July 7, 2021   6 mins

The rioting that broke out in Bradford on 7 July 2001 should perhaps have come as no surprise. In the first place, there had been plenty of precedents, with disturbances over recent weeks in Oldham, Leeds and Burnley. But it was Bradford that saw the worst of the trouble. Shops and pubs were burnt out and looted, barricades erected, bricks and petrol bombs thrown; millions of pounds of damage was done, over 300 police officers were injured and 200 jail sentences were handed down by the courts.

There were deep-rooted problems here, of which the street-fighting was merely a symptom. Economically, this was a world that had been hit by waves of de-industrialisation, most notoriously during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and then, after a period of stabilisation, in the late 1990s. As more and more manufacturing industry was moved to the Far East, so jobs were lost at home. In the eight years between Labour’s election victories in 1997 and 2005, manufacturing output fell from 16.8% of the UK’s economy to just 11.8%, and the impact was felt most acutely in those old towns of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire and Yorkshire. There weren’t big, dramatic closures that attracted national attention as in the 1980s, just a steady erosion of employment as plants with dozens, rather than thousands, of workers were shut down; places like the Ondura rubber-compound factory in Keighley, or Hillcross Pharmaceuticals in Burnley.

Running alongside this were racial tensions that had again been building for many years. Back in 1989, there had been violent clashes when a meeting in Dewsbury of the British National Party (BNP) was met by an anti-racist rally, with dozens of arrests. The problems, however, were more complicated than the simple antagonism implied by that conflict. In many places, there was rivalry and sporadic fighting between Hindus and Muslims, often sparked by developments in India, as well as conflicts between British Asians and white youths, and between all these groups and the police. Even before the riots in Oldham in May 2001, police statistics showed that there were more racist attacks in the area by Asians on whites than by whites on Asians.

Which is not to say that the BNP weren’t a factor, alongside — according to Labour home secretary David Blunkett — “the Socialist Workers Party and hangers-on who made matters worse and played directly into the hands of the far-Right”. Indeed, it was the presence of the BNP that gave the riots a national significance far beyond the immediate unrest.

The party had been founded in 1982, but had amounted to very little until veteran neo-Nazi John Tyndall was voted out as leader in 1999, replaced by the less extreme figure of Nick Griffin. A 40-year-old who’d studied law at Cambridge, Griffin began to reposition the BNP, seeking to create a more electorally acceptable image, emphasising culture rather than race, talking about Europe and crime as well as immigration. His approach soon began to pay dividends.

The 2001 riots raised the party’s profile, and at the general election that June, Griffin stood in Oldham West and Royton, coming third with 16.4% of the vote. The following year, a milestone was reached when three BNP councillors were elected in Burnley. They gave their first press conference on a derelict piece of waste ground surrounded by boarded-up houses in Burnley Wood, and the deprivation of the area was clearly a major factor in the party’s growth. So too was a feeling that the political establishment had failed to remedy the situation. “I only voted for the BNP because Labour isn’t doing anything around here for whites,” said one resident. “Someone has to step in and make sure the whites get their fair share,” agreed another. “I’m disgusted with my Labour candidate. Where the hell was he when we needed him?”

In 2003 a further seven councillors were elected in Burnley — at one point the BNP was (albeit briefly) the official opposition on the council — and there were other successes elsewhere. The national media began paying serious attention.

Two television programmes in 2004 added fuel to the fire. In July, the BBC screened The Secret Agent, a documentary containing undercover footage of BNP members. One boasted of having committed a violent assault during the Bradford riots, another of pushing dog excrement through an Asian business’s letterbox. A third fantasised about machine-gunning Muslims. Nick Griffin also featured, calling Islam a “vicious, wicked faith”. Despite the party’s claims to democratic legitimacy and its new focus on bread-and-butter issues, the violence and racism beneath were still very much in evidence.

The second programme was Channel 4’s Edge of the City, which included the stories of young girls in Bradford who had been systematically abused by gangs of men. One of them, a thirteen-year-old, was said to have had more than a hundred sexual partners. Worse, these cases appeared to be just the tip of an iceberg, with a host of similar instances, widespread pattern of offending. In recent months, one man had been convicted, and others charged. Comparable accounts were also being heard elsewhere, and over the next decade there would be convictions of what became known as street grooming gangs in Aylesbury, Banbury, Bristol, Derby, Halifax, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Oxford, Peterborough, Rochdale, Rotherham and Telford.

