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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 170 Contents

Socialist Review, December 1993

Bob Carter

All white with Labour

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Immigration controls didn’t start with the Tories. Labour’s postwar government acted to restrict blacks coming into Britain. Bob Carter looks at the party’s shameful record, and how the impetus for controls came from government, not workers

The death of Joy Gardner at the hands of immigration officials and police officers and the election of a BNP councillor in the Isle of Dogs represent the two faces of racism in Britain today. Although many people would see these two events as unconnected, they have in common a very important feature: that the state plays a role in the construction of a racist culture in Britain today.

The widespread harassment, misery and abuse of human rights that have been brought about by, and perpetuated in the name of, Britain’s extensive system of racist immigration controls have been major factors in the lives of black people (and other minority groups) in Britain. Yet the role of the state and the critical importance of immigration and nationality laws in the reproduction of racism is often underestimated. Partly this is because immigration controls operate covertly – only those on the receiving end of them experience them directly. The state is crucial to institutionalising racism, as the experience in Britain after the Second World War demonstrates.

Black workers did not begin to arrive in significant numbers compared to other groups of workers, such as those from Ireland or Europe, until the mid-1950s. But well before then, in 1950, the Labour government had set up a secret cabinet committee to review the possibility of introducing immigration control for black workers, who were of course British subjects and therefore fully entitled to come to Britain. The cabinet decided that since the numbers involved were so small – about one or two thousand a year – and the political difficulties of passing what would self evidently be a discriminatory piece of legislation were so great, it would leave things as they were. The cabinet was careful though not to rule out the possibility of controls and the Home Office was instructed to keep an eye on the level of black immigration.

Why should the arrival of several thousand black British subjects prompt this response from a Labour government, especially when at the same time it was recruiting tens of thousands of European workers? After all, as the cabinet acknowledged, the economic situation was dire and there was an acute shortage of labour. For many black workers, job opportunities in Britain presented a golden chance to escape from the poverty generated by centuries of colonial and imperial exploitation and some began to make their way to the ‘mother country’. This was the prospect that caused consternation within the government.

A clue to its anxiety can be found in a letter from 11 Labour MPs sent to the prime minister, Clement Attlee, two days after the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948, bringing 492 black workers from the Caribbean. The MPs complained that unless controls were introduced on the movement of black British subjects in to Britain, then it would become an ‘open reception centre for immigrants not selected in respect to health, education, training, character, customs and above all, whether assimilation is possible or not. The workers on the Windrush may have served in the Allied forces during the war, but because they were black, the argument went, they were not, and could not be, British.

In fact the government was already operating a series of covert administrative controls on the entry of black workers – changing the definitions of ‘illegal immigrant’ – for example, delaying the issue of passports and even in one case getting colonial governors to alter travel documents so that they could not be used to obtain entry.

These administrative measures were inherited by Labour’s Tory successors in 1951. Faced with the continuing arrival of black workers they decided to revive the issue of legislation. However, the absence of public anxiety about black immigration and a persistent labour shortage meant the government would have to go to some lengths to justify excluding black workers.

In 1953 a meeting of ministers took place at the Home Office. The case for immigration control of blacks, it was stressed, needed to be demonstrated. This meant gathering information about black people in Britain which it was hoped would confirm that black immigrants posed insoluble problems of assimilation.

The already widespread surveillance of black communities by the police was augmented by surveys by the Ministry of Labour, the National Assistance Board, the Colonial Office, the Home Office and the Departments of Health, Housing and Employment. Their reports formed the basis of the Home Secretary’s arguments in presenting a draft immigration bill to the cabinet in 1954. Once again, though, the political difficulties facing such a bill were great. The public was largely uninterested so few votes were likely to be gained from such a measure. Not only were black workers British subjects, but they were also a minority of those migrating to Britain, and there was growing demand for migrant labour from private capitalists as well as public services like the health service and London Transport.

The cabinet postponed a decision on the bill, deciding instead to keep it in reserve until political circumstances changed. Meanwhile it continued the campaign to ‘educate public opinion toward the need for introducing restrictions’. The events of 1958 in Notting Hill when for four days about 3,000 whites went on the rampage against black residents, gave the government its chance.

