David Lammy: Prejudices of the few eclipsed by civic pride

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Little more than a week after the first disturbances on the streets of London, one thing is clear: there are those who will use the past week to promote their own prejudices.

The English Defence League has mobilised, seeking to racialise the riots by linking them to immigration. In Enfield, a group of men believed to be EDL members marched through the streets chanting "England, England, England". Meanwhile, Nick Griffin has been appearing in BNP strongholds to agitate and play on people's fears. His goal, like that of the EDL, has been to create division and stoke resentment for his own political ends.

Others have displayed breathtaking ignorance. David Starkey, speaking on Newsnight on Friday night, took the opportunity to slur Britain's black community. To the astonishment of the other studio guests and millions watching at home, he offered his own warped diagnosis: "What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs... have become black."

This talk is as misleading as it is dangerous and divisive. Inconvenient as it may be for Starkey and the EDL, those who engaged in criminal behaviour came from all races. Equally importantly, so too did those who came forward to volunteer their help with the clean-up. In Tottenham, people's response was not to turn on one another but to come together. In the most diverse postcode in Europe, black and white volunteered together at the community centre, cleared rubble together from the streets and stood together in solidarity with those who have lost their homes and livelihoods.

Many will long remember the courageous and dignified speech made by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was one of three men killed guarding shops from looters. Instead of calling for vengeance, he demanded unity and restraint. "Today, we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stand united," he urged. "This is not a race issue. The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of society."

In Southall, 700 Sikh men turned out to defend their temple, their homes and their neighbourhood, in the absence of the police. Men as old as 80 took to the streets in a show of unity. "We are not just protecting our temple, we are protecting the whole of Southall," said one. His words, broadcast on the national news, soon reverberated around the internet.

The cynicism of a prejudiced few has been outshone by something far more powerful. By civic pride. By neighbourliness. By a modern patriotism, felt passionately by a generation of people who chose Britain. I recognise these emotions well. I saw it in my mother, a member of the Windrush generation. One day, aged 10, walking back from school, after discussing the war in the Falklands, I turned to Mum and said: "I suppose we're on the side of the Argentinians, because we're South American." Her response was to slap me across the back of the head, snapping: "Don't you dare talk like that!"

This is a patriotism more truthful and more authentic than any EDL thug. It is the reality of modern Britain that the likes of David Starkey prefer to ignore. Britain's immigrant communities have stood shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours this past week. They, and we, should be deeply proud of that.

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham