Notes on: Dench, G., Gavron, K, Young, M. (2006). The New East End. Kinship, Race and Conflict. London: Profile Books Limited

Dave Harris

[This is a revisit to the East End of London, to follow up the classic study Family and Kinship in East London.]


The East End was the backside of the city, focusing on docklands and warehouses, and resulting in 'the largest impoverished urban enclave in the world', abandoned to the working class and to early social reformers. The Institute of Community Studies (ICS) was established in Bethnal Green in 1954 as part of Labour Party research on the welfare state, and Family and Kinship... particularly paid attention to extended families and their importance. This is a sequel, beginning in 1992 and continuing until 2005. It used questionnaires and interviews, focused on family life, but also on community relations. Ethnic conflict became central, and the project extended to the rest of Tower Hamlets and the Bangladeshis.

There had been earlier conflict, usually attributed to white racism, but this was seen as 'a failure of analysis' (2), and unfair vilification after the election of a BNP councillor. They wanted a more careful examination of the roots of hostility, and more balance, 'an equal voice' for each community. East London is a classic focus for ethnic division competition although Family and Kinship... tended to ignore it. The Bangladeshis were a major settlement, however.

There was also a substantial local change meaning the influences of migration would be 'hard to untangle'. There was the movement of dock activity downstream. There was Thatcher and deregulation leading to a complete refurbishment ['yuppification'] of dock lands and a complete change in the character of the area. Even this was not a sufficient explanation, however, and they needed accounts from locals about interaction, leading to 'several waves of close personal interviewing — using the traditional ICS technique of attempting to understand things through the eyes of the people involved in them' (3), covering both white and Bangladeshi residents, some newly arrived in both cases and some more established.

There was some resemblance to the families described in Family and Kinship..., because Bangladeshi families also formed extended families as a source of support. Indeed welfare support has been insufficient in many areas. The major changes have been in the 'moral economy' as well as in material prosperity, 'forms of modern citizenship' (4). Competition in the economy had led to conflict between residents and newcomers in the past, and now there is more competition 'between communities for access to welfare support and public services including education and, crucially, housing'.

There was a lot of bitter complaints about Bangladeshis draining the welfare state, but this was not just down to competition. The experience of World War II seemed important, because the welfare state was seen as a reward for ordinary citizens especially East Enders, the role played by the docks in the London Blitz, and the extent to which politicians tried to raise morale 'by promising that, after victory, the new welfare state would rebuild the devastated neighbourhood for its heroic community'. This turned out to be dispersing people outside inner London, and building some tower blocks, and eventually private housing for the middle classes, and some Bangladeshi families. Unsurprisingly, 'many old Bethnal Greeners felt cheated out of the promised rewards for war service, and unsurprising that some blamed migration for it'.
We can see this in frequent references to the war, and dismay about welfare benefits and how they were granted, notions of betrayal in its administration. Welfare was originally seen as an extension of mutual insurance for conventional families, but from the mid-1960s, it became 'increasingly freed from reciprocity and oriented instead towards the needs of individuals' (5), which weakened working class communities and also trust in the state. It served the interests of recent migrants as much as residents, and this 'feeds… hostility towards migrants'. The closer people were bound into a family network, the more hostile their attitudes were likely to be towards Bangladeshis, and this issue might be pursued elsewhere.

There was also considerable dislike of '"middle-class do-gooders"' who favoured newcomers against locals. There is also class tension as the feeling of classlessness in the war had declined. The state and its servants were no longer seen as on the side of the working classes. The middle classes were seen as more favourable to newcomers and 'labelling as racist any members of the white working class who do not accept the new regime'. Migration into the expanding middle class 'may have aggravated rather than modified the feelings of those left behind' (6).

So, 'the compact between classes' which held in the 40s and 50s, has now been undermined, as a consequence of 'the unravelling of Britain's imperial history'. The original welfare state developed when 'metropolitan Britain was still sealed off politically from the rest of empire' so the main beneficiaries were ordinary British people, and, as the Empire was dismantled and residence and citizenship was granted to former imperial subjects, the national legacy was seen as being 'shared out among a much larger group' and so the compact was 'devalued as a result'.

