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What the Knowsley riot tells us about Suella Braverman and the Shawcross report

The British home secretary's talk of 'invasions' and 'grooming gangs' bears a heavy share of responsibility for rising attacks on migrants
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman attends a bilateral meeting with the German Interior Minister during a G7 Interior Ministers Meeting in Eltville am Rhein, western Germany on November 17, 2022
Government lawyers have previously warned Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman that her 'inflammatory immigration rhetoric risked inspiring a far-right terror attack' (AFP)

Last Wednesday, in the House of Commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman welcomed the Shawcross review of Prevent, including its judgement that the programme had laid too much emphasis on the danger presented by extreme right ideology.

“While obscuring the Islamist threat,” the home secretary told MPs, “Prevent has defined the extreme right-wing too broadly, encompassing the respectable right and centre-right.”

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Uncomfortably for Braverman, two days later an eruption of right-wing violent extremism broke out in an attack on a hotel housing asylum-seekers in Knowsley, Merseyside.

A police van was set ablaze, fireworks were launched at officers and vile accusations were chanted about the hotel’s residents as lawful protest descended into mob violence.

There’s no question that the far right played a major role in stirring up the terrible events in Knowsley. Big Tech must also answer for its culpability in enabling fascism: calls to action circulated on social media, including a YouTube video from the neo-Nazi group Patriotic Alternative.

But - and this should trouble the home secretary - there is plenty of evidence that the “respectable right and centre-right” bears a heavy share of responsibility.

To understand why, let’s examine the claims underpinning the mob attacks.

Two moral panics

Knowsley saw the convergence of two moral panics: "Muslim grooming gangs" and an "invasion" of asylum seekers.

Both narratives have been heavily promoted in the mainstream press - fuelled by the Conservative government, including Braverman.

Just a day after a far-right terrorist attack on a migrant centre in Dover, Braverman called for an end to the "invasion of our southern coast". This language echoed both Nazi-era rhetoric and current white supremacist propaganda.

Braverman called for an end to the 'invasion of our southern coast'. This language echoed current white supremacist propaganda

Indeed the Guardian reported that government lawyers had previously warned Braverman that her "inflammatory immigration rhetoric risked inspiring a far-right terror attack".

Just as important was the second moral panic, virtually ignored in media reports, namely the baying chants of "nonces" (British slang for paedophile), graffiti with the same slur, and how various far-right actors explicitly linked the riot to "grooming gangs".

There’s no question that the far right has exploited this narrative. 

The far-right has form both in courting genuine victims of child sexual abuse and exploiting false allegations. The official Telegram channel of far-right propagandist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who usually goes by the pseudonym of Tommy Robinson, posted footage of the Knowsley riot with the caption: "A clear message sent to the police, to the UK government and to the hotels who house illegal economic migrants accused or suspected of grooming school children."

But as with the “invasion” narrative, this propaganda has been enabled by Conservative politicians.

Widespread systemic failings

The trope is politically convenient, propping up a hardline anti-immigration agenda and detracting from the devastating impacts of austerity and widespread systemic failings.

When Braverman belatedly issued her statement about Knowsley, it was criticised for victim-blaming and implying that far-right rioters were responding, albeit excessively, to legitimate concerns about asylum seekers.

A police van is seen parked outside the closed gates of the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, near Liverpool in north-west England on 11 February 2023 (AFP)
The Suites Hotel in Knowsley, north-west England, the morning after violent right-wing, anti-migrant protests, 11 February 2023 (AFP)

It must be stressed that the roots of the "grooming gangs" discourse lie in a core of truly terrible cases involving men of Pakistani heritage. Over the past decade, however, a moral panic has been constructed on selective outrage, misinformation and outright disinformation.

Sight has repeatedly been lost of just how horrendously common child sexual abuse is - in general, not just the cases singled out by journalists, think tanks and politicians. The "grooming gangs" narrative harms both abuse victims/survivors and whole communities stigmatised as deviant.

Muslim boys and men in the UK have been mass-stereotyped as suspected 'groomers', or 'groomers' in waiting

The narrative has been inflamed by reporting in virtually every British mainstream newspaper, broadsheet as well as tabloid.

Successive Conservative home secretaries - Sajid JavidPriti Patel and Braverman - have actively fuelled racial stereotyping around "grooming gangs" - the latter two even when faced with their own civil servants’ evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, Muslim boys and men in the UK have been mass-stereotyped as suspected "groomers", or "groomers" in waiting. Such scapegoating and demands for collective responsibility sideline questions of individual culpability, which are fundamental to justice.

That is painfully evident in accounts of Muslim children being bullied as "groomers" and the racially aggravated murder of an innocent 81-year-old man in Rotherham.

Wake-up call

The convergence with the "grooming gangs" panic only adds to the dangerous imagery of asylum seekers as marauders set to exploit not just the British state, but (white) British girls themselves. In doing so, it echoes the international far-right trope of immigrants as a threat to white nationhood, whereby women and girls are framed not as people but as property to be defended.

The riot at Knowsley is the latest in extensive far-right actions targeting accommodation for asylum seekers, including hotels where unaccompanied children are housed.

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It also follows several acts of outright terrorism with explicit links to far-right ideologies around "grooming gangs": last year’s firebombing in Dover, the Finsbury Park attacks and the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand - where the attacker’s ammunition was inscribed "for Rotherham".

Knowsley ought to be a long-overdue wake-up call about the dangers of toxic narratives around migrants, minorities and "grooming gangs".

Remember: another demonstration at a hotel housing asylum-seekers is already scheduled for a few days’ time. It will be in Rotherham - the town most synonymous with "grooming gangs".

Last week, Shawcross implicitly acquitted the “respectable right” - a category which presumably includes the Tory government and its supporters in the mainstream press - of any role in inflaming political violence against vulnerable minorities. 

It’s no wonder that Suella Braverman embraced the report with such enthusiasm. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ella Cockbain is an Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science at UCL, where she leads the research group on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation. She is also a visiting research fellow at Leiden University. Her research focuses primarily on human trafficking, labour exploitation, and child sexual exploitation and abuse. She is the former co-chair and current member of the UK’s national Modern Slavery Strategy and Implementation Group on prevention. Her publications include numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, the book Offender and Victim Networks in Human Trafficking, several edited collections, and media commentaries. A previous Future Research Leaders fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council, she currently leads two major research programmes.
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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