Paul Foot

Immigration and the British Labour Movement

(Autumn 1965)

From International Socialism (1st Series), No.22, Autumn 1965, pp.8-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

1. Imperialism and Racial Ideologies

Ever since the start of industrial history the ruling classes have sought propaganda methods to divert the attention of the workers from the ineptitude and savagery of capitalism. Imperialism and Race have been used with recurrent fervour for this purpose – and with great success. Both issues are closely interlocked. Hand in hand with propaganda about the glories of empire – so assiduously used to drug the militancy of the worker in the last century – went the notion that those conquered by British marauders were in some way intrinsically inferior to them. For the British such notions were tinged with colour. For the colonised peoples were almost all black or brown, while the British colonists, including those in Australia and America, were white. Thus all white men were great men, and all black men were ignorant illiterate savages. This was no accidental conclusion. It was the deliberate propaganda of 19th century imperialists.

It was, no doubt, their countrymen’s success in the business of robbing and plundering overseas which provoked the native Briton to an instinctive dislike of those who came from overseas to join him at work. The French Protestants or Huguenots who fled from Catholic terror at the start of the British industrial revolution were treated – despite their undoubted talents both as artisans and Protestants – suspiciously and even with open violence. Similarly the hundreds of thousands of Irish who came across the Irish sea – driven by imperialism and its famines – were met with undisguised hostility. The working people of Glasgow, for instance, organised an annual treat, which they called Hunting the Barney. After a jovial march through the slum closes of the city, the gentle folk would seek out an Irishman and murder him for sport. [1] Similar outbreaks of crude violence and anti-foreigner propaganda far more savage than anything we know today were commonplace, particularly in the West of Scotland and on Merseyside. Delicate priests would issue from their studies the religious ‘justification’ for such racial intolerance, which was not confined to the ‘lumpen’ mob. Often the most militant, most politically conscious of the embryonic working-class organisations showed most bitterness against the foreigner. To some extent, this was caused by the employers, who, at the time of strike, made common practice of journeying to Ireland and recruiting Irishmen for their factories, mines and mills at half pay. The starving Irishmen were quite prepared to brave the militancy of the English or Scottish trade unionists for a loaf of bread. Often, they paid for their daring with their lives.

Such antipathy infiltrated the minds of even the greatest socialist theorists. Frederick Engels wrote of the Irish immigrant in Manchester that ‘his crudity places him little above the savage’ and made it plain that no revolution could depend on this half-savage for support. [2] Some years later Ben Tillett summed up the dilemma of the international socialist in a speech on Tower Hill. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you are our brothers and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come to this country.’ Despite the resentment of the working class and the chauvinist bourgeoisie against the immigrant, the politicians were not worried. Throughout the whole of the nineteenth century there were no powers for the Government to control immigration, no powers to deport immigrant criminals nor any demand for such powers. During this period the entire world could, in theory, have come into Britain free of restriction. The reasons for this liberalism were part economic, part political. Economically, Britain was by far the leading capitalist nation, and as such believed firmly in Free Trade. The winners of any race are, by nature, opposed to handicaps. With Free Trade and the free movement of goods went the free movement of that valuable commodity – labour.

Similarly, politically, British politicians, not unfairly, regarded themselves as revolutionaries – champions of the new, dynamic capitalism; bitter enemies of the decaying feudalism which still hampered so many countries in Europe. Liberals held out their hands, grandiloquently, to political refugees from feudalism, and gloried in the ‘right of asylum’. Mazzini and Garibaldi, bourgeois revolutionaries par excellence, were welcomed as refugees into Britain, and Gladstone stomped the country pouring out invective against the inhumanity of the Italians in their dealings with Neopolitan political offenders. Palmerston forced the Portuguese into an amnesty for political prisoners. Yet at the same time both statesmen nodded their heads wisely as the convicted patriots (bourgeois revolutionaries also) of the Young Ireland State trials at Clonmel (1848) were deported by the British Government to Tasmania. They welcomed revolutionaries against feudalism in other lands; but they deported revolutionaries against imperialism.

