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International Socialism, Spring 1966


Robert Rein

Step Softly, Stranger


From International Socialism, No.24, Spring 1966, p.34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Immigration and Race in British Politics
Paul Foot
Penguin, 4s 6d

Stinking herrings are part of modern political life; in the United States the herrings are red, in England they are black. Since the Smethwick election the fear of being ‘soft’ on the immigration issue has pushed both Conservatives and Labour into assuming racist attitudes and championing immigration restriction. It is very appropriate therefore that Paul Foot begins his book with a chapter on the background of the Smethwick election; he shows how anti-immigrant prejudices had deep roots in the area and led to the formation of a militant branch of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association. Perhaps the anti-immigrant agitation might have been limited to a handful of kooks if Peter Griffiths the Conservative candidate, seconded by other lower middle-class Conservatives, had not decided to exploit the issue. Gordon Walker, the Labour MP from Smethwick, never really understood the anti- or pro-immigrant arguments. Walker was unable to grasp the morality of the issue and so ‘prevaricated, apologised (and) dissociated.’ His party was ‘corroded ... by anti-immigrant sentiments.’ The result was that in 1964, a year of Labour Party successes, a safe Labour seat held by a member of the shadow cabinet fell to an obscure school teacher. Smethwick became front page news.

It is Foot’s contention that because of local conditions Griffiths’ victory was ‘unique.’ But unfortunately too many English politicians have failed to grasp this fact; they appear to operate on the assumption that their own constituencies are potential Smethwicks and they must assume Griffiths’ pose even while they abhor his style. There is a kind of creeping Smethwickism in English politics.

English antipathy toward ‘wogs’ in their midst is not of recent origin. Foot in two excellent chapters traces anti-foreign movements in English history. There was no government sanction for these movements until the Aliens Registration Act of 1919 which marked, like the 1924 immigration law in the United States, the climax of war-time xenophobia. The law has been extended several times since 1919 and for all practical purposes has prevented England from taking advantage of labour surpluses in southern Europe. Such ethnocentrism has not inhibited the French or Germans.

To fill a labour gap thousands of Commonwealth citizens have entered England since the mid-1950s. Originally all political parties welcomed these immigrants. They were English citizens and had as much right to be in Bristol as in Karachi or Trinidad. They were also ‘coloured’ and therein lies the source of anti-immigrant attitudes. White Englishmen, hardly willing to accept Italians, were in no mood to deal with ‘darkies.’ Antipathy toward immigrants was reflected eventually in politics. ‘Colour,’ as Foot warns, ‘is establishing itself as a crucial feature of British politics.’ Conservative and Labour candidates (Foot ignores the Liberal Party) have run scared and now propose to restrict immigration from the Commonwealth. So far has this gone that we have the Labour Party, a socialist party supposedly, issuing a white paper on immigration which is overtly racist in nature. The same party seems to find no contradiction in proposing a National Plan that calls for a rapid increase in the working population while also proposing to limit immigration to 8,000 a year. ‘Thus,’ Foot laconically concludes his book, ‘with industries straining for more workers and her Government desperately keeping out the blacks, does the Dynamic New Britain forge ahead into the Modern Age.’

There are certain statements and viewpoints in Foot’s book that especially interest me as an American and which invite comparisons with the United States. These are random observations and are not placed in any order of importance.

The immigrant problem in the United States, unlike England, is not a racial one. With few exceptions immigrants into the United States have been Caucasians. And over the years the United States has found means of softening ethnic-cultural conflict. Thus the arrival of 100,000 Cubans in the Miami area since 1960 has caused surprisingly little conflict; that many rural Florida Negroes moving into Miami over the same years might have caused serious dislocations. The race problem in America is indigenous and the civil rights struggle is carried out as between American and American; it utilizes a traditional rhetoric. And why not? As Alan Lomax has said: ‘We (the Negro) speak an Anglo-Saxon tongue, worship the Christian God, and our political ideas are identical with those of our nation’s founding fathers.’ In England conflict between the immigrant and the native population seems as much cultural in origin as racial. For example, the adjustment of the West Indian and his prestige rating by native-born Englishmen is higher than for Indians or Pakistani. The West Indian, in Claude McKay’s phrase, is a ‘Black Briton’ whereas the people from the Indian subcontinent are often distant in culture and language from the English. Foot unfortunately does not distinguish between the two main immigrant groups; one wonders about conflicts between them (for example, conflicts between Porto Ricans and Negroes in New York City) and what efforts are being made to provide a common front.

