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International Socialism, Autumn 1995


Ruth Brown

Racism and immigration in Britain


From International Socialism 2:68, Autumn 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The recent deaths of Joy Gardner and Joseph Nnalue during attempts to deport them have highlighted the desperate plight of those who seek refuge in Britain today. Across Western Europe and the US, politicians have reached a consensus that immigrants from poorer countries can be blamed for bad housing and unemployment. Opposition to immigration has become the rallying cry of all right wing politicians, of racists and of Nazi parties. Wherever tighter immigration controls have more or less prevented all primary immigration, the focus has turned increasingly to refugees and to the dependents of immigrants. In California Order 187 seeks to deny healthcare and education to the children of ‘illegal’ immigrants. Ominously, advisers to the right wing of the Tory party have been studying these proposals with great interest. In Britain only a handful of immigrants can legally enter Britain. Some are married to British citizens and some are, quite simply, rich. Thus to prove they are ‘tough’ on immigrants the Tory cabinet will introduce new laws on illegal immigrants this autumn, possibly involving identity cards. This is despite the fact that the number of illegal immigrants in Britain appears to be shrinking and there has never been any evidence that illegal immigrants put any extra strain on services.

Whatever the hard facts, the need for immigration controls is widely accepted. The tabloid press is very fond of scare stories about immigrants ‘fiddling’ the benefits system. The fact that Labour Party and trade union leaders have always supported immigration controls means that racist ideas about immigration can sometimes gain a hearing among workers. Central to much racist ideology about immigration into Britain is the notion that immigration is a very recent phenomenon, which began only with the arrival of black workers from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent in the 1950s and 1960s. This view rests on the assumption that the British nation and the ‘British character’ were developed, throughout history, in splendid isolation from the rest of the world, untainted by unwelcome contact or exchange with ‘foreigners’ or ‘outsiders’.

This view of immigration depends on a deliberate rewriting of history. It is a version of the past which excludes not only all black people, but most other ‘non-British’ nationalities from the history of civilisation in what is now called Britain. In fact, the population of Britain has always been composed of different peoples. The Celts, Saxons and Vikings all came to Britain as the result of various invasions, making the British the most ethnically composite of all European peoples. [1]

But in pre-capitalist societies the number of people who moved across different territories – or even significant distances within one geographical area – remained very small, and usually involved only traders and merchants. Large scale movements of people in search of work are unique to modern capitalism, and immigration as we understand it today really began in the 19th century with the consolidation of unified nation states with recognisable borders. Immigration went hand in hand with the development of the capitalist system and the capitalist state. In its earliest years this took the form of the slave trade, the first large scale forced movement of labour in history. As Marx put it, ‘the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed for its pedestal slavery pure and simple’. [2] Virtually every section of British capitalism relied on the massive wealth which derived from the slave trade to get a head start over its competitors. Britain’s key role in the forced transportation of some 30 million black people between 1500 and 1800 illustrates much more than the sheer cruelty of Britain’s capitalist class – it also represents the first organised attempt by British capitalists to meet the insatiable demand for labour which characterised early capitalism.

The development of capitalism depended not only on slavery, but also on the free movement of labour The migration of labour has always reflected the combined and uneven development of capitalism on a global level. Workers follow capital to the most developed areas to meet the demand for wage labour in urban centres of capitalist expansion. In the process they attempt to escape poverty and unemployment in areas where capitalism is in decline, or where it has failed to take off altogether. This is a process which frequently takes place within the boundaries of a country, but modern capitalism is also characterised by large scale movements of workers across the borders of individual nation states. Just as capital is moved from one geographical area to another, in search of the most profitable location, so too labour, with greater difficulty, moves after it. In 19th century Britain, for example, many who moved to work in the cotton mills were escaping the effects of the enclosure of the land. [3] But by the mid-19th century huge numbers of Irish people were forced by famine in Ireland to join them, working on the railways, the docks and the mills in appalling conditions. [4]

It was the development of railways and steamships which made both internal and external migration an option for thousands of people. By 1840 approximately 70,000 people were emigrating from Britain every year and in the mid-1850s this number doubled after the discovery of gold in California. Most went to British ‘commonwealth’ colonies, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand and, increasingly, to the US. By 1871 Britain had become a net exporter of population. With only a few notable exceptions, this has continued to be the case throughout each successive decade of the 20th century. Capitalism has made immigration both possible and also necessary, as the system has historically depended on the labour which immigration makes available. [5]

Throughout the 19th century mass immigration transformed whole countries, the most dramatic example being America. In half a century America was transformed from an insignificant nation on the periphery of Europe into the most populous nation in the Western world, with historically unprecedented levels of immigration called forth by and fuelling huge levels of economic growth. Even so the ‘American dream’ did not become a reality for most immigrant workers who faced poverty and discrimination. Throughout the 19th century cities with the largest immigrant populations were the poorest of all – in 1860 the death rate in New York was twice as high as that of London. As early as 1840 in the largest American cities, the richest 5 percent of the population owned 70 percent of all property and by 1860 the richest 5 percent of adult males owned 53 percent of all wealth, whilst only 1 percent was owned by the poorest half of the population. [6]

Patterns of early immigration into the US demonstrate how immigration is closely related to the level of demand for labour in the American economy, as well as to job prospects in the immigrant worker’s country of origin. Though many went to the US to escape from persecution, such as the Jews who fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe, the basic link between immigration and the availability of jobs (both in the ‘host’ country and at home) remains central. This is not only true of the US. In Britain large scale emigration continued unabated, particularly from the 1870s onwards, as British capitalism began to enter into a period of economic decline. [7]

Even so Britain also continued to import labour throughout the 19th century and it was invariably those groups moving into – rather than out of – Britain who attracted the most attention, especially Irish immigrants and, from the 1880s, Jews from Eastern Europe. Economic destitution and vicious persecution combined to drive huge numbers of workers westwards at the end of the century, and a significant proportion of these headed for Britain, often en route to the US.

The 1905 Aliens Act

In keeping with its role as the ‘workshop of the world’, Britain long enjoyed a reputation as a liberal provider of refuge and political asylum. The British ruling class had little use for immigration controls for most of the 19th century. The ‘free’ approach to immigration flourished in the heyday of free trade, as British capitalism expanded to the four corners of the globe. During the boom years of the industrial revolution British capitalism lapped up labour with an insatiable thirst, if only to throw workers back into unemployment in times of slump. Britain’s bosses showed little interest in the national or ethnic ‘character’ of the labour power which they sucked into the expanding British economy.

However, by the turn of the century Britain clearly no longer ‘ruled the waves’, its industry increasingly undermined by cheaper imports from abroad. The end of the 19th century was marked by deep economic depression and political crises, as huge price rises led to massive cuts in virtually all workers’ standards of living, and rising unemployment forced millions into abject poverty. The working class responded with the explosion of ‘new unionism’, embodied in the strike wave which swept Britain in 1889, involving thousands of women and immigrant workers.

Sadly, the heroic struggles which characterised this period of ‘new unionism’ proved to be shortlived. The ruling class fought back, and against the background of working class defeat the first law aimed at controlling immigration into Britain was introduced. The 1905 Aliens Act introduced by Balfour’s Tory government had an overriding advantage for the government and the ruling class as a whole. It institutionalised the idea that immigrants alone were responsible for the rapidly deteriorating conditions which most workers were suffering.

The introduction of the act was accompanied by a rise of anti-Semitism, led by the gutter press, against the growing numbers of impoverished Jewish refugees arriving in London’s East End. In parliament Tory MPs whipped up an anti-Semitic frenzy. One even likened Jewish immigration to the entry of diseased cattle from Canada. [8] Jewish refugees were simultaneously accused of taking British workers’ jobs and of living on welfare, in the same racist – and self contradictory – mythology which opponents of immigration continue to employ against migrant workers today. Outside parliament backbench Tory MPs were also key to building Britain’s first anti-immigrant organisations like the British Brothers League which, for the first time, succeeded in mobilising some level of working class support. Growing unemployment and particularly bad housing conditions in London’s East End made newly arrived Jewish immigrants an easy scapegoat. [9]

The official leadership of the British working class movement capitulated to growing racism and anti-Semitism within British society, and actually did much to make racism respectable inside parts of the working class movement. The official trade union movement repeatedly blamed immigrant workers for the growing levels of unemployment within the British economy and from 1892 onwards the TUC called for a complete halt to immigration. Meanwhile in London Ben Tillett, the dockers’ leader, told migrant workers, ‘Yes, you are our brothers, and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come’. [10]

Given the hostility which union leaders and others directed at Jewish migrant workers, it is fairly remarkable that so many of them did consistently refuse to break the ranks of the working class. Strikes like that of the Jewish tailors in Leeds showed the potential which clearly existed for building united working class opposition, not only to the racist agitation which preceded the introduction of the Aliens Act, but also to the growing offensive against working class living standards. [11]

Notwithstanding the overtly racist and anti-Semitic character of the agitation which led up to the Aliens Act, it remains essentially a piece of class legislation. Growing competition for jobs within the working class, as well as for other basic necessities of life like housing, was increasingly evident during this period. Both Liberal and Tory politicians attempted to conceal their abject failures by blaming immigrants for the growing housing crisis. As Liberal MP Cathcart Wilson put it, ‘What is the use of spending thousands of pounds on building beautiful workmen’s dwellings if the places of our own workpeople, the backbone of the country, are to be taken over by the refuse scum of other nations?’ [12]

As with all subsequent immigration controls in Britain, the Aliens Act was thus designed primarily to create an easy target for an increasingly impoverished and unemployed working class and marks one of the first institutionalised attempts by the British ruling class to divide and rule the working population by means of overt racism. Of course, it was never clearly stated that the act was aimed only at Jews, but nobody was left in any doubt as to who its intended targets would be. Crucially the act was aimed only at keeping out working class Jews, those ‘without visible means of support’.