Even worse for these gentlemen was the emergence of men and women who called themselves revolutionaries, but who seemed uninterested in the struggle between capitalism and feudalism. These people – ‘anarchists’ or ‘nihilists’ as they were usually called – were opposed not so much to feudalism in one country as to capitalism in all countries. Moreover they were gaining access to Britain by quoting the right of political asylum. A man called Marx, for instance, had lived in Britain for 34 years, as a political refugee, yet his propaganda, apparently, was directed against the British Government as well as the German Government!

Other European countries had taken action against anarchists from 1860 onwards, and after the Extradition Act of 1870 Britain promised to keep a close watch on the ports for any incoming ‘anarchists’. At the same time the economic basis for free immigration was being gradually undermined. America, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan – all were gaining in competitive strength. The British slumps in the 1870s and 1880s were the deepest of the century, and pressure groups arose, particularly among Midlands Tories, for restrictions on goods to protect Britain against her competitors. With the demands for protection went demands for the control and sifting of immigration labour.

Such demands coincided with the persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the consequent exodus of destitute political refugees, heading mainly for America. In the twenty-five years from 1880 to 1905 some 100,000 Jews settled in England, mainly in the East End of London. It was against the Jews that the reactionary Tory rump directed most of its propaganda, resulting in a Royal Commission in 1903.

The Royal Commission effectively destroyed all the allegations against the Jews which were current on the extreme Right. The Jews, said the Commission, were not markedly more criminal or diseased than the indigenous population; their houses were overcrowded – but no more so than many houses of English people in other areas. The shocking conditions in which they lived were common throughout the English working class. Nevertheless the Commission (with two out of seven members dissenting) advocated immigration control.

Balfour’s Tory Government, relieved by an excuse to introduce worthless and pointless legislation after long years of misrule, hastily drew up an Aliens Act. But so powerful was the Opposition from the Liberals that they were forced to withdraw it and bring forward another Act in 1905. This was opposed again, but was finally passed under the guillotine. The Act gave Home Office officials the right to refuse entry to ‘destitute’ aliens on grounds of poverty or disease.

The Labour Party, small as it was, had split over the Aliens Act in 1904, three of its Parliamentary Members opposing the Act, and three abstaining. But in 1905 all six voted against the Act. In a powerful speech Keir Hardie described the Bill as ‘fraudulent, deceitful and dishonourable’. He demanded its replacement by an Unemployed Workmen’s Bill and asserted that ‘there is no demand for this Bill from the working classes’. [3] The Aliens Act became law in August, and in December the Liberals swept into office. They were forced then to manipulate the Act which they had so bitterly opposed, without, apparently, any opposition from the Labour Party, which had grown considerably in Parliamentary strength. Yet it was not until 1911, when Mr Winston Churchill went down to Sydney Street, there to watch heroically while several foreign anarchists were burnt to death, that the Liberals finally gave in to the Tory extremist pressure and promised stricter immigrant legislation. The Liberal Government of the time lasted five years before stiffening restrictions they had opposed; while the Labour Government of 1964-65, in not dissimilar circumstances, has waited nine months.

Indeed the Liberal Government refrained from further legislation until 1914, when they hurried through an emergency Aliens Act, intended only for wartime. Such was the monstrous chauvinism of the First World War, however, that the 1914 Act was re-enacted permanently in 1919. The Act gave powers to the Home Secretary arbitrarily to deport all foreigners in Britain, and to his officials to refuse anyone entry on their own initiative. Foreigners in Britain, under the Act, must register with the police and inform them of any movement from district to district. The Act is still in effect today. It is this Act under which Soblen was deported and Delgado was refused leave to land. It is the most savage Act dealing with foreigners in the industrial world, outside Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

2. Labour Party Reactions

The Labour Party at the time unanimously opposed the Act. Josiah Wedgwood, for instance, the Labour Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, spoke in terms which were at the time widely accepted throughout the Labour Movement:

‘We believe that the interests of the working classes everywhere are the same, and these gentlemen (the Tories) will find it difficult to spread a spirit of racial hatred amongst those people who realise that the brotherhood of man and the international spirit of the workers is not merely a phrase but a reality.’ [4]

Yet the ‘international spirit of the workers’ was to vanish fast from the Labour benches. In the election at the end of 1924 in which the first Labour Government was flung from office, there were two main issues. The first was the ‘Red Letter’ alleged to have come from Zinoviev. The second was alien immigration. From constituency to constituency the Tory candidates raised the issue of immigration, indicating that Labour policy was to ‘Let Them All Come’. To which the Labour leaders argued strenuously that this was not the case. If anything, they boasted, Labour had naturalised fewer foreigners than the Conservatives!