Immigration thus led to vertical division into culturally distinctive segments and horizontal division between these segments 'and a new ruling class'. Tension is potentially high, as there is competition between the descendants of immigrants and white Britons: in particular 'needy pensioners find themselves having to share what they had considered to be their reward for heroic efforts with newcomers who are even more needy — and who do not appear to them to have earned their rights'. [Austerity and 'shrinking the state' didn't help]. Policy designed to contain conflict, especially that developed by middle-class liberals has tended to express sympathy for poor migrants against white working class hostility, and has consolidated the rights of minorities and multiplied the sanctions against indigenous whites. This has led to increasing feelings of disenfranchisement among working-class whites. This is despite the feelings of many POC who do not experience positive discrimination, a characteristic of the 'complexity of the situation'.

We still need more analysis, but there is a new domination by 'a political class' drawing from the power of state services, mobilised around 'the ideology of cultural tolerance and social and economic inclusiveness, and with a mission to integrate subordinate, culturally specific communities into a common national system' [increasingly with a European dimension], but this risks neglecting the concerns of 'poor White groups' (7).

It is difficult to see how this might be sustained in the long run. Long-term residents are accused of racism or xenophobia when they object to 'newcomers' speedy access to national resources', and this risks deepening divisions between cultural communities and aggravating class antagonism. These are contained in Tower Hamlets because 'central government stepped in with decisive support for the Bangladeshis' but it would not be sustainable on a national level, and it is disturbing to see civil disturbances in more cities, more right-wing candidates, divisions over the Iraq war, some political extremists in Muslim communities and 'growing antagonism nationally to asylum seekers and refugees'. It is 'important to appreciate that discontent is not based on irrational sentiments alone — although that is certainly an element in some people's thinking — but also on feelings of grievance which no political system can afford to ignore'.

The culture of entitlement needs to be reconsidered because it is eroding the legitimacy of the welfare state and the integrity of society. There are more constructive ways of dealing with conflict and competition, and integrating minorities. It is especially important to encourage minorities to put something into the community to increase solidarity and fraternity, as during the War. Competition around welfare support is not supportive and undermines shared endeavour. Attacking racism even more vigorously is also not enough because it may not 'carry some parts of the white community': this might include supporting equal opportunities schemes or helping new refugees to access their rights. These policies 'must go hand in hand with addressing the exclusion, poverty, marginalisation and hostility faced by poor white communities' (8). Concentrating on alleviating the plight of minorities alone 'is adding fuel to the fire' because it deepens the perception that nothing is being done for white informants. Giving a voice to these feelings is not the same as justifying 'racist and retrograde ideas', nor should they just be 'written off as wicked or stupid' — 'we should surely try to find out exactly what is going on in people's minds and why'.

[Many lessons for Remainers here too!!]

Tower Hamlets has a unique place and other cities with large minority ethnic communities have had a different history. The East End might show that 'the traditional processes of immigrant settlement which Eastenders have developed over the centuries may be a better way in the longer run to produce a strong secure bonding between communities'

Conclusion: Reclaiming Social Democracy

The Bangladeshis are the 'first large minority to have settled in East London since the War' (223) and, like other minorities, this has had effects on British society. In the 1950s when the original study was done there were greater opportunities for social mobility following modern welfare provisions based on assistance and equal opportunities to the 'poor and needy' which included incoming minorities. However, we are now aware that these can work in contradictory ways and that provisions for the most needy groups can have 'the unintended consequence of creating resentment among established citizens, who feel their own "hard earned" inclusion is diminished'

Perceptions of fairness in the allocation of resources seem to be important in community divisions including racial hostility. This seems widespread according to MORI research which showed that '45% of their interviewees thought the current welfare systems are "unfair"' and that immigrants/asylum seekers were '"major exploiters of the system"'. And this is still a lively debate. However, opinion seems to be divided between 'the generally liberal academia and the generally sceptical and even hostile media' especially since 9/11.

The white informants in Tower Hamlets thought that a fair balance should be struck between what citizens put into society and what they get out of its 'between their rights and responsibilities' (224). This 'moral economy' is also understood by Bangladeshis, sometimes with reference to Sylhet. When newcomers enter a group and have to be integrated into an existing moral economy and 'loop of mutual support', difficulties arise. New immigrants might well indeed be 'creating a larger pot of national wealth, and so will be understood to have legitimacy', but it can be hard to understand this locally.