Immigration between the wars

Once in place, successive governments were more than keen to extend the basic framework of the 1905 Act, despite clear evidence that the Act was not popular. This was increasingly the case as the ruling class faced another rising tide of militancy. By the eve of the First World War workers were spending nearly four times as many days on strike as they had done at the turn of the century. The national dock strike of 1911 was accompanied by the first ever national rail strike and in the following year miners also took national strike action for the first time.

The outbreak of war in 1914 meant that the ruling class was provided with a perfect excuse for renewed attempts to whip up nationalism and jingoism. In August 1914 the Aliens Restriction Act was rushed through parliament virtually unopposed. Some 28,744 Austrians and Germans were instantly repatriated and 32,000 other ‘non-British’ nationals were interned in prison camps, where they remained for the course of the war. [13] Apart from White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution, Britain’s increasingly rigid immigration controls meant that few others were able to gain entry to Britain during the course of the First World War. The Aliens Restriction Act, combined with the Defence of the Realm Act, passed some weeks later, created for the first time a clear definition of British nationality in law and laid down strict guidelines for local police and military authorities in their treatment of ‘aliens’.

The 1919 Aliens Act was introduced against the background of fervent nationalism and anti-German feeling created by the First World War. It formed the basis of all immigration legislation until the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act, and was renewed every single year between 1919 and 1971. Crucially the 1919 Aliens Act greatly restricted the employment of ‘alien’ workers in Britain. German and Jewish workers became Tory politicians’ most favoured, if not their sole, explanation for the obvious decline of British capitalism. But the Tory party certainly had no monopoly over the growing institutionalisation of racism in British society between the wars. The infant Labour Party did nothing to counter the overtly anti-Semitic agitation in which Tory MPs frequently indulged. Although this growing nationalism and racism inside parliament, and amongst at least some sections of British society between the wars, was ultimately a product of the economic depression, the actual levels of labour migration decreased dramatically during this period. With no jobs available, there was little motivation for workers to move. Between the 1920s and 1930s there was a staggering decline in the total number of new immigrant workers entering Britain with the figure standing at around 700 a year for most of this period. This was ultimately a result of the almost complete lack of job opportunities in Britain. Although economic conditions were even worse in places like the Caribbean, with whole sections of the economy collapsing with the onset of slump, workers simply sat it out at home, rather than face racism and unemployment in Britain.

Even when Jewish refugees fleeing the rise of Nazism in Austria and Germany began to arrive in Britain during the late 1930s, entry was granted only to a tiny minority of those who promised that they intended to settle permanently elsewhere. MPs complained relentlessly about Jewish refugees ‘scurrying’ from Germany into Britain and regularly called for a further tightening of controls. [14] Many of those who did manage to gain admission to Britain were then deported within months of arriving, alongside thousands of ‘enemy aliens’. Mass deportations continued throughout the Second World War even after a ship carrying a human cargo of mainly Germans, Italians and Austrians, most of whom had lived in Britain for more than 20 years, was torpedoed off the west coast of Ireland causing the deaths of nearly 700.

In 1941 the British government also reintroduced internment and included within its remit literally thousands of Jews who wanted to enlist in the war against Hitler. For those not interned, deportation, mainly to Canada and Australia, was usually their fate. Some estimates put the total number of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust who managed to get into Britain as low as 10,000 during the whole of the Second World War. [15] Many Jews were forced to stay in Germany, or to return there, because the doors of every major Western power were firmly closed in their faces. In this respect the British government helped to play its part, alongside many other European nations, in driving millions of Jews into Hitler’s concentration camps during the course of the Second World War.

In sharp contrast, the British government made sure that its restrictions on the entry of Jewish and other refugees did not stop it ignoring the provisions of the Aliens Act when it needed to recruit labour. Given the acute labour shortages which developed in some sections of the British economy, particularly after 1943, it might appear irrational for British capitalism to have continued to rely on this strict system of immigration controls during the Second World War. In fact, throughout the war the British government brought more than 60,000 Irish men and women to work in Britain, as well as smaller numbers from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. [16]

By recruiting labour through state sponsored schemes which, by definition, fell outside the remit of the Aliens Act, the British wartime government thus got the best of both worlds. On the one hand migrant labour could continue to be recruited when needed, directed now by the state towards those areas of the economy where labour shortages were developing. On the other hand the maintenance of the Aliens Act, as well as the introduction of internment and the mass deportations of ‘enemy aliens’, helped the ruling class to galvanise a growing mood of nationalism and xenophobia at least amongst some sections of the British population. This reinforced the greater involvement of the state in the labour market and in the economy generally, which occurred during and after the Second World War.

Immigration and the post-war boom

None of the major advanced capitalist countries ended the Second World War with a significantly reduced labour force, in spite of the appalling numbers of dead and wounded. [17] By 1946 industrial production in Britain was roughly equal to the level of 1938. [18] Employment levels were slightly higher than in the years immediately preceding the war. Even so it was clearly recognised by Britain’s rulers in the immediate post-war years that reconstruction would need an injection of additional labour power, at least in those areas of the economy where backlogs of neglected work existed, especially after women were initially encouraged to leave wartime industries and go back to the home.

Rising fears of future labour shortages in the British economy thus lay behind the Labour government’s liberal policy towards ‘enemy’ prisoners and expatriates from 1946 onwards, and were also responsible for a significant number of state directed schemes aimed at encouraging the settlement of ‘foreign’ workers in Britain immediately after the war. Plans to repatriate thousands of Poles were shelved in 1946, for strictly practical, not humanitarian, reasons. [19] And Labour quickly reversed its initial post-war policy of pushing women workers out of the workforce when in 1947 it broadcast radio appeals for women to re-enter the workforce.

Within only a few years of closing its doors to the victims of the Holocaust, Britain thus introduced a ‘positive’ immigration policy, whereby it again organised state sponsored recruitment schemes outside the terms of the Aliens Act. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm extended only to healthy able bodied workers. Those brought to Britain under the schemes were liable to deportation if they fell ill – one young boy, who lost an eye at work after falling off a lorry in a farming accident, was actually deported back to Germany. Indeed, Britain’s treatment of displaced persons and refugees after the war was so disgraceful that even the United Nations accused Britain of subjecting its newly arrived workers to ‘an official policy of discrimination’. [20]

A report from the Royal Commission on Population, published in 1949, recommended that immigration into Britain should be welcomed ‘without reserve’ but only on the condition that the migrants were ‘of good stock and were not prevented by their race or religion from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged into it’. [21] This referred to the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in Britain the previous year, which had brought some 400 West Indians to Britain in search of work. The commission broadly hinted in the report that ‘coloured’ immigration would not provide a satisfactory solution to Britain’s future labour shortages. Even so during the 1950s employers would prove to be far less concerned about religion or race than with maintaining production whatever the Royal Commission’s attitude. British employers were quick to recognise the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent as fertile recruiting grounds for labour during the 1950s, whatever racist ideas they held. It is interesting to note that some of the most vehement opponents of immigration during the 1960s, such as Tory MP Peter Thorneycroft were actually complaining in the 1950s that immigration controls which prevented ‘free men’ from coming to Britain were ‘contemptible’. [22]