Thus, when the Tories hammered the point home soon after the election by moving an adjournment motion for tighter immigration control, Labour collapsed officially. They put up a London ILP-er called John Scurr to move an amendment, not opposing control, as in 1919, but opposing harsher measures. Scurr himself was an internationalist, and, goaded by the Tories during his speech, he slipped into internationalist terminology:
‘We are all internationalists,’ he shouted.
Hon. Members: ‘All of you?’
G. Lansbury: ‘Yes, and why not?’
Scurr: ‘We are not afraid to say that we are internationalists – all of us. (Laughter). The boundaries between nations are artificial.’

No one can relate what that laughter represented. Perhaps it was provoked by the expressions on the faces of Labour leaders as they watched Scurr throwing away hundreds of votes by standing up to the racists.

As Tory pressure continued, so the Labour Party retreated further. By the time the Labour Government took office in 1929, they had rejected all traces of internationalism in their attitude to aliens. Indeed it was a Labour Home Secretary, John Clynes, who laid the ghost of the ‘right of political asylum’ with his contemptuous refusal to allow Leon Trotsky to enter Britain, on the grounds that ‘persons of mischievous intention would unquestionably seek to exploit his presence for their own ends’.

Thus the attitude of the Labour Party – and the trade unions – throughout the twenties and thirties remained thoroughly restrictionist. The old concepts of internationalism which had inspired so many of its members at the outset were very quickly forgotten – and were never again revived. Even the so-called ‘Left’ of the Party, symbolised by the formation of the Socialist League in 1935, stuck firmly to the chauvinist example set by Clynes and Macdonald.

These traditions clung grimly to the Labour movement immediately after the election of a Labour Government in 1945. Indeed nothing demonstrated more clearly that the Labour leaders of that time were nonplussed by capitalist development than their attitude to aliens. Cripps, Dalton and company were as convinced as any revolutionary socialist that a slump was inevitable, and that they could do nothing to prevent it. Thus when a few back-benchers, including James Callaghan, called for a Government policy of recruiting labour abroad, Cripps and Dalton turned them down on the grounds that the foreign workers would present a serious problem when (not if) the slump came.

Yet as it became clear that full employment – through no action of theirs – was here to stay, the Government was forced to look abroad for more workers. They were hampered by the ludicrous bureaucracy of the Aliens Act, which made any voluntary mass influx of foreigners impossible. Rather than repeal the Act, however (and give the impression of solidarity with the foreign workers), the Government moved outside it and established special schemes known as the European Volunteer Worker schemes. Under these schemes, the Government recruited about 250,000 displaced workers from Europe, including about 100,000 Poles, many of whom were in this country after the war and were reluctant to return to Stalinism in their homeland. A vicious campaign against the Poles, whose terms would bring a flush of pleasure to the cheeks of any modern racialist, was waged by the Communist Party and their two Parliamentary spokesmen, William Gallacher and Phil Piratin. Gallacher and Piratin never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt and should go back to their own country. [5]

The terms under which these European Volunteer Workers came to Britain were extremely harsh. There was no question of the families, as of right, joining their menfolk, and the wives were allowed in only if they could prove that they too would get a job. If the workers fell ill, they were deported. When a Ukrainian boy who had fallen off a lorry and lost his sight while working as an agricultural labourer was deported to Germany, Mr Ernest Bevin brushed the matter aside with the homily, ‘These people have only been brought here to save them from forcible deportation to the Soviet Union and they have no claim as prisoners of war to remain here.’ Thus spoke the humanitarian Methodism to which the Labour Party owes so much of its heritage.

This grisly process of contract labour could not last for ever. The expanding economies of Germany, France, Switzerland and Belgium quickly mopped up not only the remaining supply of displaced workers in Europe, but also the millions of workers who fled, helter-skelter, from the new Workers’ Paradises in the East. For a short time it looked as though the British economy would be throttled by a shortage of labour. What saved it was a historical accident of imperialism.

