This week Home Secretary Amber Rudd defended her vile, inflammatory speech on immigration by saying “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”, it’s not this is true. A week before Rachel Reeves, a former Labour Shadow minister predicted riots on our streets, if immigration wasn’t curbed, rhetoric that has unnerving similarities to that of Enoch Powell almost 50 years ago. Rudd is right that discussing immigration is not racist, however scapegoating and vilifying foreigners who work and contribute enormously to our society and our way of life, is disgraceful and wrong. When we talk about immigration why is there so few voices heralding the positives, the fact our economy relies on migrant labour, the fact our precious NHS relies on migrant labour, or the fact that without immigration Britain would be a homogenous, boring, less dynamic and frankly a worse country to live. Over the past 50 years or so a false narrative has permeated from the far right to the very top of mainstream politics, it is now dominant and in post referendum Britain it is now more vital than ever that our leaders, our journalists and our citizens challenge it.
In 1968 in response to Labour’s latest Race Relations bill, prominent Conservative politician Enoch Powell delivered a speech that would become infamous, he stated that unless stopped, Commonwealth migration would lead to racial violence between blacks and whites in Britain. When Powell made his speech he was widely condemned and sacked from the Shadow Cabinet for a “racialist speech”, however he did resonate with a small segment of the British public, those that saw Blacks and Asians moving into their areas as something to fear, as an erosion of British culture and as a threat to British society, for no other reason than that the migrants were different to themselves. I have no doubt that the comments from Rudd or Reeves connect with that same segment, but the segment is larger now, because influential, opportunistic elements, with very little challenge, have managed to turn a narrative that was once the preserve of the ignorant or the racist into a mainstream apparently acceptable belief. Whereas once the anti-immigration movement was simply, a minority that feared and hated those that were different to them, now it is potentially a majority of people who feel that it is “the other” (immigrants) that are the cause of their problems. This is the false narrative. This is what we need to fight against.
Immigration is not a particularly modern phenomena to Britain, the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans were all immigrant populations. The establishment and rise of the British Empire from around the 17th Century meant many peoples from British colonies ended up in Britain for trade reasons, for example many Indian seamen were brought over by the East India Company and a number of Africans were brought over as a result of the African Slave Trade to be servants for wealthy families. However the contemporary immigration debate has its roots in post-World War 2 Britain.
After the Second World War, Britain was a broken country, its cities bombed out, its people demoralised, its finances drained, it was a far cry from the global hegemon it had been at the start of the century, however it still had the world’s largest empire and the government encouraged colonial subjects to fill labour gaps, particularly in the NHS and London Transport. This was a call that was answered emphatically from the Caribbean and the Indian Sub-Continent from those who wished to serve what they saw as the “mother” country. The colonial education system had taught them that they must be deferential to Britain, that Britain was a nation where the streets were paved with gold and the opportunity to live and work for “mother” was the ultimate honour. When they arrived, despite holding full British citizenship they found their qualifications from British run schools and universities were not recognised, they faced appalling and disgusting racism and they struggled to find accommodation due to the colour of their skin. They arrived to a country they had been taught to worship only to find that despite needing them, it did not want them. Despite this, these immigrants (my parents and grandparents among them) worked hard, paid their taxes and made a life in the UK despite the vitriol.
As Commonwealth immigration rose in the 50s far-right groups such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and the White Defence League switched their focus from anti-semitism to anti-immigration, believing that immigrants should be repatriated so Britain could be kept “white”. Groups such as these inflamed tensions between whites and migrants, and in Notting Hill they co-operated with teenage gangs known as “teddy boys” to engage in “nigger hunts”. This led to the 1958 Notting Hill race riots where a mob of 300-400 white people attacked the homes of West Indian residents. It is in these fringe fascist, far-right groups where the false narrative originates, their ideology was grounded in racism, xenophobia and prejudice. These migrants talked different and looked different, so they do not belong, no matter what they did, they would not belong.