For the capitalist class migrant labour has one central advantage: they have to contribute nothing at all to the cost of raising and educating immigrant workers. This advantage is quickly eroded if immigrant workers bring with them any dependants who are themselves unable to work for reasons of age or health. Family reunion also indicates, of course, a likelihood that the family intends to settle in the ‘host’ country, thereby creating new demands for the provision of facilities and resources. As early as 1947 the British government abandoned any pretence of concern for the plight of refugees who had been separated from their families by the war and effectively banned the entry of dependants by forcing prospective migrants to sign a form stating that they were single, unattached and had no dependent relatives. [23]

This one single act effectively marked the beginning of a pattern of government legislation which has dominated not only Britain, but most of the advanced capitalist countries, since the 1950s. Aimed at strictly controlling both the level and the nature of immigration, it reflects the need for governments to ensure a continuing supply of flexible labour. And by prohibiting the entry of the family dependants of these ‘ready made’ workers, the ‘host state ensures that it bears little, if any, of the cost of reproducing migrant labour. In the 1950s massive amounts of arms spending stimulated a huge expansion in the economy. Labour shortages were thus a central concern for Western European ruling classes. By the time that the first Tory government since the Second World War was elected, acute labour shortages were its biggest problem, reflected in the King’s speech, which spoke of ‘serious shortages of labour [which have] handicapped production in a number of industries’. [24]

By the mid-1960s full employment had arrived. Official unemployment was no higher than 3 percent across the advanced economies. In Britain unemployment reached 3 percent during the fuel crisis of the winter of 1947, [25] and remained somewhat lower for the greater part of two decades. By June 1951 there were 3.5 million more workers employed in Britain than there had been at the end of the Second World War and the British economy grew faster than at any time since the peak of the Victorian era, with real wages rising by more than 25 percent between 1952 and 1962. [26] For some, including many on the left of the Labour Party, Keynesianism seemed to have banished mass unemployment forever, and to be transforming the nature of capitalism. [27]

With the boom boosting the advanced industrial centres of the US and Western Europe, the less developed economies in the world system became desperate to include themselves in the process of capital accumulation. Inevitably more and more workers gravitated to the West during the 1950s and 1960s. Here new industries and services continued to spring up throughout the boom, industries which demanded new skills and offered higher wages. Electrical engineering, petro-chemicals, banking, insurance and public services all expanded dramatically during the 1950s and early 1960s and invariably sucked labour from other sections of the economy. Throughout Western Europe labour shortages developed in a number of different areas of the economy, mainly those with the lowest levels of pay and the poorest working conditions, such as textile production, metal manufacture, the building trade, and the catering and health services. [28]

Migrant labour was a far cheaper way of meeting the demand for labour than other alternatives, such as drawing women into the workforce on a significantly increased level. Western governments thus attempted to solve the problem of selective labour shortages by emphatically encouraging labour migration, sometimes by organising state run recruitment schemes, but also by relying on employers to recruit labour directly through private recruitment agencies. Most of the migrant labour power which serviced the older industries of Western Europe during the post-war boom was drawn from countries on the economic periphery of Europe, like Greece, Spain, Turkey, Italy, Yugoslavia, Morocco and Tunisia, but also from the colonial and ex-colonial countries of the major European powers. These were invariably societies whose economies had been ruined by decades of colonial domination. Poverty and unemployment drove many to emigrate.

The long boom created a mass proletarianisation across European society as millions made the long trek from the family farm to the lights of the big city during those years. Yet with chronic underdevelopment and rapid population growth a feature of economic life in the urban areas of these economies too, millions were forced to continue their journey across Europe to the more advanced cities of the West, whilst others simply moved straight from the countryside in their homeland to the urban areas of the West. By the early 1970s around 11 million migrant workers from southern Europe and the colonies were working in the economies of northern and western Europe. [29]

The largest group to come to Britain after the war were Irish workers drawn mainly from the Republic and during the 1950s Irish migration into Britain reached levels not witnessed since the industrial revolution. In one sense this movement was not separate from the long history of Irish immigration into Britain and, as such, was merely a symptom of Britain’s age old exploitation and domination of Ireland. Indeed, it was British colonialism which had ‘rewarded’ Irish workers with the right of unrestricted entry into Britain making Britain the first option for the mainly semi-skilled and unskilled workers who entered during these years. [30]

As well as Irish workers, an average of 16,000 migrant workers from outside the Commonwealth came to Britain each year between 1951 and 1964, but these figures differed quite markedly each year, according to real levels of labour shortage in the British economy. [31] Moreover, by the mid-1960s Britain was rapidly becoming less and less attractive as a source of jobs, particularly for semi-skilled and unskilled workers. This is most clearly reflected by the simple fact that far more people left the UK than entered it during the 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the unprecedented levels of growth created by the post-war boom, Britain’s economy grew at a slower rate than most of the other advanced Western economies. Indeed, Britain continued to decline as a world power in the post-war years and was forced to give up much of its empire.

Had Britain not been able to draw on a pool of labour in the Commonwealth, the British government might even have been forced to repeal the Aliens Act, to entice more workers to come to Britain in order to meet the continuing demand for labour in certain areas of the economy. As it turned out, the former colonial territories, their economies starved of investment and distorted by the previously insatiable demands of the leading Western nations for raw materials, ensured a continuous flow of labour out of the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent and into America and Western Europe even after the long boom had reached its peak. Despite the thinly disguised message from the Royal Commission of Populations of 1949, which essentially tried to ‘warn off’ bosses from recruiting ‘coloured’ labour, prospective employers in the 1950s had little concern for the skin colour or religion of their new employees. Whatever racist ideas they held were secondary to their need for workers to fill gaps in the labour market by doing the worst jobs. The reason why Britain’s employers so enthusiastically recruited workers from the Commonwealth was that they had nowhere else to get them from.

When the ‘racialisation’ of British politics emerged fully, some years after the arrival of immigrants from the Commonwealth and the Indian sub-continent, it frequently relied upon a deliberate and insidious denial that there was ever an open invitation from Britain’s cabinet ministers and employers to come to this country. To demolish all the racist myths used by politicians then and now, in their attempt to construct the notion that Britain has a ‘race/immigration’ problem, it is usually necessary to start with this one simple, and undeniable, fact: that British capitalists, and some sections of the British state, initiated and actively encouraged large scale emigration to Britain from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent during the 1950s and 1960s.

Workers from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s for the same reason that has led workers to migrate throughout the history of capitalism: to find work. Moreover, as with all labour migration, levels of immigration from the Caribbean – and later from the Indian sub-continent – at least to begin with, were always strictly related to the level of demand for labour within the British economy. There was only a slight ‘delay’ at each end of cycle as levels of immigration adjusted to changed economic circumstances in Britain. In 1959, for instance, levels of immigration into Britain from the Caribbean were too low to meet the boom of that year but, in 1961 when the boom started to peter out, figures for immigration were geared to suit the situation a few months earlier and were therefore slightly too high in relation to actual job opportunities in Britain. [32]

Post-war immigration into Britain from the Caribbean was drawn mainly from the very poorest Caribbean islands, where conditions were harshest of all both for rural and urban populations. Yet workers still continued to make the journey to Britain when the certainty of a job existed. A keen awareness of the state of the British labour market existed in the Caribbean and one West Indian migrant into Britain later recalled that ‘the South London Press could be brought in Hildage’s Drugstore, near West Parade, in downtown Kingston, Jamaica ...’ [33] This knowledge was also built upon by an informal communications network between migrant workers already settled in Britain and friends and acquaintances back home. Individual employers in Britain were often known to exploit this informal network in their efforts to recruit labour, as well as paying for advertisements in New Commonwealth countries. However informal much of this process was, it still proved to be an extremely accurate mechanism for meeting labour demand in Britain and immigration levels consistently dropped very quickly after any drop in the number of advertised vacancies. It was only the racism of Britain’s rulers some years later which destroyed this ‘natural’ relationship between levels of labour migration and the level of demand for labour.

In the early 1960s government ministers, as well as private employers, started to recruit directly in the West Indies. These included Enoch Powell, who actively encouraged the migration of medical staff from India and the West Indies during his time as Minister for Health. The London Transport executive made an agreement with the Barbadian Immigration Liaison Service. Other employers, such as the British Hotel and Restaurant Association, made similar agreements. In the 1950s most Indian migrant workers to arrive in Britain were Sikhs from the rural areas of the Punjab, where the partition of the Punjab between India and Pakistan had created immense pressure on land resources during the 1950s and 1960s, greatly increasing such emigration from then on.

Whatever the specific situation within the economies of the main Commonwealth countries which led different groups of workers to migrate to Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, the overall explanation for all labour migration from the Indian sub-continent, as well as from the Caribbean, was the same – the poverty and unemployment which were a direct result of economic problems caused by years of British colonial exploitation.