Britain has been densely populated and has experienced 'anxieties about the growing population' and the capacity of the nation to cope. There has been outward migration as a result until the 1950s. Immigration encouraged by the Conservative government even then was perceived 'as a capitalist move to keep obsolete factories going by cutting local labour rates ' and this was an element of some 'early resistance to Commonwealth immigration'. Generally, 'the argument of economic need for migration has never been compelling in Britain'.

There has been a political or moral argument that Britain has an obligation to redress the inequalities of the former Empire, including a right to settlement: contributions by the ancestors of migrants were not properly rewarded, and the current generation should be prepared to make amends. This is a much 'larger system of exchange and loop of fairness' (225). It has never fully been accepted and in the present situation immigration is increasingly restricted and affects particularly 'poorly educated Sylhetis'.

The argument has not 'elicited a sense of fairness among or "indigenous" Britons' and has not established 'a chain of reciprocity'. The problem is that it was introduced retrospectively and from above and it can feel like 'a post-war "punishment" for Empire'. Post-war, there was a notion of a compact that admitted working class Eastenders to full membership of British society, recognising historical debts to them, partly due to the crucial role played during the war, and any contact with colonial citizens, not  discussed as widely as had been the welfare state, seemed to be 'a snatching back, of their own recent "reward"'.

The perceived scale of the problem did not help, with metaphors of swamping and threats of millions of entitled people diluting the wealth of the nation. Clearly not all immigrants could be welcomed. Nor is it clear that a debt could be repaid by taking the best qualified people as immigrants. It was also clear that the debt was to impinge 'differentially on various sectors of the indigenous British population', especially a perceived, and sometimes real 'downward pressure on the wages of the already lowest paid' (226). The neediest immigrants settled in areas inhabited by poor people and this led to 'intense competition over the resources these locals had once considered their own… and for state services on which they depended'. 'Some of our Bangladeshi interviewees themselves acknowledged this'. Middle-class Britons on the other hand avoided direct conflict with newcomers and even benefited from them in the form of 'services and material culture'.

One benefit for the 'middle or ruling class'was an impression of Britain as a tolerant and leading place,, 'a multiracial multicultural society which would use liberal and social democratic institutions to govern a diverse population', making 'amends for the sins of previous Empire in some style'. 'It now serves as Britain's distinctive rationale in the current world order, and in many respects can be considered a success'.

There are costs, however, connected to the emphasis on citizens' rights without a corresponding 'national culture of responsibility, mutuality and solidarity'. Complaints focused not only on Bangladeshis who got priority with housing queues but also on 'homeless squatters'. Their claims seemed promoted over those who had given service to the community, on some informal 'ladder'which entitled existing citizens, and was a kind of reward for 'effort to contribute to the common good' (227).

Bangladeshis were the 'most obvious beneficiaries'. These rights did help them develop their local community quite rapidly, and did prevent considerable hardship, but squatters were also 'the main ideological beneficiaries' and other advocates of 'needs-based public services'. Apparently, 'indigenous white squatters' were also drawn to the East End and sensed a strategic advantage if they could draw poor migrants into their movement. 'Opposition to the rhetoric of needs, and of rights at the expense of obligations to the community, can readily be faced down by the charge that it is motivated by racism'. And those who press for welfare systems based on 'moral' principles 'are mocked by modernisers as being inadequates who are looking for ways to exclude the strangers they do not know how to live with'.

This transition to a more rights centred culture has had a powerful effect. The white community has been most vocal in expressing concern. Bangladeshis have not wanted to speak out against their local representatives although they do articulate reservations 'about easy rights' in private. They did expect to work hard for meagre rewards initially and hope that greater prosperity would follow. They did have 'moral misgivings about un-reciprocated "charity"', and had to be persuaded by white liberals that this was their due.

The Bangladeshi settlement has in some ways been a great success. It has expanded and is now over 1/3 of the population of Tower Hamlets, a higher proportion than were the Jews, 'the largest concentration of a single minority group in any borough in Britain'. This has only been possible following changes in housing allocation and 'determined official sanctions against working class resistance to newcomers' (228). Their children have succeeded as well in schools and in universities, subsequently entering professional careers and dispersing to other boroughs. This has been a great success for 'the state promotion of social mobility' and the interventionist regime.

