Pennine views

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

Shamim Miah, Pete Sanderson and Paul Thomas, ‘Race’, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England: The (M62) corridor of uncertainty, Palgrave Macmillan Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2020.

This is an impressive and extremely useful work of synthesis and considered analysis. ‘Race’, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England explores the specific ways that issues to do with multiculturalism present themselves in some of the towns and cities along the ‘M62 corridor’ between Manchester and Leeds, with much of the material drawn from earlier studies of Bradford, Oldham and Rochdale.

Its co-authors are academics at the University of Huddersfield’s School of Education and Professional Development. Each of them individually has an impressive track record of research on specific areas and themes: the dialogue and collaboration between them which has clearly gone into this book results in a very well-informed work.

In their introduction, Miah, Sanderson and Thomas note that much debate about multiculturalism has a general character, as if the same issues apply in similar ways across the country. Their focus on a specific region, and on specific places within that, stresses ‘the significance of the particular configurations of the relationship between the global and the local, state and civil society in shaping actual relationships between diverse communities, and the way in which these relations are publicly represented’.

Their own locatedness is a resource in exploring these configurations: ‘the fact that all three of the authors live, work and research in this “M62 corridor” region has given us a particular, personal motivation to examine the specific and situated histories and current realities of multiculturalism … and of how … fevered debates about the crisis, decline and death of multiculturalism might be understood in this space and place’.

Their study of towns and cities close to the M62 motorway in northern England is important because this is a region which has ‘come to symbolise (at least in political and media discourse) Britain’s supposed problems with “multiculturalism’’’.

Miah, Sanderson and Thomas evidence that such judgements are simplistic. Many of the ‘fevered debates’ in the media and in political life ‘around the supposed problems, even failures, of multiculturalist society and policy’ in greater Manchester and west Yorkshire ‘have been ahistorical … they take little, or no, account of the profound economic changes in the region over the past 60 years and how these changes have shaped not just experiences but the possibilities of experience’. There is also a ‘more profound historical amnesia about processes of migration, assimilation and integration, and what British and international historical experiences teach us about them’.

The book is organised thematically. Chapters two and three provide an extremely well-considered overview and critical survey of ongoing debates about the drivers for and meaning of ‘ethnically determined segregation’ in northern towns and cities. Drawing on ‘historical evidence around urbanisation and migration, and changing patterns of residential mixing … from the nineteenth century onwards, including the role of housing providers, changing economic circumstances and … community “agency”’, these early parts of the book ‘discuss lived experiences and perceptions of mixing, segregation and tensions, and the role national and local state policy and practice has played in this’.

The fourth chapter, offering a critical overview of state multicultural policy, offers refreshing correctives to some widespread understandings. One of the authors’ arguments is that the national policy approach of community cohesion put in place by the ‘Cantle’ report after 2001 did not mark the end (or ‘death’), of established policy frameworks and approaches, but rather involved the ‘renaming’ and ‘re-balancing’ of these.

Miah, Sanderson and Thomas also emphasise very significant local variations in the implementation of multiculturalism, which partly result from what was always a ‘permissive national policy approach’. Rather than there being any sustained top-down direction from government to realise the positive vision of integration set out by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in the mid-1960s, the work of addressing racialised issues in towns like Burnley and Dewsbury was for many years ‘franchised’ to under-resourced Community Relations Councils, which the book describes as ‘curious bodies, funded by the state but, in effect, small neo-civil society organisations expected to monitor and counter local racial discrimination (much of it likely to be by arms of the very local authority that was part-funding them!) and promote good community relations’.

A chapter entitled ‘Black, Asian and the Muslim Cool’ looks at how different and contested descriptors have been applied to Asian heritage communities, with consideration of the increased importance of religious affiliation over the last decades as focus both for meaning, pride and discrimination. The authors show that ‘contrary to popular understanding, “Muslim” identities within the M62 corridor are not fixed and bounded; rather, they are complex, shaped by a combination of local, national and global factors’.

Stigmatising and divisive stereotypes have also been applied to white people in the region: the notion of ‘the white working class’ is subject to fitting critique. Chapter 7 explores several important current debates in relation to education and, like the rest of the book, is particularly valuable for setting these in historical context.

The book’s conclusion underlines the need for long-term historical perspectives to be applied to all the issues to do with modern migrant communities in the towns and cities of the M62 corridor region. It also calls for state policies to support this agenda – and to address the ‘structural economic changes the region has undergone since the late 1960s’, which are ‘central to explanations of current tensions’.

Review published August 2020.

Illustration: travelling on the M62, towards Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Manchester.