One of the great myths about the immigration story, one perpetuated by far-right groups such as the aforementioned as well as their successor is that immigration is unchecked. While it is true that between 1948 to 1962 all Commonwealth citizens were full British Citizens and had a right to work in the UK, from 1962 it was a different story, the Conservative government in response to “public sentiment”, passed the Commonwealth Immigration Bill which meant only Commonwealth citizens with government issued vouchers could come, at the time Commonwealth migration was 150,000 a year, less than 1% of the population. The legislation was described as a “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation” by the Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell, and this is exactly what it was, the public sentiment the Government referred to was simply an unease from the far-right (both within and outside the government) that so many non-white peoples had a right to work in the UK, on the contrary immigration barely affected large swaths of the public and those from areas with immigrant-growing populations, who were anti-immigrant, were being strongly influenced by the far right. Nevertheless controls continued to be tightened, in 1968, this time under a Labour government, a new Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed saying only those born, or had a parent or grandparent born in the UK, could come, clearly a deliberate attempt to prevent non-white immigration, and finally the 1971 Immigration Act removed the distinction between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth migrants altogether, both would need a work permit to come. Britain shut it’s doors on the peoples it had subjugated for hundreds of years.
Ironically, the same decade as immigration controls were being tightened, the National Front (NF) began to grow. The NF’s core beliefs were compulsory repatriation of all post-1948 Commonwealth immigrants and opposition to what was then known as the EEC. Their members consisted primarily of blue-collar workers who resented immigrant competition in the labour market. The NF were prominent through the 1970s and early 1980s and gained notoriety for their marches and altercations, such as the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 where they chose to march through a predominant non-white area carrying a provocative banner stating 85% of muggers are black, leading to violent clashes. Despite their prominence, they wielded little influence, their membership peaked at around 20,000 and although the 70s and 80s were a time where race relations were perhaps at their tensest in the UK, it was only a minority of the population that actually supported the extreme, racist, anti-immigration stance of the NF. As Britain entered the Thatcher era, with strong immigration controls, the NF died away, and public opinion became focused on other issues such as unemployment and deindustrialisation.
By the 1990s Britain was maturing into a truly multicultural country as descendants of the Commonwealth immigrants of the previous decades began to outnumber the original immigrants. Multiculturalism has undoubtedly made Britain a greater country in all arenas: sport, music, food, language and much more. Without multiculturalism we wouldn’t have: curry; grime; Mo Farah; Bhangra; Notting Hill Carnival; bistros, it has united communities, and from personal experience growing up in a multicultural, diverse community gives you a broader cultural understanding you just can’t get in a homogenous, inward looking society. New Labour recognised immigration was a positive for Britain and actively encouraged it, New Labour saw there were skills gaps that simply weren’t being filled by British workers. This wave of immigration in the Noughties and 2010s has come not from the Commonwealth but from the EU where freedom of movement is entrenched in the constitution. This has meant our country has been enriched further by the cultures of peoples from Poland, Romania, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the only negative being that strict controls remained in place for non-EU migrants, who still face some of the toughest immigration controls in the world because of the unproven, supposed “public sentiment” in the 70s.
Of course not everyone views immigration as favourably as me, the segment of society that fear and hate difference was still around, they’d supported Powell, they’d joined the NF and the BNP and now they probably vote UKIP. They tended to be white working class men in the former industrial heartlands of Britain, or those that had moved away as their areas changed for example former dockers, who moved from East London to Essex in the Thatcher years, holding resentment to the immigrants that had “changed” their communities. This group was unchanged however a far larger group would become sympathetic to their arguments, the communties of these former industrial heartlands had been destroyed by Thatcherism, she closed their places of work, their mines, their factories, their mills and their shipyards. They were not retrained and New Labour ignored their hardship believing their vote to be guaranteed. Then there was a financial crisis, followed by a recession which hit these communities harder than any other, they lost the precarious jobs they had, their taxes were used to bail out greedy bankers, or pay for a Westminster MP’s duck house. They were left behind by globalisation, forgotten by their leaders, their communities destroyed and not rebuilt, they understandably became disenfranchised and disillusioned with their lot. Nostalgic for a time when everyone had a job, and everyone got by. This disconnect didn’t formulate over a few months or years, it formulated over decades.