Most of the first newcomers to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s tended to settle in areas of low unemployment. Therefore they inevitably gravitated towards major cities, to London in particular, but also to the Midlands and to areas further north, like Bradford. Contrary to ‘popular’ and racist mythology, many of the Caribbean workers who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s were highly skilled workers, but once here racism ensured that virtually all were forced into semi-skilled or unskilled work – often in those areas which had been partially deserted by the indigenous workforce in favour of the higher pay and better conditions in industries associated with new technology.

With discrimination widespread, nearly all black workers remained in the manual working class with little hope of promotion or mobility. Moreover, when the economy did begin to slow down in the late 1960s, it was black workers who invariably lost their jobs first. In a period of only 12 weeks during 1956, for instance, unemployment rose from 23 to 400 in Smethwick, the West Midlands town which would later become famous for the notoriously racist election campaign which the Tory candidate ran there in the early 1960s. [34] Of those who remained in work, Commonwealth migrants usually did twice the amount of shift work as other workers and on average earned significantly lower wages.

One clear indication that the overwhelming majority of migrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent intended to stay in Britain for only a short period of time is this readiness on the part of most of them to migrate internally within Britain. New Commonwealth migrants were predominantly young people in their late teens or early twenties and, in the case of Caribbean migration, almost half of those who came to Britain as wage labourers in their own right were single women. Conversely most migrants from the Indian sub-continent were single or married men. Nearly all members of both groups nevertheless came to Britain with the intention of staying only temporarily, long enough to earn enough money to improve the situation back home once he or she returned to his or her family. Where fares had not been loaned directly by employers to prospective migrants, workers’ fares to Britain were often paid by pooling family resources.

As the demand for labour continued to drop during the 1960s most of these temporary migrants were gradually transformed into permanent settlers, even if many still maintained a belief that they would eventually return ‘home’. As unemployment began rising slowly in the 1960s and then more quickly during the 1970s, migrant workers found themselves suffering the effects disproportionately. Enticed here by bosses facing desperate labour shortages in the 1950s, most of these workers now found themselves thrown onto the scrap heap first, and re-employed last, as capitalism became less and less able to employ its workforce. The squeeze in the job market which began in the 1960s and accelerated during the 1970s was the main reason why so many New Commonwealth immigrants were forced to revise their original plans for a speedy return home, although few could have foreseen that the British economy was entering into a period of profound economic crisis from which it is yet to recover.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962)

What fundamentally transformed this situation, as well as dramatically increasing the numbers of Commonwealth migrants who did attempt to reach Britain during the early 1960s, was the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill of 1962. In the period immediately before and after the Tories introduced the 1962 Act, the entry of dependants into Britain increased almost threefold as families were left with little choice but to attempt to ‘beat the act’, amidst widespread fears that Britain planned to permanently close its doors to its citizens in the New Commonwealth, including the families of those already living in Britain. Total New Commonwealth immigration thus grew from 21,550 entrants in 1959, to 58,300 in 1960. A year later this last figure had more than doubled and a record 125,400 New Commonwealth immigrants entered the UK in 1961. [35] Thus the racism of Britain’s Tory government led them to destroy in one single act the almost perfect symmetry which had previously existed between levels of migration into Britain and the level of demand for labour there. And if this were not irony enough, the Tory government then drew back at the last minute from restricting the right of family reunification to Commonwealth citizens under the terms of the 1962 Act and thereby scored not one but two own goals.

Even so, the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill proved to be a landmark in a much more enduring sense, with far graver consequences for future migrant workers. It was the first legislation to introduce state regulation of Commonwealth immigration and introduced the first ever entry restrictions on British Commonwealth citizens, by making primary immigration dependent upon the possession of a work voucher. Given that the intended targets of the Act were all black or Asian (and few ever even attempted to deny this), the 1962 Act also marks the first of a series of racially discriminatory pieces of legislation which have combined to lay the basis for the notoriously racist immigration laws for which Britain is so famous today. The 1962 Act enshrined in law for the first time the completely false, yet no less insidious, notion that immigration equals black immigration, a notion upon which all successive immigration legislation has been built.

In 1968, for instance, the Labour government introduced into law the nonsense of the ‘New Commonwealth’ which, translated, means ‘black’ and therefore ‘unwelcome’. Not satisfied, in 1971 the Tories introduced into law the equally absurd notion of ‘patriality’ which, when translated, means ‘white’ and, by implication, ‘welcome’. Overall the 1962 Act succeeded in making respectable, as well as enshrining in law, what was previously only claimed openly by isolated bigots like Enoch Powell or what was whispered in private in cabinet committees: that black immigration into Britain is a fundamentally bad thing, and that it should be prevented at all costs, except, of course, where the system would literally cease to function without it.

The politics of racism

Throughout the 1950s labour shortage was still seen as the main problem for British industries most vulnerable to the ‘stop-go’ cycle, like the car industry. In 1956 the Wolverhampton Express and Star concluded the following: ‘If Britain’s present boom is to be maintained, more workers must be found. Where? The new recruits to British industry must come it would seem, from abroad, from the colonies, Eire and the Continent.’ So in the 1950s the Tory cabinet voted by big majorities against immigration controls. But some backbench Tories were beginning to feel confident enough to make open references in parliament to the supposed links between Commonwealth immigrants and disease, and between blacks and violent crime (despite the fact that blacks and Asians were themselves far more likely to be physically attacked than any other social group in Britain). Constant references to high birth rates amongst blacks were also made, as well as the inference that blacks in Britain were quite happy to remain unemployed, thereby implying that immigrants came to Britain only to ‘scrounge’ from the welfare state. These Tory backbenchers were central to creating the essentially artificial link between ‘race relations’ and immigration which was developed during the late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain and by which British politics were ‘racialised’ during that period. In so doing, however, they built upon the findings of a cabinet committee, set up by Labour as far back as 1951, which recommended that any future immigration controls would ‘as a general rule, be more or less confined to coloured persons’. [36]

By 1964 virtually no MP in the Commons would speak out openly in favour of unrestricted immigration and by the mid-to late 1960s levels of immigration from the Commonwealth were down to virtually zero as a direct result of government legislation. So what had changed? Mainly the state of the British economy, which by 1961 was characterised by declining economic performance. Newly arrived black and Asian workers from the Commonwealth proved to be the perfect scapegoats for the ever deepening economic troubles which the Tories now faced. Moreover, as the general election loomed nearer and nearer, their political bankruptcy became ever more visible and most were desperate to rustle up a few cheap votes in any way possible. The Tory party quickly capitulated to pressure from the right by introducing the 1962 Act.

Initially, at least, the act made little difference to real levels of Commonwealth immigration – the right of entry for dependants was not withdrawn and many continued to enter until 1967, free of control. Crucially, though, the entry of all other Commonwealth immigrants was now controlled by the state via the issuing of vouchers. Those still able to enter now had to fit into one of three categories, designed to match workers to specific jobs for which they had already been employed, or to encourage workers with very specific skills, namely those which were still in demand in the British economy, to continue to come to work in Britain. British bosses had been noticeably absent from the calls for controls and it is significant that the act in no way prevented them from recruiting that labour which was still needed.

The major difference, for the employers at least, was that the recruitment of Commonwealth labour was now conducted via the state, although this increased level of state control did not lead to the state assuming responsibility for providing housing or other services for the 40,000 or so New Commonwealth migrants who arrived each year between 1962 and 1965. The main effect of Britain’s first overtly racist immigration act was thus to institutionalise racism within the machinery of the state, rather than to prevent the recruitment of necessary labour power. Black immigration was now perceived to be a problem in society at large, even though blacks, when they were needed, could still be brought to work in Britain. When the need for their labour was not so great, a thoroughly racist system of immigration controls would, moreover, help to ensure that black workers already in Britain could be blamed more easily for the rapidly growing difficulties which the economy faced in the years which immediately followed the introduction of the 1962 Act.

