My heart sinks at the thought of the comments that will inevitably come in as a result of this post, but I feel that I should comment, albeit only briefly, on the story that has broken tonight about the trouble in Luton.
To put this into context - I was born in Luton. I only moved out a few weeks before my 40th birthday. I know the key figures within the Muslim community pretty well, through my past involvement in local politics, and still bump into some of them occasionally. Which means I can confidently say this: they would be appalled by the protests that took place today.
Luton prides itself on being a place which has coped admirably with successive waves of immigration over the past century, from the Scots and Irish (including my father's family), who came to work in the car industry, to the African-Caribbeans in the 1950s and 60s, the Asians in the 1970s, followed by Bosnians, Kosovans, Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese and various other refugees in more recent years. I'm not saying there have never been tensions, but the town has managed them. We had a fairly active National Front in the 1970s, and lots of skinheads, but eventually they were driven out of town or underground. (Some of the older Asians have some great stories about how they achieved this). There's been some BNP activity more recently, but not on the scale seen in many other towns. In fact the nearest elected BNP-er was a councillor in Broxbourne, a place not noted for its ethnic diversity.
What the town has seen in recent years, certainly since September 11th but possibly before, is a very small but very vocal group of extremists within the Muslim community, members of Al-Muhajiroun and then, after it was disbanded and its splinter groups banned, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Football fans travelling to Kenilworth Road, which is in the heart of Bury Park, the 'Asian part' of town, would perhaps have seen them on the pavements, handing out pamphlets.
The last time I spoke in a political capacity in Luton was in 2005, shortly after the 7/7 bombings and only a couple of months after I'd been elected as an MP. I spoke at an event with the Pakistan High Commissioner, the two local MPs and Lord McKenzie, who is now a DWP Minister. On the way out I was confronted by someone from HT, a young man, naive, fired-up, a little foolish, and completely unable to see mine or anyone else's viewpoint. In other words, a typical young radical, the sort who if he'd not been born Muslim would probably be found selling Socialist Worker or throwing custard at cabinet ministers. Speaking to other Muslims about HT afterwards, I found that opinion was divided, between those who thought they were just idiots and those who were concerned that, given the events of 7/7, they might just be dangerous idiots.
I can't speak with any great authority on the subject, but I know that a lot of work has gone on in Luton since then to try to prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth, as indeed it has done across the UK, under the Government's 'Prevent' agenda. Has the community become more extreme in its views? I don't think so. Admittedly, we never used to see women in burkhas when I was growing up, but I think that might be more a reflection of the different types of Muslim communities now in the town, (e.g. from Afghanistan or Iraq) rather than a change in attitudes. I think mainstream Muslim opinion is as moderate as ever. Indeed, many of the Muslims in Luton would be not just second-generation, but third generation now, and for every Muslim parent who is worried about their son or daughter becoming radical Islamists there are probably ten, twenty, a hundred, who are worried about them going off the rails in the entirely opposite direction!
I've spoken briefly about this to one of the Luton MPs tonight, and someone else in Luton. What seems clear is that it was a very small group who protested against the soldiers' parade. (You can see from the photos accompanying the Mail article - it's a handful). They were of course entirely wrong to do so, and action should be taken against anyone whose behaviour could be seen as inflammatory or an incitement to hatred.
However, some of those described by the Daily Mail as "a large number of local people, some waving Union and St George's flags" were actually BNP activists, I'm told, who had come to Luton because they knew there would be trouble. Just as the decent, law-abiding Muslim community in Luton would be appalled by the behaviour of those extremists who purport to act in the name of Islam, I would like to think that the decent, law-abiding general public in Luton would be similarly appalled by the actions of the BNP in using this homecoming event to promote their own brand of hatred.
P.S. Interesting link provided to me by Captain Fun via Twitter - local media hasn't picked up on it in same way.