Enter Nigel Farage, the living embodiment of influential opportunism. Farage is no racist. He is not a far-right firebrand like Enoch Powell or Nick Griffin, I suspect he’s not even particularly anti-immigration, his wife after all is German. Farage however does categorically believe one thing, that Britain would be more prosperous outside the European Union. Europe however isn’t something that many people have strong opinions on, at least not pre-2015, so a party centred around that issue was never going to be particularly successful, and they weren’t for a long time, then Farage stumbled across a genius, calculating electoral strategy. He saw a large swath of society that felt disillusioned, disconnected and forgotten, white working class Britain, the Tories had never been there for them, Labour had left them, the politicians were corrupt, the bankers were corrupt, who’s there to represent them, the ordinary working man, well a public schoolboy from Kent of course, but a public schoolboy from Kent with charisma, which brought him influence. This is when the false narrative really kicked into gear, Farage targeted these communities and he told them he’s one of them, and they were persuaded by his anti-establishment cause, it is a characteristic of many revolutions to whip up a mob against notional faceless enemy, whose prime feature is there difference to the mob, in history this enemy has been anything from capitalist industrialists, to imperialists. The key to Farage’s “revolution”, was that he attributed all the strife this group felt from their decades of injustice and hardship, to foreigners. Finally they had an outlet and reasoning for their pain, no other figure had cared enough about them to explain it. Farage’s assessment made sense, foreigners in Brussels were making their laws (never mind that they don’t), foreigners were stealing their jobs (never mind that they don’t want those jobs), foreigners destroying their communities (never mind there’s no foreigners in these communities). It didn’t matter that it was false because no one bothered to challenge the narrative.
As UKIP rose, Westminster instead of challenging UKIP’s narrative, chose to pander to the UKIP cause, after UKIP won the 2014 European Elections, the Tories promised to crackdown even further on migration despite, migration even EU migration actually being quite low and beneficial for the country, Labour traditionally pro-immigration shifted to the right because of a fear of losing swathes of its base to UKIP and most pertinently of all the Tories promised a EU referendum, the goal of UKIP and Farage’s entire political existence. Fast forward to 2016 we had a campaign that was run entirely around immigration, UKIP had succeeded in pushing the issue from the fringe to the very centre of the debate, Leave campaigners (from all parties) told the people immigrants are the cause of all your problems, vote Leave and we’ll stop them, yes there were other reasons people voted to leave, yes it’s far more complicated than people being psychologically seduced by the false narrative but what’s clear now is that the Westminster politicians have no intention of correcting this false narrative or challenging it, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn of course, and this lack of challenge will go on to have even more damaging consequences than just Brexit. We had a referendum, leave won, so we leave, fine, we did not have a referendum on immigration, and it is disturbing, scary and dangerous that, intelligent, sound-minded individuals who are not vehement racists or xenophobes, believe the British people are ardently anti-immigration, no they’ve just been conned, by a very clever electoral ploy.
I hope I’ve gone some way to busting the myths on immigration. I hope I’ve teared apart the false narrative a little. Immigration is a net benefit to our economy and our society, immigrants work hard and pay their taxes, unlike Google or the banks, immigrants quite literally built the Britain of today and contributed immeasurably to the culture of our great country. What is the great shame of this current political vogue, is that these cold, hard facts are being ignored by the same establishment that ignored the working class for so long. If we continue with this scapegoating and this demonisation of immigrants and foreigners, we go down a dangerous path, a path that has been travelled down in the past, when Amber Rudd says companies must report the amount of foreign workers they has ominous similarity to Hitler wanting all Jews to wear a yellow star so they can be identified. This is how it starts, it starts with rhetoric and it’s followed by policy, this is no longer a fringe belief, this is our government, we can’t let this be our 1933 moment we have to challenge this now before it’s too late. Hate crime is rising because people believe it is now legitimate to be racist, this has to be stopped, it has to end, it is our similarities not our differences that make us strong, it is our diversity, not our homogeneity that make us “Great” Britain, I fear that it is now being quickly forgotten.