Labour and immigration controls

During the late 1950s the official position of the Labour Party towards immigration controls was apparently still one of principled opposition to any controls. Labour certainly kept quiet about this position during the 1959 election, but gave no indication that its policies towards immigration had changed in any way. [37] Even so this did not prevent the right wing of the Labour Party from making all the running over the question of immigration during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Labour MPs joined in with Tory claims that 11,000 to 12,000 immigrants were ‘pouring’ into Britain every year, whilst some even wrote leader articles for daily newspapers arguing the case for immigration controls. Indeed, one or two Labour MPs called in parliament for even tighter controls than those proposed by the Tories’ 1962 Act. [38] Yet as late as the committee stage of the 1962 Bill Denis Healey, on behalf of the front bench of the Labour opposition, was still prepared to tell a mass meeting of Commonwealth Immigrant Organisations in Britain that a Labour government would repeal the Tories’ Act. [39]

By the end of 1962, though, Harold Wilson was assuring parliament that Labour no longer contested the need for immigration controls, whilst increasing numbers of Labour MPs supported the claim that Britain could not afford to be the ‘welfare state for the whole of the Commonwealth’. [40] By the time of the 1964 election the Labour Party was even more willing than the Tories to use the question of immigration controls to win votes. During the 1964 election campaign nearly twice as many Labour candidates as Tory mentioned immigration in their election addresses – and almost all of those who did made it plain that Labour was keen to continue Tory immigration policies. [41] One Labour candidate, in the Wandsworth Central seat, even issued a leaflet entitled ‘Things About Immigration the Tories Want You to Forget’, which stated the following:

Large-scale immigration has occurred only under this Tory government. The Tory Immigration Act has failed to control it – immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here. [42]

Labour’s election manifesto also made it clear that Labour would retain immigration controls in all circumstances, whilst negotiating with Commonwealth countries over ways of preventing immigration ‘at source’. The main explanation for Labour’s volte-face over the question of controls is simply that it feared losing votes if it failed to take a ‘tough’ line on immigration. Of course, this was never openly admitted. In fact, Labour never once attempted to give any explanation for its complete turnaround over the question of controls. Roy Hattersley came the closest to an explanation during a parliamentary debate in 1965, during which he publicly bemoaned Labour’s failure to support the introduction of the 1962 Act, whilst calling for a test ‘to analyse which immigrants... are most likely to assimilate in our national life’. [43] In other words, the key to understanding why Labour did a complete somersault over the question of immigration controls is that it was prepared, then as now, to pander to racist ideas about immigrants in order to win votes at a general election. In the process, by failing to challenge the racism at the heart of all immigration controls – that migrant workers do not ‘fit in’, or are ‘different’, even ‘inferior’ in some way – the Labour Party gave significant credibility to the increasing calls for controls which both preceded and followed the introduction of the 1962 Act. That Labour reversed its earlier policy of opposing immigration controls purely for reason of electoral expediency was admitted years later by Richard Crossman in his diaries:

Ever since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party ... If we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in and blight the central areas of our cities.

Hattersley’s speech is important for another reason, as it illustrates more than just the unprincipled vote gathering in which the Labour Party was prepared to indulge. The stress on ‘our national life’ as being somehow in need of protection also indicates very clearly Labour’s emphatic belief in ‘the nation’, its belief in the idea that British workers and employers all have something in common by virtue of being born under the Union Jack. Any such commitment to this sort of nationalism is inevitably accompanied by an equally great commitment to the British state, including its vast machinery of racist immigration officers and controls – and this is a commitment which Labour governments both before and after the 1964 election have never flinched from making. Even if it is true that the majority of Labour MPs are not motivated by the same kind of crude racism and bigotry which characterises the Tory party, the net result of Labour’s belief in the ‘national interest’ – and in everything which accompanies it, including racist immigration controls – is exactly the same.

Of course, Labour attempted to complete its about turn on immigration during the early 1960s by attempting to hide behind an argument first mooted by the right wing of the Tory party, namely, that immigration controls are needed to preserve good ‘race relations’ in Britain. This completely insidious notion – that racism in Britain is best eradicated by inviting immigration officers to practise it at the point of entry into Britain – is best summed up by this syllogism from Roy Hattersley in 1965: ‘Without integration, limitation is inexcusable: without limitation, integration is impossible.’ Although the logic of this argument is quite perverse, in that it implies that black people-and not racism – should be removed from British society, it has nevertheless guided the Labour Party’s basic approach to the question of immigration controls ever since, encapsulated in its recurrent theme of ‘firm but fair’ immigration controls.

Neither is it true, as is frequently argued by those who support immigration controls, that the implementation of controls serves to placate or silence the most racist elements in society. Indeed, the absolute opposite is true: the enactment of controls merely serves to legitimise the notion that immigrants are to blame in some way for the problems which workers face in capitalist society. Institutionalised racism, in the form of state sponsored immigration controls, is central to other forms of racism in Britain today, and even the most cursory glance at the history of immigration controls in Britain – or elsewhere in Western Europe illustrates the point only too well. Far from placating the racists, greater controls simply serve to boost their confidence to call for even more.

This was certainly the case after the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The implementation of Britain’s first overtly racist controls, combined with the dropping of any opposition by the Labour Party, gave a huge boost to the previously marginalised hard core of racist Tory MPs who had been most vociferous in calling for controls before 1962. Their calls for even more controls now began to take the centre stage of British politics, amidst increasing claims that the 1962 act was being evaded. When the Tories lost the 1964 election to Labour, many more Tory MPs began to raise the immigration issue. [44] As the pressure on the new Labour government grew from the right, it sadly – but predictably – surrendered to each and every new call for tighter restrictions on Commonwealth immigration, and proceeded to enact some of the most vicious controls in the history of British immigration laws.

In 1964 figures for Commonwealth immigration showed a small increase had taken place, from 66,000 in the previous year, to 75,495, an increase which was largely accounted for by women and children entering the UK to join male relatives already here, amidst continued fears that the entry of dependants would soon be prohibited. [45] These figures were leapt upon by some of right wing Tory MPs as proof that a voucher system would not by itself sufficiently reduce Commonwealth immigration into Britain.

The speed with which Labour rushed to respond to these calls for further controls was grotesque and the severity of the White Paper which the Labour government introduced in 1965 shocked even those who called most loudly for controls. Labour proceeded to reduce the number of vouchers issued each year to prospective Commonwealth migrants to only 5,000 and, in the most overtly racist move yet, removed the right of entry from British passport holders whose parents or grandparents were born outside Britain. [46] Yet this was still not enough to appease the racists, who grew ever more confident in the face of Labour’s craven desire to please them. Even after the number of Commonwealth immigrants able to gain entry into Britain had started to drop dramatically – to the extent that in 1967 far less than the paltry figure of 5,000 even managed to gain access to Britain, with only 3,807 able to gain entry in that year – Powell and others instead began to call openly for repatriation. They had some success in ensuring that attention was now increasingly focused on the black population already here, and on the alleged links between blacks and violent crime and with every other social ill imaginable.

In February 1968 Enoch Powell attacked Kenyan Asians who held British passports and who therefore had the automatic right of entry into Britain. In less than three weeks Labour had responded by rushing through parliament a new immigration bill aimed at removing that right unless British passport holders had a close connection with Britain. In one single move Labour rendered 150,000 Kenyan Asians effectively ‘stateless’, whilst retaining a clause for those whose grandparents were born here (ie those who were white) to continue to enjoy free entry to the UK. Far from silencing the likes of Powell, Labour’s abject capitulation merely encouraged him. Within weeks of Labour rushing through its new act, Powell made his most inflammatory speech yet, predicting that ‘rivers of blood’ would flow if immigration was not curbed further. [47] When the Labour government finally fell in 1970, its supporters demoralised and disillusioned, it left behind a legacy of racism more shameful than perhaps any other in its history.

Despite Labour’s fairly transparent posturing in opposition, and its protests against the Tories’ 1971 Immigration Act, little changed when it next took office. When Labour won the 1974 election it moved very quickly to tighten the rules even further. [48] It was under Labour, for instance, that gynaecological examinations of women were carried out at airports supposedly to determine their virginity, and it was during the 1974-79 Labour government that hazardous X-rays were taken at airports to determine the age of prospective entrants into Britain. [49] Within two years of winning the election Labour also joined the racist agitation which surrounded the expulsion of a small number of Asians from Malawi, evidenced by Bob Mellish’s claim in 1974 that people ‘cannot come here just because they have a British passport – full stop’. By now this was abundantly clear for all to see, for removing the right of British passport holders to enter the UK had, after all, been the main point of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which Bob Mellish’s own party had forced through the Commons with obscene haste.

In reality, the episode surrounding the expulsion of the Malawi Asians in 1974 was one of the clearest examples yet of the way in which racist agitation for immigration controls has virtually nothing at all to do with the actual numbers of immigrants who attempt to gain entry to Britain at any one time. Only 250 Malawi Asians were being expelled from Malawi and all could easily have been incorporated into the voucher system for that year. Even so right wing Tory MPs tabled motions demanding urgent discussion on the ‘changing demographic character of Great Britain’ [50] (meaning of course the colour of people’s skin) and Labour’s home secretary, Roy Jenkins, responded by assuring them that Labour would maintain ‘strict immigration control’ and would ‘root out’ illegal immigrants and overstayers. [51] By 1978 Labour had buried its conscience for good, a fact demonstrated by Merlin Rees’s famous television admission that all immigration controls were aimed at stopping ‘coloured’ immigration. [52] Of course Labour had always accepted this basic premise, which had been recommended by its own cabinet committees during the 1950s and which was institutionalised for the first time in the 1962 Act. The only difference now was that they were prepared to openly admit it.

