News your connection to The Boston Globe

Britain's amazing disconnect

LONDONRETURNING here after a month away, what astonishes me most is how sotto voce is the debate that links the bombings and Britain's ''pillion passenger" role in the American-led war in Iraq. Apart from a few predictable voices, most political contributors have maintained a kind of becalmed dignity, concentrating attention on defeating the homegrown terrorists.

This is all very well. It is decorum at its best. The upper lip may be pierced by an earring or two, but it does not easily quiver. But there comes a point when Britain has to take its head out of the sand because the whole sorry, very much intertwined, mess of the ongoing war in Iraq and the mushrooming of Islamic terrorism seems to be out of rational control.

There is no debate, for instance, about the legacy of empire. I don't just mean the double-crossing of the Arab Palestinians by Lawrence of Arabia and his patrons in His Majesty's Foreign Office, which led to the Arabs believing they had been promised a homeland if they supported the British drive against the Ottoman Empire. Nor do I mean the Balfour Declaration that laid the foundations for perpetual Jewish and Palestinian terrorism. I am thinking of something more recent but nonetheless equally tragic.

I grew up in Oldham, once the constituency of Winston Churchill and center of the spinning mills of Lancashire and its neighbor, Yorkshire. It was in this territory that William Blake coined his description of ''the dark Satanic mills." I remember well the men marching off to the mill like the matchsticks figures in L.S. Lowry's evocative paintings, carrying their lunch in tin boxes, while the women stayed at home, scrubbing every day the front steps of their little row houses. There wasn't a non-English face to be seen, apart from the odd Ukrainian refugee.

We all knew that this was the tail end of the Industrial Revolution -- that the mills could not keep on spinning in the face of cheap Asian competition. But protectionism was muscular. This way of life had to be defended at all cost. Desperate mill owners, determined to cut their costs, decided in the early 1960s to run night shifts, and to man these, they sent agents to remote Pakistani villages to recruit workers. Never mind that Pakistan had its own burgeoning and highly competitive textile industry. Just as the British a century and a half before had cut off the thumbs of Bengali weavers to allow Lancashire's textile exports a competitive edge in British-ruled India, the natural laws of economics were there to be interfered with and manipulated.

Over the next 20 years, the Pakistani trickle into Lancashire and Yorkshire became a flood. Any protest movements that arose -- precursors of Live8 -- that lobbied the government to reduce its textile trade barriers so that the most competitive Third World producers could thrive were rebuffed. We were told by government policymakers that too much was invested in Britain's textile industry for it to be allowed to wither on the vine.

One politician, Enoch Powell, the ex professor of Greek and Conservative Cabinet minister, terrified everyone when he went on a campaign to end immigration, foreseeing that British streets one day would be like ''the River Tiber, foaming with much blood." But, as William Deedes, a former Cabinet colleague, wrote recently, his rabid style of speechmaking ''forced everyone in authority to make light of all the problems Commonwealth immigration was creating."

Not even Pakistani cut-rate night shift labor could keep the mills competitive. Gradually, Britain was pushed by its commitments to free trade to dismantle its protection of textiles. During the 1990s these northern cities were hollowed out, unemployment rose to catastrophic levels, and there were ugly race riots with Pakistani second- and third-generation youths pitting their petrol bombs against the police. It is in this world the suspected suicide bombers have grown up. Cause and effect, you might say.

The British in their dealings with the empire and its leftovers have not just once but too often shied away from making the causal links. The British are in Iraq, partly out of loyalty to their old ally America, but partly because that are still trying to shape the politics of the oil-rich Middle East, as they have tried to do for a century. But all they have done is stir the pot of hatred and bigotry, and now it's clear that the chickens have not been boiled but have come home to roost.

Jonathan Power is a columnist based in London.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search