3. ‘Commonwealth’ Immigrants and Labour’s Collapse

For the old robbers and imperialists who had crossed the high seas in search of new forms of exploitation in the nineteenth century, had, as a demonstration of their good manners and better feelings, imposed on their subjects the privilege of British citizenship. The only recognisable right of a British citizen in a colonial country was to come to Britain free of the harsh restrictions of the Aliens Act. Thus from 1948 onwards, workers in the West Indies, and, later, peasants from India and Pakistan began to make use of their sole privilege and seek work in Britain. Unlike aliens, and unlike European Volunteer Workers, these new workers could at will bring with them, or summon after them their wives, children and parents.

The Labour Government, under whose auspices the process of Commonwealth immigration started, was happy to sit back and do nothing about it. But large-scale immigration did not begin until 1954. Between 1954 and 1961, when the Conservative Government first introduced a Bill to control Commonwealth immigration, some 200,000 coloured migrants entered the country. They were by no means all unskilled labourers. Many were skilled, white-collar employees – trained doctors, nurses, teachers and the like. Yet the majority of the migrant workers found their way (totally unaided) to the buses of London, the hospitals and engineering shops in the Midlands, and the mills of the West Riding and Lancashire.

The initial reaction of the Labour movement was to do and say nothing. There is no official Labour statement on the matter until 1958, and the trade union conference confined themselves to general anti-racialist resolutions without reference to the specific social problems of immigration. Indeed the earliest demands for immigration control – in 1954 – came from Mr John Hynd, the Labour MP for Sheffield, Attercliffe [6], and Mr Patrick Gordon Walker, the Labour MP for Smethwick. [7] The Labour Party in Parliament confined itself to sporadic questions about ‘integration’ from the back benches. In 1958, however, inspired by the Notting Hill riots and a back-bench Private Member’s Motion the Labour Party took a firm stand on the control question. Just as in 1905, and in 1919, their attitude was total opposition to control, but immediately their reasons for such an attitude differed sharply from the previous occasions. Thus Arthur Bottomley, Front Bench spokesman on Commonwealth questions, spoke out in the House on 5 December 1958:

‘We on this side are clear in our attitude towards restricted immigration. I think I speak for my Right Honourable and Honourable friends by saying that we are categorically against it ... The central principle on which our status in the Commonwealth is largely dependent is the “open door” to all Commonwealth citizens. If we believe in the importance of our great Commonwealth we should do nothing in the slightest degree to undermine that principle.’

Gone was the argument of Keir Hardie that control was ‘deceitful’ in that it did not solve the problems of the working class; gone was the argument of Josiah Wedgwood that ‘we believe that the interests of the working classes everywhere are the same’. A new element had crept into the discussion. It was ‘our great Commonwealth’.

Bottomley’s ‘categorical’ opposition to control of Commonwealth Immigration was repeated officially in 1960 and half-way through 1961 by Party leaders, although the matter was never discussed at Party Conference. When the Tories, bowing beneath the pressure from the constituencies and the small, well-organised right-wing group in Parliament, introduced a Bill to control Commonwealth Immigration, the Parliamentary Labour Party decided by a substantial majority to oppose it. Their opposition was prolonged and principled. In Parliament, they fought every line of the Bill, plugging it with huge gaps which they were later, in power, to close. Outside Parliament, they launched a campaign against the Bill, which fired the enthusiasm of all the principled sections of the movement, including, even, the Young Socialists.

Yet it was the arguments used which, in the long run, proved catastrophic for Labour. True, Gaitskell, Brown and Gordon Walker all emphasised that control did not solve the real social problems which gave rise to resentment against the immigrants. But the fundamental argument which ran through every speech and every article in opposition to the Bill from official Labour and from all sections of the Parliamentary Party heralded Bottomley’s rallying cry about ‘our great Commonwealth’.

Thus Gaitskell:

‘It is rather moving. I found when I was there that they look on us as the Mother Country in a very real sense ... I simply say that we are the Mother Country and we ought not to forget it.’ [8]

Thus Arthur, later Lord, Royle:

‘The second reason why they come here is that they are loyal members of the Commonwealth and turn as of right to the Mother Country to obtain the things which the Mother Country alone can give them.’ [9]

Thus Barbara Castle:

‘I do not care whether or not fighting this Commonwealth Immigration Bill will lose me my seat, for I am sure that this Bill will lose this country the Commonwealth.’ [10]

One of the main wrecking amendments to the Bill was moved jointly by Mr John Biggs Davison and Mr Robin Turton of the Tory extreme Right and Mr Michael Foot and Mr Sydney Silverman.

