of bigotry, through to many on the progressive left who believe that fear of racism has led to a failure to tackle the sometimes legitimate concerns of many of the poor white working class.
Rotherham has more than its fair share of this increasingly disenfranchised group. Coal and steel used to supply work for pretty much any local man who wanted it. By the time I arrived there in 2005, Maltby pit employed fewer than 200 people, most of them not local, and last year it closed. The village has never recovered from Thatcher’s decimation of the coal industry. The children of miners laid off in the 1980s now have kids of their own and in some cases these children live in households that have never had a wage-earner. Where there is poverty there are low levels of educational attainment and poor health and nutrition.
In the past, this group would always have looked to Labour to defend its interests. But disillusionment with the party has been spreading for years. I don’t think I’ve heard a good word about any mainstream politician from anyone in Rotherham. The perception is that Labour takes its working-class vote for granted and has no real interest in looking after its traditional constituency. In some ways, Denis MacShane helped reinforce this perception during his time as an MP. MacShane was very involved in pro-European issues and it was perhaps the sense of invulnerability felt by many Labour MPs in safe northern seats that led him to be so blasé about his account-keeping. Despite being a very good constituency MP, MacShane was widely derided by people I met as an out-of-touch, Westminster-based, middle-class liberal.
People often say politicians need to listen to the “legitimate” concerns of white working-class voters, but not all of them are warranted. Most notably, common complaints about immigrants getting priority access to social housing and public services are myths. But for those who would like to dismiss all gripes about political correctness as thinly disguised racism, the Rotherham sex-abuse scandal is a wake-up call. For years, talk in white working-class pubs has been about authorities being too forgiving of misdemeanours within ethnic minorities for fear of being called racist. Now it turns out that although taxi drivers of Pakistani descent were central to the grooming and abuse of girls in care, the only taxi driver to have been banned from transporting the girls on suspicion of being a paedophile was white.
The tendency to see issues through the lens of ethnic communities is itself a kind of unwitting racism. It should be no more offensive to the “Muslim community” in Rotherham to look into sex abuse by a group of its members than it is offensive to white working-class Londoners to investigate cockney gangsters. It would be an insult to the diverse members of the Muslim majority to believe they would rather the crimes of its renegade members were hushed up.
Ironically, the desire not to feed racism is doing just that. Every time a person in power shies away from criticising someone from a minority community, it only feeds the idea that the white working-class are being treated as second-class citizens. The disturbing results can be seen in the comments on the BNP’s Facebook post about a “Day of action” to force South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright to resign.
“I just can’t believe this happened,” writes one in response to the Rotherham scandal, “Just because the council and police didn’t want to upset the local Pakistanis?” The outrage feeds more bigoted responses, with one suggesting “Throw the black parasites out of our once-great country.”
An unwillingness to touch on sensitive issues of race is not the only cause of the failure to tackle sex abuse in Rotherham. But it is part of a wider problem in that it lends credence to those who claim minority interests are being taken more seriously than those of the white working classes. Genuine anti-racism does not victimise any ethnic group but nor does it turn a blind eye to offences by people who happen to be among a marginalised minority. The left has too often been guilty of acting on a tacit belief in the “superior virtue of the oppressed”.
The broader issue, however is that Denis MacShane, Dolly Parton, Jamie Oliver, Ukip, the BNP and the sex-abuse scandal are connected by a failure of the political classes to deal with the problems faced by those left behind in post-industrial Britain. Political parties have not focused enough on society’s losers, finding it more expedient to chase the swing voter and morally easier to call for multiculturalism. What we are now seeing with the rise of Ukip, however, is that dodging the hard issues is socially corrosive and electorally dangerous. The parties need to respond to this challenge and make sure the next chapter of this story, to be written in Clacton, marks a turning point.
Julian Baggini’s new book is ‘The Virtues of the Table’