However it has also meant siphoning off talented individuals into the new middle-class, with problems of accommodation for the group as a whole. 'It may be too individualistic. Meritocratic progress benefits selected individuals, but it may then leave their community less able to make a collective contribution to the nation on which is more general acceptance and integration hangs' (228). Stressing individual rights may weaken reciprocity. For example successful Bangladeshi individuals conform to British working practice and do not 'prioritise the need for work of their own friends and relatives' and the old community-based safety nets 'have developed holes'. If there are collective structures left, they might relate more to people who do not live in Britain. The strength of the ethnic community might be ebbing away in the face of 'gentle but relentless individualisation'. The same fate struck working class Bethnal Greeners in the original study.

There can even be relative failure if the initial pace of success diminishes and this can lead to more resentment among the younger generation. Early social mobility and increases in welfare have been prominent in London, less so in other places. Strong communities can protect against failure to gain social mobility to some extent, as the Jewish community did, but the Bangladeshi community seems to be weaker, and members who lack qualifications 'may be doomed to a place in the nation within, or not far away from, the underclass of citizenry trapped by interpersonal dependence on state support… [Like]… The lower reaches of the white population whose own lives have become limited by the rights culture' (229). This group was becoming dangerous in 2005.

The main problem is that the way the state deals with newcomers has dominated over the assumptions made by the existing local community about how public resources should be managed, and this has produced 'a loss of confidence in the fairness of British social democracy'. It all links back to the post-war establishment of the centralised state which committed to maximising individual opportunities and providing personal security. This reflected the new ruling class values of individual responsibilities and rewards and seem to provide acceptable safeguards for the poor. But it is not compatible with the understanding of 'many ordinary people', especially if they have experienced some other way of regulating resources or are worried about falling into the underclass. The struggle that has ensued has set White EastEnders against political modernisers 'and the minorities who they regard as favoured by them' (230).

Thus 'there has been a racial aspect of this division, but it is probable that this will fade as the newcomers settle in and more needy groups arrive and attract prime public concerns'. We are already seeing this with the shift of attention from Black Caribbeans to Bangladeshis, and now the attention might be shifting from Bangladeshis to new groups generated by international events. [The authors are pessimistic here and say that as new groups arrive, the existing ones will feel 'state solicitude slipping away from them to more recent arrivals' and this will 'feed the alienation of the young'].

The problem is that 'informal moral economies' are important in providing some power to control the lives of ordinary people, 'some stake in the system', and these have been ignored. The 'rise of public virtue' is producing an 'increasingly polarised and unstable society, in which more groups feel powerless to resist the influence of mass, impersonal forces', and informal mutual support seems more and more powerless, as do face-to-face relationships 'when confronted by faceless policies from the state'.

Informal social processes were important in the incorporation of previous waves of immigrants and provided 'mutual personal supports and assistance in finding housing and work'. They provided time to adjust and 'sustainable identities and loyalties', ties with the local majority inhabitants, shared recognition. Immigrants were needy, but also made contributions and exchanges.

For some informants, it now seems to be the reverse, that immigrants, or even potential immigrants, 'sometimes seemed to them to be given greater moral weight than those of families who have been here for generations… National resources no longer belong in any real sense to them as citizens of the nation, but are in the gift of the ruling class' (230 – 31). They feel pushed away. They are unreceptive to arguments that immigrants have made great contributions — they have, but only because they have worked hard to gain full admission in the past, not by being kept dependent on benefits, and not by getting a distorted view of life in Britain, that there are no poor people, enhanced by 'very little social mixing'.

'The culture of entitlement is now deeply entrenched in British society as a whole' (231), but negative implications are now being experienced even by immigrant communities who are coming to share 'the bitterness of the white working class'. The welfare state needs to renew the expectation that 'full citizenship should be contingent on conscientious contribution to the common good. Revival of reciprocity is the key' (232). This is much more visible and compelling in small groups and so small groups should be encouraged, especially families and local communities, as in Bethnal Green in the old days where there were families and family businesses, among white working class, Jewish and Bangladeshi immigrants. Those most at risk are those who do not have so many ties, but are not lifted by education into the middle classes either — these are also at risk of extremism.

One solution might be to localise social support, instead of having centralised support for individualised rights. The emphasis should shift back to collective rights and social capital, away maybe from 'the growing concentration of state managed individual social capital such as educational qualifications' (233) [no more detail unfortunately]