The old internationalism with which Labour had fought the Aliens Acts had vanished without trace. In its place was this crude and reactionary maternalism. For loyalty to the Commonwealth, whatever the progressive terms in which it is phrased, is nothing more nor less than inverted imperialism. Those who ask for special privileges for Commonwealth citizens are accepting that people who have been conquered by Britain should be treated more leniently than people conquered by a foreign power.

Since so much of the Labour Opposition depended on this maternalism, it was not long before the entire case, which, at the time of the Second Reading of the Bill (November 1961), was reinforced with strong and principled arguments, degenerated utterly. By February 1962, Labour back-benchers were moving amendments to the Bill that people who had fought in the war should be allowed to come into Britain free. By November 1963, when Labour was forced to oppose the continuance of the Act, Wilson (much more reactionary and opportunist on this issue than Gaitskell) could complain about the ‘loopholes’ in the Act which his own Party had created. Wilson’s only grounds for opposing the continuance of the Act on that occasion was that the Tories had not ‘consulted’ the Commonwealth Governments. Keeping out the blacks seemed to Labour in 1963 a perfectly reasonable proposition, provided the blacks were told about it in advance.

Although the Labour ‘line’ now appeared consistent, the whole of the argument was now about the Commonwealth. No longer did Labour members insist that control would not solve the real social problems, or that it was a sop to racialists. Thus what little meat there was in the Labour case in 1961-2 had disappeared completely a year later. It needed only a final shove to push Labour off their nominal opposition to the Immigration Act.

The man who gave the shove was a young schoolteacher who lived in Smethwick, whose name was Peter Griffiths. Griffiths, cast precisely in the Joseph Chamberlain Midlands Tory tradition (which has for fifty years attracted considerable working-class support), could not regard himself as likely ever to be persona grata in the Tory hierarchy. He has a strong Midland accent, and he is a crude reactionary. Unless he could win Smethwick for the Conservatives, his chances elsewhere would be minimal. He watched with interest then as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association moved into Smethwick in 1961, and, helped by able local propagandists, succeeded in exciting hundreds of working-class people in Smethwick against the immigrant. Griffiths adopted their techniques and their propagandists over a powerful two-year anti-immigrant campaign and took the seat off Labour in a swing of 7.2 per cent – against a national swing the other way of 3.5 per cent. The highest ‘swing’ to the Tories anywhere else in Britain was 3.5 per cent (in neighbouring West Bromwich).

Griffiths proved that a concerted anti-immigrant., racialist campaign, if given time, can explode the solidarity with Labour of the working-class electorate. Labour took the hint. No sooner had they settled in office but they started to tighten the controls. Gunter announced on the 17 November 1964 that there would be no more ‘C’ vouchers (for unskilled immigrants) issued, unless the prospective immigrant could show that he had fought in the war. On 5 April Soskice was promising stricter controls within the existing legislation and in mid-July, the Government finally announced a ‘quota’ system by which no more than 8,000 voucher holders would be allowed in each year from the Commonwealth. The Labour Government’s attempt to gloss over this collapse with ‘integrative measures’ and a Race Relations Act have failed miserably. Throughout, they have been compromised. The Race Relations Bill, for instance, does not deal either with housing or with employment – the two main areas of discrimination – and is in the main a restatement of the Public Order Acts, 1936.

