Neighbour trouble neath the Bow bells

The New East End
July 21, 2006

The East End of London has been a point of entry into British society for generations of immigrants since at least the 17th century. It welcomed Huguenots fleeing persecution in France, the Irish escaping famine and Jewish refugees from central and Eastern Europe. From the 1950s onwards, it has become home to Bangladeshis, who now constitute just over one third of the Tower Hamlets population.

Given the fascinating history of the place and the different ways in which various groups of migrants settled in and eventually moved out of the area, it is surprising that the East End has not been a subject of extensive research by historical and comparative sociologists. Among the few works that stand out, the late Michael Young and Peter Willmott's Family and Kinship in East London (1957) has proved the most influential. It highlighted the role played in local working-class life by extended families and expressed the worry that this support system might be damaged by the centralised welfare state.

Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young's book is a sequel to the 1957 book. Although their area of research, methodology and broad concerns are similar, there are important differences. The New East End concentrates on the Bangladeshis and their relations with the white working class.

Since the Bangladeshis were the first migrants to arrive in East London after the creation of the welfare state, the authors ask how the latter has affected their pattern of settlement and the white working class's perception of them. This perceptive and crucial question enables the authors to prise open a largely unexplored area of inquiry, to highlight the deeper causes of tension between the two groups, and to suggest what needs to be done nationally if similar tensions are to be defused.

As the authors rightly argue, the pattern of settlement of earlier migrants was slow and painful but also more rewarding and generally less conflictual. Since they had to depend on each other to survive, they built up strong community networks. They also had plenty of time to put down roots, to get to know the wider society and to forge ties with it. Their struggle assured the local white working class that they had given as much to society as they had received from it and that they deserved such rights as they enjoyed.

The Bangladeshi migrants came to a well-established welfare state that readily conferred on them all the social rights of citizenship. This seemed to many local residents to violate the conventional notions of fairness and reciprocity. The situation was made worse by the inevitable competition for scarce public resources, especially social housing. Following the logic of the welfare state, housing was allocated on the basis of need, so necessarily the migrants received preference over those who had lived in the area for generations and had long been on the waiting list.

The resentment that this provoked was intensified and given legitimacy by the fact that the East End had suffered greatly during the war (it suffered as many as 13,000 bombing raids during the Blitz), had made great sacrifices and been promised better times after the war by all political parties. Eastenders felt possessive about "their" welfare state, and thought that they had a much greater claim to its resources.

Dench, Gavron and Young argue that the dispute over whether need or historically acquired entitlement should be the proper basis of claims explains part of the tension between the Bangladeshis and the local white working class. A further complicating factor is provided by the way in which the welfare state individualises people and breaks up communities.

Since individuals know that they can turn to the state in times of need, they see no reason to sustain their community. The welfare state also enables successful individuals to move out of the area, leaving behind an atomised and frustrated underclass.

While the authors' balanced and perceptive analysis highlights several important questions, their answers to some of these are rather tentative. They say little about how to resolve the conflict between need and entitlement. They rightly call for a reconsideration of the welfare state but do not fully explore how it is to be decentralised, made less rights-based and less individualistic - or how it can be used to build up local communities.

This is perhaps an unfair criticism, as their intention is to uncover and explain what is going on in the East End, not to outline a social policy. But one hopes that they will one day write such a sequel to their excellent book.

Bhikhu Parekh is professor of political philosophy, Westminster University.

The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict

Author - Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 4
Price - £15.00
ISBN - 1 86197 928 2

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