Even so Labour’s new found ‘honesty’ did nothing to win it the 1979 general election. Under the Labour government of 1974-1979 workers’ living standards fell for the first time in real terms since the 1930s, with the working class militancy of the early 1970s held back by the Social Contract agreed between the trade union leaders and the Labour government. Against a background of deepening economic crisis unemployment rose from 500,000 to over 1.5 million while inflation ate away at the wages of those still in work. Health, education and welfare services were all cut savagely. With hopes in Labour dashed and working class confidence eroded by the policies of the TUC, a renewed racist offensive took place across British society, witnessed by the success of Nazi National Front candidates in the council elections of 1976, as well as by a sharp increase in racist murders. Although a large and vibrant anti-racist movement emerged within the working class in response to the rise of the National Front, a movement which ultimately drove the Nazis from the streets, Labour continued to move rightwards until it lost power in 1979.

Labour’s final contribution to the tightening of immigration controls in Britain was its Green Paper on nationality law, which included several proposals later incorporated by Thatcher’s Tory government in its 1981 Nationality Act. In 1979 Labour was thrown from office, its own culpability in creating the conditions from which the far right had been able to emerge partly concealed by widespread concern over the activities of the Nazis on the streets, as well as by the sharp move to the right within the Tory party during the late 1970s.

Racism and immigration since 1979

Under Thatcher the Tory party began moving sharply to the right over most economic and social issues well before the 1979 election. Thatcher’s determination to keep the race/immigration theme at the very centre of political debate was only one part of this. As early as March 1977 Thatcher was asked to comment on the call for a complete ban on all further immigration by a Conservative candidate in a by-election, to which she replied that people’s ‘fears’ could be ended only ‘by holding out a clear prospect of an end to immigration’. [53] In April 1978 the Tory party announced its intention to introduce a new nationality law, as well as new restrictions on the entry of dependants, husbands and fiancés. They also promised to create a ‘register’ of dependants specifically from the Indian sub-continent. In the months immediately preceding the election Thatcher repeated her earlier claim that ‘British people’s fears’ about ‘being swamped’ were legitimate. [54] Nearly all of the Tory party’s manifesto pledges to further tighten up Britain’s system of immigration controls, which by now already ensured that New Commonwealth migration consisted only of the dependants of men who had entered Britain as migrant workers more than a decade earlier, were implemented with great speed.

New immigration rules were passed in December 1979, which further restricted the entry of Commonwealth dependants into Britain and in January 1981 the Tories passed a new Nationality Act which effectively removed the right to British citizenship from significant numbers of New Commonwealth citizens who had previously been classed as British citizens. Although Labour in opposition returned to an apparently principled position, even claiming that its own Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 had been a mistake, and promising to repeal the new British Nationality Act if elected again, few people, by this time, were listening.

The Tories’ new proposals were introduced into parliament amidst claims by Tory MPs, most notably Tony Marlow, that racism amongst British people was a ‘natural’ instinct. Marlow claimed the following in early 1980:

People have criticised these measures because they say they are racialist, as if racialist is a word of abuse. What does racialist mean? It means tribal. After all, man is a tribal animal. We have a feeling of kith and kin for people like ourselves, with our own background and culture. [55]

With mainstream Tory MPs now confident enough to be openly racist within parliament, it is hardly surprising that the far right of the Tory party grew ever more confident during the first term of Thatcher’s government. Groups like the Monday Club were reactivated by MPs such as Enoch Powell and Harvey Proctor and the club’s Immigration and Repatriation Policy Committee consistently put forward serious proposals during the early 1980s for the forced repatriation of 100,000 New Commonwealth immigrants each year from Britain.

This shift to the right was also evident in ‘academic’ circles during the early 1980s with new journals like the Salisbury Review regularly supporting the calls for forced repatriation as well as endorsing the claims frequently made by Tory MPs that blacks living in Britain were linked to ‘vastly disproportionate’ amounts of violent crime. [56] The racist image of the West Indian mugger was now accompanied by that of the ‘wily Asian’ in the right wing press, amidst claims from Tory MPs that Indian and Pakistani immigrants were abusing the arranged marriage system and evading the new immigration rules in order to gain access to the British ‘honeypot’. During Thatcher’s first year of office a huge increase in raids carried out by police and immigration officers took place, mainly on Asian businesses with large numbers of workers, the vast majority of whom had committed no offence yet who were questioned and arrested under the new immigration legislation. Warrants were now issued without having to refer to the names of particular individuals. These effectively gave carte blanche to police and immigration officials to raid both the businesses and the homes of black and Asian residents in Britain. It created a situation where most Asians and West Indians in Britain faced little choice but to carry their passport around with them at all times.

Thatcher’s regime also saw Britain acquiring one of the worst records in Europe in its treatment of asylum seekers, the only significant group of immigrants now able to gain access, however temporarily, to the UK. Between 1984 and 1986 British immigration officers accepted for asylum only 240 for every 1 million of the UK’s inhabitants, i.e. a proportion of 0.024 percent as compared with nearly 5,000 per 1 million inhabitants for Sweden and more than 4,000 for Denmark and Switzerland. In 1981 more than 60 percent of asylum seekers who managed to enter Britain were eventually granted refugee status but by 1988 the figure had dropped to only 25 percent. Even this dramatic reduction is worse than it seems, for the total number of asylum seekers who managed to even reach Britain to claim asylum in the first place was reduced significantly by Thatcher’s introduction of stiff fines in 1987 against airlines and shipping companies which carried passengers without proper documentation or visas. [57] This ensured that a significant drop took place in the numbers of potential refugees able to leave their country of origin in the first place, since most refugees are forced to flee persecution using forged or inadequate documentation, without which escape would be simply impossible. The idea that potential refugees could simply queue at British embassies abroad to apply for the required entry visa for Britain was always a nonsense – but it is still enshrined within British asylum law. By forcing airline and shipping companies to act as immigration officials, or face huge fines of thousands of pounds for each ‘illegal’ asylum seeker on board, Thatcher ensured that most would simply refuse to take on board any individual whose real identity was in doubt.

Desperately seeking asylum: the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act

After the Tories’ doubled the ‘carriers’ liability’ fine in 1991, the total number of asylum applicants to arrive in Britain was virtually halved by the end of the 1992. [58] Literally thousands of refugees were prevented from fleeing persecution or death as a result of this legislation, simply because they were unable to persuade airline or shipping companies to allow them to board without a full set of travel documents.

The other main method by which the British government prevents refugees or other migrants from leaving their country of origin is through the imposition of visa restriction. By 1991 residents of more than 90 countries were subject to visa restrictions on travel to the UK. The response of John Major’s government to the growing number of people displaced by civil wars across the world during the 1990s was simply to add even more countries to the list. In 1992 visa restrictions were imposed on the former Yugoslavia, making it impossible for most victims of the war to leave, whilst in early 1995 victims of the civil war in Sierra Leone were prevented from coming to Britain by the imposition of visa restrictions. The barbaric reality of the plight which Britain and other Western European states have created for refugees and other migrants was brought home chillingly in late 1992, when a group of eight Ghanaian stowaways were thrown overboard by the crew of a German ship, worried that the carriers’ liability fine would be deducted from their wages. Only one of the group, Kingsley Ofusu, survived to tell the tale. Although many other similar incidents were reported during the 1980s and 1990s, many more are never reported, simply because none of the stowaways survive their journey. Those who do survive face a fate which is little better – such as the one remaining member of a group of Romanian asylum seekers who travelled to Britain in early 1994 in a ship’s container which was also carrying toxic waste which led to the deaths of his companions. Within months of finally arriving in the UK he was summarily refused asylum, and forcibly returned to Romania by the British authorities. Not surprisingly, then, forced deportations using all the paraphernalia which led to the killing of Joy Gardner – are at record levels under the Tories, particularly since the introduction of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act in 1993.

Under the provisions of the 1993 Act huge numbers of asylum seekers are now deported from Britain within only days of arrival, without having had their asylum application even considered here. This is ‘justified’ by the fact that their ship or aeroplane stopped in a third country on its way to Britain and that this supposedly gave any ‘genuine’ refugee the opportunity to claim asylum there instead. Throughout 1993 and 1994 many potential refugees were thus bounced around between various West European states, most of which were as unwilling as Britain to consider asylum application sympathetically once a prospective asylum seeker had been dumped unceremoniously in their territory by the British authorities. Ever since the introduction of these new procedures in 1993 large numbers of these refugees have been forcibly deported back to their country of origin by these so called ‘safe’ third countries. Amnesty International has confirmed in some cases that the asylum seeker has been murdered by that country’s authorities soon after involuntarily arriving back home.