4. Conclusions

Three crucial lessons for the Labour movement and the class it represents arise from this brief history. First, there is the unusual power and strength of racialist propaganda. Reactionary propaganda, in normal circumstances, has a political effect only within the limits of economic circumstances. Yet racial propaganda can move for long periods beyond the bounds of economic circumstances, and, further, can give otherwise impotent politicians enormous power and influence. The example of the Southern States of America hangs threateningly over the British working class. For in the period immediately after the Civil War, the Populist movement began to forge the links between white and black workers which, if completed, could only have had revolutionary consequences. Negro delegates were elected to all the State legislatures, and the leading working-class organisations joined with the Negroes to outvote, and eventually, they hoped, to overthrow the traditional ruling class in the South. Tom Watson, the Populist leader, called again and again to ‘our friends’ the Negroes, with whom the ‘poor whites’ must unite to overthrow the despotism of the planter. Observers in the South at the time noted with amazement that the incidence of racial discrimination in the South was less even than in New England, the traditional home of Northern abolitionism. The revolutionary consequences of the links between the poor white and the Negro were not lost on the two political parties, the planters or indeed the Northern Liberals. Thus it was that towards the end of the last century the great campaign was started by politicians from both Republican and Democratic parties (particularly the latter), by the planters, and – if only by their acquiescence – the Northern Liberals, to split the new alliance. With the poll tax, the white primary and a constant stream of anti-black propaganda they turned the poor white against the Negro, until poor old Tom Watson was shouting racist drivel with the rest of them. Having once staved off the revolutionary potential of a multi-racial working class alliance, however, the propaganda and the race-hatred could not stop itself, and reached proportions which were unacceptable, not only to the Northern Liberals, but also to the Southern ruling class itself. It is worth remembering that the membership of the Klu Klux Klan is almost entirely working-class.

Thus, also, in South Africa the intelligent capitalists are crying for an end to the colour bar and to a system of exploitation which allows for a relevant division of labour. They are held back by white workers who will strike rather than accept black men alongside them in the factory. The racial prejudice which the ruling class has unleashed to split the workers knows no master. It distorts the capitalist pattern out of all recognition. It is quite useless for socialists to sit back and say, ‘The capitalist system, in the long run, will unite the different racists in the process of production.’ Racist propaganda can, at will, divide the class even while the process of production unites it. Thus it must be met with fierce propaganda from the other side. Further, racialist propagandists are never satisfied. They thrive on acquiescence. In the years 1920-1926 – a period of intense racist propaganda – more aliens left the country than came in. The Control Acts of 1916 and 1961 were followed, not by acquiescence, but by renewed racist propaganda by the extremist politicians.

Secondly, there is the need for ‘integration’. The word is much abused, used far too often in a ‘teach them to live like us’ meaning. No progressive, much less socialist, is going to be associated with moves to rob people of their culture and customs. Nor, on the other hand, will he spurn the opportunity to counter the ludicrous propaganda about the immigrant community which is common gossip in many ‘affected’ working-class communities. For instance, there are very few statistics to show higher rates of crime or of disease among coloured immigrants in Britain. In the first two and a half years of immigration four Indians and six Pakistanis have been deported for criminal offences (compared, for instance, with 378 Irish), and the rate of venereal disease among Asians and the rate of tuberculosis among West Indians are in both cases lower than the rates in the indigenous population. Crime and disease among immigrants, where they are exceptionally widespread are directly due to the foul, insanitary conditions in which they are forced to live.

The foulest lie of all is the connection which is drawn between the immigrant population and the housing shortage. It is necessary constantly here to emphasise contribution. Housing shortages and the like are quite unrelated to the numbers of people in the planning area, since all these people, or almost all, are contributing to the general levy of production (or have contributed or will contribute). Take away the immigrant community and you take away their contribution to the social services, which, if anything, is slightly higher per head than that of the indigenous population. A higher proportion of immigrants are at work than the indigenous population, and many of them have entered the country as fit and available workers, whom the capitalist State is not forced to ‘educate’ or pay out family allowances for. Constantly, remorselessly the point must be driven home: modern capitalism, for all its apparent slumplessness, has not started to provide even the most basic social services for the people who produce its wealth. The number of people in any given area is quite irrelevant to the state of those services, whose shortage is entirely due to an economic system which produces wealth for the benefit and superiority of a class. Finally, there is the problem of immigration control. The matter is crucial, because it is in terms of control that the issue is always discussed, and it is under the ‘realistic’ demands for control that the racists launch their most powerful propaganda. Against the argument for control, which is accepted by some 80 per cent, if not more, of the British working class there is one defensive argument, and one offensive.

