The working-class cockneys of London’s East End have long been the butt of jokes among the British upper classes. Over the last century and a half, a fascination with the East End spawned popular books by Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde and television shows like East Enders. London’s white East Enders have for decades been fleeing to the suburban county of Essex, north and east of London. The BBC documentary Last Whites of the East End is about the few who haven’t left.
The dramatic cultural change that animated the recent Brexit vote is most pronounced in the East End, where the tension between Muslim immigrants and lower-class whites is high. Of the ten most deprived districts in the United Kingdom, those with the largest share of Muslims are in the East End boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. The East End borough of Newham has absorbed 70,000 immigrants in the last 15 years and white residents are now decidedly a minority. Newham has the lowest share of white Britons anywhere in the country.
At the East Ham Working Men’s Club, a pub and social club that represents the last vestiges of a dying cockney culture, old-timers congregate, mingle, and complain about their new neighbors, whose religious opposition to alcohol has resulted in the closing of most of the area’s pubs. One of the film’s subjects calls what’s happening to Newham “ethnic cleansing.” The phrase conjures up images of Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech suggesting that the racial strife then unfolding in America would inevitably come to Britain. Immigration, warned the conservative member of parliament, would change the face of a hitherto homogenous country.
In Last Whites, a 90-year-old widow packs her small house after her husband’s death for a move to Norfolk, following her daughter’s exodus years before. Even Tony, a long-time East Ender of black Caribbean and white British descent, expresses deep reservations about the changes coming to the area as a result of immigration over the past two decades. He refuses to send his daughter to the local primary schools he attended, lamenting the absence of nativity plays and Christmas cards. The changeover has been so swift, says Usmaan Hussein, an English-born man of Bengali descent, that “white flight” is denying his own children exposure to the British way of life. It seems that the ghettoization of London’s East End has had effects on integration that even some in Britain’s minority communities’ regret. Hussein laters asks his fleeing neighbors, “Why don’t you [cockney whites] stay here and fight for [the East End]” instead of moving to Essex?
The cockneys’ complaints are similar to those of Archie Bunker in 1970s America—that immigrants are permanently changing the community and country for the worse. (The Bunker character was in fact based on the cockney Alf Garnett of the popular sitcom Til Death Us Do Part, which aired on the BBC from 1965 to 1975.) In 2013, 62 percent of Britons thought an increasing Muslim populace in the U.K. would “weaken” national identity, up from 48 percent a decade earlier. Sixty-six percent of non-degreed Britons (including non-whites) in 2011 felt immigration had a negative effect economically, up from 47 percent in 2002. Sixty-two percent of the same group felt a negative cultural effect from immigration, up from 42 percent nine years earlier.
While the Archie Bunkers of the East End may be a dying breed, the views of British Muslims are growing more extreme. A 2016 survey found that British Muslims like the ones moving into the East End were significantly less tolerant and less willing to assimilate than were previous generations of Muslim immigrants. Some have found a “generation gap” among British Muslims, with earlier immigrant waves and second-generation British Muslims diverging in their views. Later arrivals and British-born children of Muslim immigrants hold more strident religious and less socially tolerant views than their forbearers. Analysis of the U.K.’s 2011 Census by the Muslim Council of Britain shows that British Muslims are far less likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be caregivers, and more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty.
The whites of the East End don’t appear to realize that their experience isn’t new; the area has been shuffling immigrant groups in and out for centuries. First, it was the Huguenots, then the Irish, and then the Pale Settlement Jews. Now it is Britain’s former empire “coming home,” mostly in the form of South Asian immigrants making a new life in “Old Blighty,” a term itself borrowed from Urdu. The churn has been so consistent that one can easily imagine a BBC sequel in 50 or 100 years’ time: Last Muslims of Londonistan.
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