For those lucky enough to have their asylum applications considered in Britain, by virtue of the fact that their plane did not touch down anywhere before it arrived in the UK, huge numbers of potential refugees are now detained from the moment they arrive in Britain, despite having committed no crime whatsoever other than having fled persecution and possible death in their homelands. In 1993 the detention of asylum seekers more than doubled in Britain. Some 10,530 people were detained in that year alone, under immigration detention powers. [59] Some were held in high security prisons as well as in brand new purpose built immigration detention centres like that at Campsfield House in Kidlington, Oxford. Appalling conditions and the brutal treatment of asylum seekers at these centres were brought to light in early 1994 by a wave of hunger strikes by prisoners, which helped to initiate sizeable pickets in support of the hunger strikers.

Fortress Europe

Successive British governments have undoubtedly led the way in introducing these hideous new methods for preventing the entry of refugees into Britain, but Europe has been quick to follow. In December 1993 the European Commission proposed sweeping new immigration restrictions, which will bring Fortress Europe more than a few steps closer. The commission drew up a list of 128 countries whose nationals will require visas before crossing over Europe’s borders, the vast majority of which are Asian and African countries. The commission also allowed individual member states to impose further restrictions on individuals from other countries not included on the list, and most Western European countries have already indicated their great enthusiasm for joining Britain in its brutal treatment of asylum seekers. Wim Kwok, the deputy prime minister of the Netherlands, declared as early as 1991 that anyone rejected for asylum should be deported ‘without delay’, while Edith Cresson, the French prime minister during 1991, recommended ‘special flights’ from France for unsuccessful asylum seekers, to act as a deterrent to anyone else planning to make the same mistake they had. [60]

After decades of shedding crocodile tears for the populations of Eastern Europe, the ruling classes of Western Europe are now erecting their own iron curtain to keep a potential immigrant population out of Western Europe, a population which most states estimate will still amount to less than 1 percent of the EC population over the next five years, and this against an estimated decline in the birth rate in many of these member states over the next ten years. The enthusiasm with which the EC states have attempted to formulate a ‘common’ immigration policy has been tempered only by their complete inability to agree upon exactly which coasts and frontiers should be policed by the new draconian European immigration controls. All this is in spite of the fact that Europe receives only about 5 percent of the world’s estimated 17.5 million refugees. More than 80 percent of refugees in the world today are concentrated in the poorest countries of the world.

The current tightening of asylum procedures in the West was preceded by the virtual ending of all other forms of immigration in many advanced capitalist countries by the mid-1970s. At the start of the 1970s there were between 9 and 11.5 million migrant workers in Western Europe as well as sizeable numbers who had been forced to enter the West illegally. By 1974 all the labour importing countries had slammed their doors to prospective migrants from outside Western Europe [61] and by 1977 more than 1 million temporary workers had been expelled from various countries across Western Europe. The overriding reason for this dramatic turnabout lies in the ending of the long post-war boom and the return of crisis to the system during the late 1960s. This process has continued largely uninterrupted until the present day and has effectively brought to an end the need for migrant labour in those economies. As boom turned to crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s overall profit rates across the business and manufacturing sectors of the advanced capitalist countries fell by one fifth, and although patterns of capital accumulation tended to maintain a relatively high demand for labour as late as the early 1970s the rate of growth in the total number of people at work still proceeded more slowly than the overall rate of capital accumulation.

This is partly because new means of production introduced during the boom years frequently embodied higher and higher degrees of mechanisation which increased the rate of exploitation of individual workers but which tended to reduce in the long term the number of workers actually employed. [62] During most of the boom years the non-agricultural labour force did continue to grow by an average of 1.7 percent each year in most of the advanced capitalist countries, but with immigrant labour an increasingly less important part of that process as time went on. Between 1968 and 1973, for instance, immigration accounted for only 0.1 percent of the overall growth in the labour force of most of the leading capitalist countries. [63] The greatest part of the increase was accounted for by the increased participation of women workers in full time employment as well as by workers moving into industry from the shrinking agricultural labour force. [64] Even during the brief upswing in the world economy between 1972 and 1973, when a quite serious mismatch of skills and labour demand did emerge, the recovery was too short lived to create the need for large scale immigration to meet this demand.

After 1973 a deep crisis of profitability returned to the system, and production during the next decade grew at less than half the rate of the 1960s with a further slowing down evident from 1979 onwards. [65] After 1973 the spectre of mass unemployment returned to haunt the system and by 1975 unemployment in the OECD countries was already up to 15 million. By 1983 that figure had more than doubled to 32 million with at least one in three of the new jobs created in Europe after this time filled by members of the registered unemployed. [66]

With the exception of a few very short lived periods of recovery the global economy has remained in a deep crisis since the early 1970s with serious labour shortages, in the West at least, apparently a thing of the past. With capitalism no longer heavily reliant upon migrant labour as it was during the long post-war boom, both Tory and Labour governments throughout the advanced capitalist world have rushed to erect the most rigid and restrictive machinery of immigration controls in the history of capitalism, not only to keep out those migrant workers on whose labour the system depended a few decades ago, but also as a means of dividing, and therefore controlling, the working class already living within the borders of their respective nation states.

Internal controls

Immigration controls are not designed purely to keep out migrant workers and refugees from the territory of a particular state. They are also a powerful weapon with which the ruling class in modern capitalist society attempts to divide workers by stoking up racism within national boundaries. Immigration controls are the sharp end of institutionalised racism in most Western European states today – racism directed not only at prospective migrants, but as much at black or ‘foreign’ workers already living within its borders.

Thus the history of immigration controls in Britain is also the history of concerted attempts, by Tory politicians and the tabloid press, to fan the flames of racism within British society. Every new set of immigration controls, from the 1905 Aliens Act to the Tories’ new legislation planned for autumn 1995, has always been accompanied by claims that immigrant workers in Britain are to blame for unemployment, poor housing, and street crime – for all the problems which workers experience in capitalist society on a daily basis. Instead of workers blaming government policies or capitalism itself for the inability of the system to meet even their most basic needs, successive Tory governments and their friends in the gutter press use the question of immigration, and the calls for tighter controls, in an attempt to divert discontent away from the real source of the problems and towards immigrants instead.

In Britain today the focus for racism has centred around two ‘types’ of migrants: so called ‘bogus’ refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants. During the period immediately preceding the introduction of the 1993 Act, Tories such as Kenneth Clarke repeatedly claimed that nine out of ten claims for refugee status were ‘bogus’ or ‘unfounded’, a statement which went completely unchallenged by Labour. Indeed, Roy Hattersley went even further during a parliamentary debate in 1991, when he assured the Commons that Labour too would weed out the ‘undeserving’:

Let us make clear – beyond doubt I hope – that bogus asylum seekers must be prevented from entering the country. This is an honourable and sensible objective and our amendment reflects our determination to ensure that bogus asylum seekers are identified and denied entry. [67]

Far from Labour holding an ‘honourable’ position on the question of refugees, Hattersley’s statement, echoed by Blair when he was shadow spokesman for home affairs, illustrates Labour’s complete acquiescence to the Tories over the need for tough, racist immigration controls in Britain. Labour’s abject failure to challenge one of the main pretexts for further tightening controls, namely that most asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, also signals the extent to which Labour has been prepared to collude with the racism at the heart of all immigration controls. There is, of course, nothing ‘bogus’ about the vast majority of claims for political asylum in the United Kingdom. The Tories’ figure of ‘more than 80 percent’ is drawn purely from the number of refugee claims which its Home Office ministers now reject – as if that were a real test of the ‘genuine’ nature of claims!

The real implications of the Tories’ claims, that most refugees are ‘bogus’, was further underlined in the early 1990s when Kenneth Baker, then home secretary, was found in contempt of court for forcibly returning a asylum seeker to Zaire – who was then murdered by the same authorities whom he had fled to Britain to escape. Labour’s refusal to challenge the Tories’ pernicious claims about ‘bogus’ refugees has not only meant that the Tories’ aim (of deporting as many refugees and immigrants as it possibly can in as short a time as possible) has been more easily realised over the last few years. It has also given credence and respectability to the racist notion that immigrants come to Britain to ‘scrounge’ off the welfare state, at the expense of ‘British’ workers. After all, the Tories’ attacks on ‘bogus’ refugees are as much about whipping up racism against immigrants already living in Britain as they are about attempting to justify the record number of asylum seekers whom Britain now turns away.

