Over the past two decades, the towns and cities running along the M62 corridor have been increasingly painted as a symbol of Britain’s supposed ‘failed multiculturalism’.
But a new book by three colleagues from the University of Huddersfield’s School of Education argues the situation is much more nuanced than is commonly suggested by the media, politicians and many of their fellow academics.
Senior lecturer Dr Shamim Miah, Professor of Education and Social Justice Pete Sanderson, and Professor of Youth and Policy Paul Thomas have joined forces to write ‘Race’, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England: The (M62) Corridor of Uncertainty.
“This entire ‘M62 corridor’ is seen nationally and internationally, in our view as a ‘failed space of multiculturalism’, an ‘imagined community’ of mutually antagonistic pre-modern and separate Muslims and ‘chavvy’, benefit-scrounging, English Defence League supporting-white racists,” its introduction states.
“We’re being provocative, obviously (but only slightly exaggerating some national media and political commentary), but many people do seem to feel that, in terms of multiculturalism, ‘it’s grim up north’.”
Their book intends to redress the balance and claims that when tensions between Muslim immigrant communities and their white working-class counterparts in recent years are put in a proper historical and economic context, they can be seen more fairly as a “work in progress” rather than the failed experiment many commentators have argued them to be.
As Dr Miah explains on a Zoom call with him and his two co-authors, “This book isn’t saying things are hunky-dory – far from it. There are contentious areas and there are challenges.”
That is reflected in the book’s sub-title; a reference not only to the geographic area of the M62 corridor which runs from Hull to Liverpool, connecting Leeds and Manchester and skirting the supposed hot-spots of failed multiculturalism like Bradford, Dewsbury and Oldham – but also a saying employed by Yorkshire’s most famous cricketer Geoffrey Boycott.
“Boycott uses the phrase to describe an area where the batsman doesn’t know what to do, whether to move and engage with the ball or to withdraw and leave it,” the book states.
“It is beyond dispute some sections of different ethnic and faith communities in the M62 corridor region feel they live in a corridor of uncertainty with regard to ethnic diversity and multiculturalism in their locality and region, unsure whether to engage with and embrace that diversity or retreat into fearful and hostile isolation.”
One simple example given in the book of how divisions can be unintentionally exacerbated is that of taxi drivers regularly encountering drunken passengers.
“Taxi firms in the M62 towns are largely dominated by Pakistani heritage drivers and the distance of most white working-class estates from town centres results in contacts where the potential for conflict is heightened by alcohol consumption and peer-group pressure, as we found in our own research in Rochdale and Oldham,” it says. “These potentially negative experiences can then feed back into shared perceptions of territoriality and threat which have historically affected residential behaviour.
Research carried out in Bradford and Oldham found “young people from each side of the ethnic divide attributed responsibility for drugs and criminality, and the consequent decline of their town centre, to the other group” – a phenomenon that was also a feature of studies of both places in the 1960s and 1970s.
But while not shying away from existing tensions, the book also highlights how negative perceptions of immigrants with different religions is nothing new to the region – recounting an incident in Stockport in the 1850s when a group of local English Protestants attacked newly-arrived Irish Catholic mill workers.
“These maligned Irish migrants would be imagined by us now as ‘white’ but neither they nor the equally initially maligned Eastern European Jewish migrants to Yorkshire and Lancashire who arrived later in the 19th century were viewed as then ‘white’,” the book states.
“They were initially seen as ‘dark strangers’ with an alien and threatening culture and religion long before that term was applied to the early Caribbean and Asian migrants in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequently to settled Muslim communities.”
The book points out that angst over British multiculturalism has largely shifted from being focused on black youths in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool to Muslim communities in ex-industrial Northern towns.
Prof Thomas says there is a key economic element in how racial tensions that were prevalent in the bigger cities are now more commonly reported in smaller towns – where there are fewer job opportunities and therefore fewer chances for communities to mix or afford to move to different areas.
“In the case of many of the M62 towns, what has distinguished them from their larger metropolitan neighbours has been the difficulty in generating any inward investment that would encourage dynamism in the housing market, or inward migration of jobseekers from other areas of the UK: this has meant that in the private sector there has been relatively less churn, and less incentive for the kind of gentrification which has led to greater social diversity in areas like Brixton or Hackney in London, or areas of Manchester and Leeds,” the book explains.
The book also explores what multiculturalism has actually meant in practice – with the term representing a patchwork of idea, rhetoric and initiatives rather than an over-arching central Government policy.
“In reality ‘multicultural policy’ has been so limited, varied and internally contradictory in reality that its effects are difficult to determine,” it says. The book says there has been a tendency for commentators to ignore the diversity of Muslim communities – particularly in the wake of tragic events.
“Contrary to popular understanding, ‘Muslim’ identities within the M62 corridor, are not fixed and bounded; rather they are complex and shaped by a combination of local, national and global factors,” it states.
“A number of high-profile events, ranging from the 2001 race riots to 7/7 London bombings to the Manchester Arena bombing, have all played crucial roles in shaping debates around the notion of the Muslim monolith.”
In 2011, then Prime Minister David Cameron was famously reported to have said multiculturalism had “failed” - although his precise words were somewhat more nuanced.
“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream,” Cameron said.
“We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
Thomas says: “When David Cameron said multiculturalism had failed, he meant the policies had failed but not diversity itself - although that is how people heard it.”
Prof Thomas adds that projects and programmes designed to promote community cohesion have lost funding as a result of austerity cuts, which have also affected the ability of overstretched local authorities to pursue positive projects to enhance community relations.
Prof Sanderson says the book aims to reflect the more positive reality the authors see in their day-to-day lives than what is portrayed in the media.
“We work in a post-1992 university that has a large group of British Muslim students and it is kind of an honour to set the record straight, partly on their behalf.”
Dr Miah adds: “You read about the way the North is represented and there is a distinction between what is being projected and what our experiences and the experiences of our students have been.”
Prof Thomas says: “Some of the portrayals you get in the media and academia and politics do almost suggest that people in this region are less tolerant of each other and more pessimistic about each other, that we have less ability to work with each other. It is a very negative portrayal of different communities.
“But that lacks not just a historical perspective but also an economic perspective.
“Since 2001 there has been a perception of a lack of community cohesion in the North. But there are very good examples of community cohesion with big employers like universities. When people have the economic ability to mix, they mix safely. It takes time for assimilation to happen and the economy plays a big role.”
With the economic aftershock of coronavirus just beginning to be felt, Prof Sanderson admits he is concerned for what the future may hold. “These kind of economic circumstances are very fertile grounds for the far-right and groups that are looking to spread blame in one direction or another.”
But the trio hope their book can help the shift the conversation about the region in a more positive direction.
“Within the book we talk about the lazy tropes about the riots from almost 20 years ago that are still used,” Dr Miah says. “Hopefully this book will try and give an alternative view of the M62 corridor.”
‘Race’, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is out now.
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