At work this afternoon I heard there had been an attempt to blow up the new Shelton Mosque near Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent. According to the mosque committee, the police, and the local paper, the perpetrators tapped a gas main and fed a pipe into the mosque before attempting to ignite it. Needless to say the damage done to the building as well as nearby residences could have been catastrophic. Understandably the police are treating the attempted attack as a racist incident.
There has been a long and tortuous road to Stoke's first purpose-built mosque, and has variously been used as a political football by different players of the city's fractured political game. For the "leftist" Potteries Alliance (now absorbed into the leftish Community Voice grouping) the new mosque was ostensibly opposed on the grounds the Muslim community acquired the land from the council for the peppercorn price of one pound. This rag-tag of former Labour councillors and self-described "Marxists" were outraged the council didn't charge full price for the disused and contaminated site the mosque development has now returned to use. Presumably the PA would have been happier to add another acre of blighted land to Stoke's decaying city scape than see it taken over by the Muslim community.
And of course, our friends the BNP have tried to capitalise on the building of the mosque. As well as exploiting it as "evidence" of the Islamic plot to take over Britain, the fascists argued they had ten donors standing by ready to purchase the land for £100,000 from the council to build an old people's home. Given their organisation is delicately poised on the edge of the precipice, one wonders where these financial sugar daddies are now?
Nevertheless, despite the building having been financed entirely by local Muslims and the land being effectively abandoned by the council, there would be a few Stokies who'd have raised a glass had the mosque been destroyed. Unfortunately, the well of racism runs deep in Stoke. If you take the barely concealed racism of the BNP and the political opportunism of others, mix it with the toxic dog-whistling of the tabloid press and the deep lumpenisation of the city's poorest communities you're left with a stinking brew wreaking of resentment and xenophobia.
When the Tories ripped the economic heart out of Britain's industrial cities in the 1980s, many working class communities were left to sink or swim. Despite New Labour's love affair with neoliberalism introduced some welcome initiatives to reverse the devastating material and psychological traumas of the assault, but in real terms this amounted to tinkering around the edges. Only bold and aggressive plans of state-led investment and job creation could begin to address the long-term problems of joblessness, welfare dependency, anti-social behaviour, crime, drug abuse, and hopelessness. Small wonder many Stokies - like Labour voters elsewhere - felt the party made by the working class had abandoned them.
For a section of this lumpenised mass the message of the BNP made sense. They promised a romantic vision of an all-white Britain, a 1950s Stoke where the only black people about were those workers covered head to toe in soot and coal dust. They bred resentment and created scapegoats, pointing the finger at Asians (coded as Muslims) for the epidemic of social problems the city has experienced. Housing shortage? Blame the Muslims. Can't find a job? Blame the Muslims. Can't get into education or training? Blame the Muslims. Been refused state benefits? Blame the Muslims. It's simple, it's untrue, and yet it appears to chime with some people's experiences.
The BNP fed and nurtured this cancerous tumour on the Potteries body politic. It grew and multiplied to the extent the fascists commanded thousands of votes and returned nine councillors to the council chamber. For once, Nazi Nick wasn't talking cobblers when he described Stoke as the "jewel in the BNP's crown". But that was 2008 and this is now. During the general election their representation fell to six, and then lost an additional councillor to Community Voice(!). Shenanigans over parliamentary selections and fallings outs has decimated their Stoke organisation. They will have their hands full defending their remaining seats let alone contesting more outside their established patches in the 2011 all-out elections. The fascist tide is ebbing and the overall national political situation is less favourable to them.
Or is it? After all the bitter soup of misery and bigotry the BNP's thugs, fantasists and losers drew sustenance from is still there. It's just the window of opportunity for that poison to find electoral expression is closing. With the constitutional road disappearing, some racists and fascists will be tempted to put away their suits and rosettes and take to the streets. The presence of Stoke BNP councillors at January's violent English Defence League demo says all you need to know about their credentials as peace-loving democrats. But the excitement of mixing it up with the police and/or anti-fascists lend EDL-style mobilisations a certain glamour that proves attractive to semi-racist/proto-fascist young men up for a bit of street fighting: it's no coincidence the EDL became a pole of attraction at the very moment the BNP entered its decline.
For others though, a more cowardly and discreet form of activity is available. With a fragmenting and declining 'official' far right some will be attracted by acts of individual violence. Muslims and other minority communities have been no strangers to racist violence during the course of the last decade, but a new wave of "leaderless" attacks on individuals and property could be more likely. With the fascists marginalised but its wellspring remaining, I fear the attempt to blow up Shelton Mosque could be the shape of things to come.