This is equally true of the hysteria which Tory MPs have recently tried to whip up over so called ‘illegal immigrants’ living in Britain following the resignation of Home Office minister Charles Wardle in early 1995, amidst claims that Britain’s surrender of its passport controls within the European Union would lead to a huge influx of immigrants. The cabinet rushed to placate the right wing ‘Eurosceptics’ inside the party. [68] Within weeks of Wardle’s resignation the government had forced through legislation to create its aptly named ‘White List’ of countries from which asylum claims will no longer be entertained, and announced a new ‘crackdown’ on ‘illegal’ immigrants. Yet it is now so hard to get into Britain, that even the bosses’ favourite magazine, the Economist, is unable to understand why the Tories should be planning further legislation:

[The Tory party’s] policy has already reduced the inflow to a trickle. The number of successful applications for British citizenship [is] at its lowest for ten years. Nowhere in Britain is being swamped. [69]

In fact, the planned legislation has far less to do with tightening up external controls (although stricter visa requirements and the removal of the right of appeal in some asylum cases will certainly achieve this) than it has to do with pointing the finger at every non-white worker in Britain. Even by the Tory party’s own admission, the latest ‘crackdown’ by Howard is an attempt to put ‘clear blue water’ between themselves and Labour. [70] In other words, the planned new laws, and the hysterical claims surrounding them, are nothing but a crude attempt to play the ‘race card’ in the run up to the next general election. By witch hunting and scaremongering over the relatively tiny number of illegal immigrants who are estimated to live in Britain, the most unpopular government this century hopes to divert anger and attention away from itself and towards black or ‘foreign’ workers instead.

If the Tories succeed in pushing this legislation through, every non-white worker in Britain will be targeted as a potentially ‘illegal’ immigrant. Under the proposed plans, the Tories virtually intend to turn doctors, teachers, DSS officers and local government workers into immigration officers. By law, all these different groups of workers will be obliged to check the immigration status of anybody whom they ‘suspect’ of being an illegal immigrant with the Home Office before providing the required service, be it urgent medical care, income support, or schooling for a child. In other words, the Tories are attempting to institutionalise racist policies and practices within every school, hospital, DSS and council office in Britain. The onus will be on individual blacks or Asians to prove that they are here legally. The arrests and detentions of British born black workers in mid-1995, after a list of 600 council employees with names of African origin was passed from Hackney council to the Home Office for ‘investigation’ into their immigration status, is only a small glimpse of what is possible if the Tories get away with their planned new laws. Conversely, the excellent response of workers in Hackney council, who voted to strike in response, is a clear example of the black and white working class unity which can resist the Tories’ racist plans.

Equally clearly the fight against immigration controls in the future will not be able to rely on Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. When Jack Straw, Labour’s shadow home secretary, told the New Statesman that ‘you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories over the question of immigration’, he was speaking the truth. [71] It was, after all, Jack Straw who, alongside Michael Howard, refused to accept the 1987 Single European Act, which provides for the free movement of people within Europe – until a guarantee could be won from Europe’s Council of Ministers that Europe’s external borders would be tightened up further. [72] The Labour Party might have called the 1993 Asylum Act ‘shabby and mean’, but Labour has mounted one of the weakest oppositions imaginable to the huge tightening up of asylum and immigration procedures which has taken place in the last two years alone. [73] Labour’s shadow spokesman on immigration, Kim Howells, has maintained a deafening silence in the face of the record levels of deportations, detentions and even deaths which now characterise Britain’s immigration policies. Instead Labour in opposition has simply pandered to the Tories’ claims about ‘bogus’ refugees, desperate to convince any potentially racist voters that Labour too will be ‘tough’ on immigration.

In the run up to the next election it is highly likely that the pressure on Labour from the Tories will grow – pressure on Labour to prove it won’t be ‘soft’ on immigration. There is little reason to believe that Tony Blair will be unwilling to comply. Unlike previous leaders of Labour in opposition, who promised to repeal Tory immigration laws, Tony Blair is promising to do absolutely nothing except, ominously, what is ‘best for Britain’. Electoralism and nationalism remain at the very heart of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. Any strategy for fighting racist immigration controls which looks to the Labour Party leadership is therefore doomed to failure.

Instead, effective opposition to racist immigration controls will rely, as it has done in the past, upon the efforts of black and white workers themselves, fighting together from below against the new laws. Encouragingly, the tightening of controls over the last number of years has been accompanied by a significant increase in the number of successful campaigns against individual deportations. These campaigns have united black and white workers both inside and outside the workplace. Growing numbers of workers in Britain identify with the movement against the detention of immigrants, witnessed by the number of trade union banners apparent at demonstrations outside immigration detention centres in June 1995, and by the increasing number of trade unions willing to campaign in support of individuals facing deportation.

Black and white working class unity is also the key to fighting racism in a wider sense. In modern capitalist society, opposition to immigration is one of the main focuses for racism, and for racist ideas in society. Under capitalism workers are forced to compete for the scarce economic resources available to the working class. Racist ideas can get a hearing despite the fact that black or Asian workers in Britain are between three and four times more likely to be unemployed than white workers, and invariably live in much poorer housing. Historically Nazi organisations have attempted to build support inside the working class by using arguments which seek to blame immigrants for workers’ problems. That they have been relatively unsuccessful in recent years, in Britain at least, testifies to the strong traditions of black and white unity which exist inside the working class. Ultimately, though, fighting racism and fascism means fighting the system which produces the conditions for it to grow, namely capitalism. Immigration and racist immigration controls are both intrinsic parts of the capitalist system. As such, effective opposition to immigration controls ultimately means challenging the very foundations of capitalism itself.


1. C. Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society 1871–1971 (Macmillan 1988), p. 3.

2. P. Fryer, Aspects of British Black History (Index Books 1993), p. 12.

3. A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England (Lawrence and Wishart 1994), pp. 279–280.

4. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 20–22.

5. Ibid., pp. 14–15.

6. H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Longman 1980), ch 10.

7. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 14–15.

8. P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (Penguin 1965), p. 89.

9. Ibid., pp. 85–91.

10. L. James, Bound for the Golden Medina, Socialist Review (London, issue 81), p. 24.

11. Ibid., p. 24.

12. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 89.

13. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 94–96.

14. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 110.

15. C. Holmes, op. cit., p. 163.

16. Ibid., p. 164.

17. Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison, Capitalism since World War Two (Fontana 1984), p. 25.

18. Ibid., p. 69.

19. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 211–212.

20. For detail on Britain’s treatment of European volunteer workers after the Second World War, see C. Holmes, op. cit., p. 210.

21. Ibid., p. 116.

22. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 116.

23. C. Holmes, op. cit., p. 214.

24. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 124.

25. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks 1988), p. 227.

26. Ibid., p. 257.

27. Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison, op. cit., p. 193.

28. R. Miles and A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country (Pluto Press 1984), pp. 148–149.

29. Ibid., p. 150.

30. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 216–217.

31. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 121.

32. Ibid., p. 135.

33. C. Holmes, op. cit., pp. 220–221.

34. P. Foot, op. cit., pp. 13–14.

35. Ibid., p. 126.

36. R. Miles and A. Phizacklea, op. cit., pp. 25–26.

37. P Foot, op. cit., p. 170.

38. Ibid., pp. 168–169.

39. Ibid., p. 173.

40. Ibid., p. 177.

41. Ibid., p. 181.

42. Ibid., p. 181.

43. Ibid., p. 193.

44. R. Miles and A. Phizacklea, op. cit., p. 57.

45. Ibid., p. 40.

46. Ibid., pp. 53–54.

47. Powell is quoted in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, op. cit., p. 293.

48. R. Miles and A. Phizacklea, op. cit., p 96.

49. Quoted in ibid., p. 99.

50. Ibid., p. 98.

51. Ibid., p. 100.

52. Ibid., p. 106.

53. Ibid., p. 106.

54. Ibid., p. 106.

55. Ibid., p. 108.

56. Ibid., p. 113.

57. Immigration Controls are out of Control (Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit 1993), p. 10.

58. Daily Telegraph, 12 January 1993.

59. Hansard, 29 June 1994, Column 624.

60. Socialist Review, The New Iron Curtain (London, issue 148).

61. R. Miles and A Phizacklea, op. cit., p. 150.

62. Ibid., p. 154 (see also Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison, op. cit., p. 243).

63. Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison, op. cit., p. 244.

64. Ibid., p. 244.

65. Ibid., p. 323.

66. Ibid., p. 324.

67. Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, op. cit., p. 7.

68. Guardian, 14 March 1995.

69. Economist, 18 September 1993.

70. Times, 24 March 1995.

71. Guardian, 3 March 1995.

72. Guardian, 24 March 1995.

73. Guardian, 3 November 1992.

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