The defensive argument stems from the one iron law about international migration since capitalism began – that migration corresponds almost exactly to the economic situation in the receiving country. Thus the ‘right’ of Commonwealth immigration, although in existence for some 200 years, was not used until 1948 because there was no security of employment in Britain. Similarly, during the fifties the ‘net’ immigration into Britain from the coloured Commonwealth levelled out at some 40,000 per year during 1955, 1956, and 1957. Yet in 1958 and 1959, for no legal or administrative reason, it dropped to 20,000 a year. This was the direct result of Mr. Thorneycroft’s recession at the end of 1957 which resulted in the then highest unemployment since the war. Since the Commonwealth Immigration Act, Irish immigration, which remains uncontrolled, has corresponded almost exactly to the rise and fall of vacancies in Britain, as indeed has Puerto Rican immigration into America which is also, for similar reasons, uncontrolled.

Even if we accept all the capitalist premises, then, immigration control has nothing to do with ‘flooding the labour market’ or any such nonsense. Automatically, immigration corresponds to the needs of the economy. Similarly, in close capitalist logic, immigration does not in any way aggravate the shortage of social services, since the immigrant brings with him not only his body, which has to be housed, but also his work, which helps to build the house. Immigration control is not a creature of logic, even of capitalist logic. It has nothing to do with reason, even capitalist reason. It is a direct product of and capitulation to reason’s opposite, prejudice.

Yet this argument pales into insignificance before the real, offensive socialist argument which concerns the man who is being controlled. Upon what basis is the Indian or the Pakistani or the Jamaican refused leave to better himself by migration? The methods of immigration control reveal its true nature. People are kept out because they are sick; because they have in the past committed crimes; because, above all, they are unskilled. Yet these are the people who most need to migrate, who most need the better services and training facilities which migration brings. Why then keep them out? Simply (get out those manifestos again) because that is the method which ‘most benefits Britain’.

Immigration control is chauvinist legislation. It cannot be contemplated by an international socialist, for its whole rationale is founded on the nation state and the feverish competition in which that nation state is engaged. This struggle between nation states has two main effects. It splits and divides workers from their main objectives, and, in the long run, weakens their strength all over the world. Second, it continues the ruthless division between former imperialists and former colonial subjects. While the battle between nation states continues there remains no chance for a switch in resources from the ‘developed’ to the ‘underdeveloped’ world.

The chauvinist tradition in the British Left is today its greatest enemy. It is this tradition which drives ‘extreme’ Left-wingers in Parliament and outside to talk of immigration control as ‘planning’ and something which should therefore be welcomed. ‘Planning’ to these people is national planning: Neddy, the Coal Board, British Rail and the nationalisation of steel. The restricted immigrants get no benefit from the overall ‘plan’. But they can be forgotten. They are not British. As Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker wrote to his former constituents:

‘This is a British country with British standards of behaviour. The British should come first.’

The inhumanity and chauvinism of the Methodist Left can best be summed up in their overnight conversion to immigration control on the basis that this is ‘planning’ for a better Britain. Of course, they all want international planning one day. In the meantime they are happy with the national plan. In their heart of hearts, they are hoping for the sun. In the meantime they will continue to pray for, and urge on the rain.

The only possible attitude of an international socialist is outright opposition to immigration control. Yet it is only by taking the argument two stages further that such a position will ever convince the working class. First, that the socialist case does not stop with opposition to control: that the process whereby the employers of one country go out (as for instance the German employers go to Turkey) to recruit thousands of workers en masse, uproot them from their homes, house them in ghettos, use them as cheap labour to soften the militancy of indigenous workers – this process has nothing whatever to do with international socialism. Socialists must make it clear that they are looking for a system where people are not forced through economic circumstances to leave the homes and cultures they know and understand: that under international socialism, movement between countries is free, of course, but it is in the real sense voluntary.

Finally, opposition to immigration control must not become the sole province of well-meaning liberals who ‘believe’ in the fundamental equality of God’s children. Socialists must make it clear that they are opposed to anti-immigrant propaganda, opposed to immigration control, not for any abstract principle, but because of the need of workers of all nationalities, to forge a weapon which, unlike immigration control, will carve out the highest standards of life and living for all workers.


1. See James Handley, The Irish in Scotland.

2. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class, 1844.

3. House of Comment, 2 May 1905.

4. Ibid., 22 October 1919.

5. See the debate on the Second Reading of the Polish Resettlement Bill, Ibid., 12 February 1947.

6. Ibid., 5 November 1954.

7. See Smethwick Telephone and News Chronicle, 12 November 1954.

8. House of Commons, 16 November 1961.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 14 January 1962.

Last updated on 11.5.2008