Both Labour and Tory politicians issued statements blaming black people for the ‘riots’ and were quick to make the link between this and immigration control. In sentencing and dealing with the 100 or so people arrested during the fighting, judges trivialised the events, deploring the hooligan elements whilst rarely condemning their racist motives. The call for immigration control of those who would not conform to the ‘British way of life’ was freely made in the media and went unchallenged in the absence of any statement from the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

Government responses to 1958 put the issue of immigration control of black British citizens firmly on the public political agenda and the demand for control began to widen. The government now felt that the time had come to introduce the bill it had drafted in 1954. It became the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. It is important to realise that the 1962 act, described as a ‘miserable, shameful, shabby bill’ by Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, was not the product of working class racist hysteria. Immigration control of black workers was informally administered from the late 1940s and the idea of legislation first mooted in 1950. The act made explicit, and therefore extended and legitimated, the covert policies pursued by Labour and Tory governments since 1948 and the racist assumptions on which they rested.

The history of the state’s role in controlling immigration after 1962 has been fundamental in determining the contours of contemporary racism. Despite Gaitskell’s opposition to the 1962 act, the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which took office in 1964, not only did not repeal the act (as Roy Hattersley, at a meeting in Birmingham in 1961, had indicated it would), it tightened it further with a white paper in 1965. In 1968 it passed an immigration act of its own, specifically to prevent black British citizens about to be expelled from Kenya from exercising their legal right to enter and settle in Britain. It did this by insisting in the new law that only those citizens who had a ‘substantial connection’ with Britain had the right to come here. A ‘substantial connection’ was a parent or grandparent born in the United Kingdom, a sly and profoundly racist notion that effectively ensured future immigrants would be white. The ‘substantial connection’ was converted by the 1971 Commonwealth Immigration Act into the idea of ‘patriality’, of ‘being British’ as something only obtainable by being in the UK for several generations, an argument advanced by Enoch Powell in 1968. Patriality, with its racist distinction between those who ‘properly belonged’ and those who did not, was enshrined in the 1983 Nationality Act which determined once and for all who was entitled to become a citizen of the UK. A series of other laws (there is yet another immigration bill currently before parliament) have since taken away any lingering rights attached to dependants, refugees, asylum seekers, students and overstayers.

Of course, these racist and discriminatory pieces of legislation did not appease the racists, nor did they improve ‘race relations’. On the contrary, the racists became more confident as successive governments enacted increasingly restrictive laws which legitimated and reinforced their racist assumptions whilst profoundly eroding the security of black people, bringing harassment, abuse, family separation and in some cases murder, in their wake. This is one reason why an anti-racist politics that looks to Labour politicians for action against racism is unlikely to achieve more than cosmetic success, since the state itself, through its extensive system of immigration and nationality laws, is a major element in the maintenance and reproduction of contemporary forms of racism.

Nor is this simply a matter of what some politicians have done in the past. Labour has always been nationalist, profoundly committed to a notion of the national interest, of ‘putting Britain first’. This is why in 1948 the Attlee government considered restricting the rights of black workers even before they arrived – the very possibility of a black presence threatened ‘national identity’ and the ‘national character’. The need to win votes necessarily entails pandering to the versions of the electorate that are created by this process. As Richard Crossman, Labour housing minister, noted in 1968, if he had not supported the 1968 Immigration Act his voters in Wolverhampton would have thrown him out. This, of course, is the worst fate that can befall a politician, and one to which other principles are readily sacrificed.

Any effective anti-racism must therefore be based on an uncompromising internationalism. Further, it must also be based on a critique of capitalism. This is not simply a matter of strategy, although an anti-racism that is incapable of uniting broad sections of the working class in its support is unlikely to achieve much. It is also a matter of recognising the role played by racism and discrimination in creating the conditions in which sections of the working class have to sell their labour.

Finally it means having an analysis of the role of the capitalist state in the maintenance of nationalist and racist ideas and the central role of racism in dividing workers. The capitalist state plays a key role in depriving black people of their rights, their security and even their lives.

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