It was a horrific story, to which was added a racial dimension. The victims were predominantly white, the abusers predominantly of Asian heritage.

Edge of the City was scheduled to be broadcast in May 2004, but was postponed for three months at the request of the police, deeply worried that its revelations might provoke a new spate of race riots. “The broadcast will increase community tension across Bradford with the consequent risk that it will provoke public disorder,” said Colin Cramphorn, the chief constable of West Yorkshire.

And behind that was the fear that, with elections to the European Parliament due in June, the documentary might — in the words of Lee Jasper of the National Assembly Against Racism — “inadvertently act as a recruiting sergeant for the BNP”.

Why would the stories of the grooming gangs benefit the BNP? Simply because so few of those in positions of authority seemed interested in talking about the scandal. It had taken years for the abuse to be uncovered and still there seemed a reluctance to act. There were exceptions, of course, social workers and police officers who expressed concern, but all too often they found their seniors unwilling to pursue the issue.

There were also some mainstream politicians prepared to speak up, most notably Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, who had conducted her own enquiry even before Edge of the City. Hers was a lonely voice. “There must have been councillors and MPs all over the country who knew what was going on but were terrified,” she said in later years, as the scale of the abuse was uncovered; “terrified of being labelled a racist”. Denis MacShane was the former Labour MP for Rotherham, where there were an estimated 1,400 victims over a sixteen-year period, and he regretted he had not done more, but as a “Guardian-reading liberal leftie”, he was just following the prevailing orthodoxy: “I think there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat.”

The result was that the BNP — who inevitably talked a great deal of the grooming gangs — had a virtually clear field, posing as the defenders of white girls.

Despite the non-screening of Edge of the City, the party won 4.8% of the national vote in those 2004 European elections. That was less than the Greens and didn’t result in any seats, but it still meant that over 800,000 people had voted for a far-Right party, the largest number since 1979, and twenty times more than the BNP had achieved at the last general election. And there were marked regional variations: support was low in Southern England, Wales and Scotland, but strong in Yorkshire and the Humber (8%). Next time round, in 2009, came the breakthrough, with two MEPs elected.

Later that year, Nick Griffin was invited onto BBC One’s Question Time, a controversial decision that many feared would legitimise the party, though the electorate seemed to have done that already. Certainly the public interest was there: the episode gave the show its highest ever audience figure of 7.9 million viewers. It proved, though, to be the BNP’s high-water mark. Griffin’s attempts at respectability provoked splits in the ranks, while anti-fascist groups raised the level of their campaigning, and the public exposure tended to repel rather than attract new support.

While the electoral threat of the BNP faded rapidly, the damage had been done. In particular there were two consequences of these events. First, the twin fears of appearing racist and of igniting racial violence worse yet than the 2001 riots had left thousands of children vulnerable to appalling crimes. The impression given was that the lives of these girls — many of whom had been in care homes and young offenders’ institutions — were not seen as being significant enough when weighing up political and policing priorities.

Second, much of the public felt betrayed by an establishment that was complacent at best, perhaps even complicit in those crimes.

By the time the full horrors were revealed, the story had also broken of Jimmy Savile’s long history of abuse, again aided by silence in official quarters, which only served to underscore the point. As with the grooming gangs, far too many had turned a blind eye, including — in Savile’s case — the BBC and the NHS, on whose property abuse had been perpetrated. It was hard to have any faith in institutions that had failed so badly.

And it was that sense of betrayal that was the real legacy of the 2001 riots. The looting was bad, but would be eclipsed by the nationwide spate of riots that erupted in August 2011, in which five people were killed. In any event, damage to property can be remedied. The loss of trust was harder to restore, and it fed into a much wider feeling of disillusionment with politicians, the police and the media.

In the wake of the banking crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal and the revelations of tabloid phone-hacking, this was perhaps the greatest charge of all to be laid at the door of the governing classes: that fear of civil unrest had trumped a primary duty to protect vulnerable children, that silence had been seen as preferable to rocking that “multicultural community boat”.

Alwyn Turner’s All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century is available now.

Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.