Foot quotes racist remarks that would warm the heart of Alabama Klansmen and certainly there is a brutality about English racism that is rare in all but the rural South. (Golliwogs or Sparky comics could never be sold in the United States.) I should say however that after the American South – I live in New Orleans – England is a hot bed of tolerance. Violence is rare in England and so one element of repressing immigrant and racial minorities is missing. An Englishman can put up signs and mutter but he can’t lynch and he can’t use the police to deny civil liberties to minorities.

The comparative tolerance in England is also based on the fact that the immigrant is deemed essential in a manner never accorded to the American Negro. Every Englishman knows that the National Health Service is dependent on immigrant doctors and nurses; he also thinks that the transport system would grind to a halt without them. Racist attitudes are bound to be hedged by the knowledge that a ‘wog’ may save your life and that he daily takes you to work.

Foot hardly touched on sexual themes in racist thought, while almost any American writing about the problem would soon be bra deep in the subject. Americans might not accept Wilbur Cash’s view that the white Southern male has a collective guilt feeling for his antics in the slave shanties, or that Negro males have such sexual powers that white women immediately desire to be raped under the nearest magnolia tree, but all Americans, excepting Quaker ladies and Communists, know that racial conflict has sexual overtones. It is the old bit about ‘Would you want your daughter ...’ I do not think there is anywhere in America where I could talk in public, as I did recently, with a West Indian, his Welsh wife, and their four children and attract so little attention.

Englishmen frequently tell Americans that as the number of immigrants grow ‘we will have your problems.’ They envision a Los Angeles and Harlem in Bradford. Actually the ratio between immigrant or racial groups and the majority provides no ready index to conflict. The Netherlands, as Foot points out, successfully integrated 300,000 Indonesians into their population, and the French, for all their history of anti-semitism, have taken in significantly more non-Europeans than the English and have done it without racial strife. Eleven per cent of the American population is Negro while in Brazil the proportion is still higher; yet a NAACP in Brazil would be about as un-natural as Carnival in Detroit. Instead of looking at America with horror it might be worth the time for Englishmen to look across the Channel with curiosity. Paris has more positive lessons than New York.

There are however a few aspects of the civil rights movement in the United States that might be emulated in England. Major American labour unions have civil rights committees which extend from the international office down to the regional and sometimes to the plant level. Since prejudice, as Foot recognizes, is often more virulent among the working than the middle class it is increasingly important for trade unions to take a stand. It might do Transport House some good to listen to representatives of the United Steel Workers explain how they reduced racial tension in Birmingham, Alabama; or to have a Teamster delegation from Texas offer a few tips on how they improved the economic and political position of Mexican Americans. At the very least the TUC should form a civil rights committee modelled on the AFL-CIO. Immigrant societies might benefit from consultations with American Negro politicians, ward leader types, who could should them how their vote can best be used for immediate and palpable gains. They might learn from civil rights organisers how to make private grievances become public protest and ultimately a matter of national concern. The immigrant organisations can learn from Negro leaders when it is wise to kick the Establishment in the shins and when to play the role of the suffering martyr.

English politicians should certainly realise from the American election in 1964 that the ‘white backlash’ faded in the election booth. The race issue is a moral one and if a party unequivocally takes a liberal view on the issue it will rally monumental support. (Foot contends that Labour would, if it followed this advice, win only in the long run.) Almost everyone wishes to be on the side of the angels. I would venture to say that if the Labour Party were to go to the country on any issue it should be on the question of ending restrictions on Commonwealth immigrants. The Party can not seem to squeeze any more votes out of The Red Flag; it might try We Shall Overcome.

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