From slave trade...
As long as industry did not exist, production was based on craftsmen and small manufactures. Before the industrial revolution, therefore, there was no need for external sources of manpower. But once the new English bourgeoisie had taken over the lush colonial tropics, it needed vast amounts of manpower, much more than the indigenous populations could supply, had they even been willing.
The English bourgeoisie therefore began to organise large scale forced migrations via the slave trade.
Karl Marx, in Capital, puts it thus: "Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. This was its method of primitive capital accumulation. And, even to the present day, Liverpool's 'respectability' is the Pindar of the slave-trade which 'has coincided with that spirit of bold adventure which has characterised the trade of Liverpool and rapidly carried it to its present state of prosperity; has occasioned vast employment of shipping and sailors and greatly augmented the demand for the manufactures of the country...' Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World."
This vast movement of peoples under the whip of the slave traders physically transformed the populations of the colonial world, destroying the existing societies and producing new ones. Indeed the rising commercial classes of Europe, trafficked as much in humans as in any other commodity. And forced immigration did not only apply to slaves - deportation of those convicted of crimes to countries such as Australia in the case of Britain and New Caledonia in the case of France, was another way in which populations were dispersed all over the globe by the fathers of today's European capitalism.
After resorting first to piracy in the Elizabethan period, and then to organised war, Britain came to dominate the Atlantic slave trade from mid-seventeenth century onwards. Over the 350 years during which this trade flourished it is estimated that 12m slaves survived to be sold into bondage and that at least half as many died during the course of these barbaric transportations.
In other words, it was a massive enterprise. By the 1780s, a quarter of the ships in Liverpool were engaged in the African slave trade. Over half of European trade with Africa took place out of its ports. Between 1783-1793, about 360 firms in Liverpool had engaged in slave traffic.
The treatment of slaves was so appalling that purely on moral grounds, a movement had grown for its abolition. When abolitionists attempted to make their moral case against slavery however, the economic heavyweights of the day weighed in against them - said Lord Penryn of Liverpool, if the Commons were to vote for abolition, "they would strike at £70 millions of property..."
Who was against abolition of the slave trade? Members of the Royal family, most admirals of the fleet, landowners, and of course commercial interests in London. Sugar and cotton were the main commodities in question. William Pitt, then prime minister, estimated that the income from West Indian plantations was around £4m, compared with £1m from the rest of the world.
When the British House of Commons eventually abolished the trade in slaves in 1807 it was not because slavery was becoming less profitable or because the plantation owners calculated that paying wage-workers would be more efficient. After all, it was only slave-trading which was abolished, not the use of slaves. Nor was it because of their own conversion to some kind of "higher morality". By this time Britain had come to dominate, more or less, the trade routes and had a near monopoly of trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton. And being the dominant economic power, the British bourgeoisie could now take the high moral ground on this abominable trade purely as a pretext to police all the slave trade routes out of Africa and within Africa, using the full might of the navy and army to eliminate their rivals.
... To indentured labour
The use of slave labour in British colonies had ceased in 1834. While many freed slaves refused to work on the plantations any longer, others demanded decent wages for their work. The colonial bourgeoisie however still required vast quantities of workers for the plantations. So they came up with a new kind of slavery which on the surface appeared to be based on a free and fair contract. This was so-called indentured labour. Workers were more or less press-ganged under false promises by recruiters in India and China, mainly, to work for 3-5 years on the plantations, for a small wage, clothes and usually a passage home at the end of it all.
Indian labourers had been transported to the sugar plantations of the West Indies since the 1830s. This emigration was facilitated by the ruin of the traditional Indian economy by British colonial policy, and the resultant increasing army of rural unemployed. Between 1834 and 1870, over half a million labourers were sent out of the country. However, more than half of these went to Mauritius, Reunion Island and the South African sugar plantations. This new traffic in human labour developed into a lucrative racket. In India, agents known as "Arkathis" were employed to obtain workers from the rural areas, under any pretext whatsoever. They were then brought to Bombay or Calcutta and put under armed guard before being sailed out of India, often having no idea whatsoever where they were going or why. This process continued right up until 1917.
Ex-slaves in the West Indies were conscious that the Indians were replacing them on the plantations. When in 1866 there were strikes for higher wages, Indian labourers were used as strike-breakers. It is estimated that without the reserve army of Indian labour, employers would have been forced to raise wages by 25%.
But the indentured labourers were required even more by the new tea plantations within India itself. Between 1895 and 1928, the number of workers in the Indian tea industry doubled from half a million to one million. And forced migration again occurred, the main bulk of workers being sent to Assam. This industry was entirely dominated by British capitalists and the slave-like conditions of the labourers were so bad that even the colonial government was eventually forced to pass legislation making certain practices illegal. This did not deter the plantation owners, however, and even today appalling conditions on tea plantations persist. In Sri Lanka, when tea began to replace coffee plantations in the last half of the 19th century, the British brought in mainly Tamil indentured labourers - and because the work on these plantations was not seasonal as with coffee, they became permanent residents of the island. But they were effectively segregated from the rest of the population - more or less confined in the northern tea estates. Their systematic recruitment continued on and off right up until the 1950s.
From forced immigration to Chartism
People from the colonies were imported into Britain, though not in great numbers, throughout the period of capitalist development. Of course long before this the Romans had brought in slaves - from 100 to 400 AD but slavery vanished during feudal times, to be reintroduced with the colonial period, starting more or less at the time of Elizabeth 1st. This was the period in which Elizabeth's pirates seized Spanish ships and plundered, burnt and raped their way around the Atlantic and Caribbean. In 1555, the first group of black slaves arrived in England to work as servants, and by 1563, Hawkins was making his first trip with slaves in his hold, from West Africa to the West Indies.
Shakespeare's plays feature black characters such as Othello - indeed portrayed in a way to question racial prejudice. Samuel Johnson had a black man servant, Francis Barber, who received a £100 annual income after his master's death. Then at the end of the 16th century, when famine hit England the resultant poverty and social unrest prompted Queen Elizabeth to find a scapegoat. She sent a decree to all mayors saying "there are of late diverse blackamoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many considering how God has blessed this land with great increase of our people of our own nation as any country in the world". Judging from what is probably the first racist legislation passed in Britain there must have been a fairly substantial number of black slaves who found themselves in this cold, wet and inhospitable island, against their will. In 1601, Elizabeth proclaimed that "such negroes and blackamoores which ...are carried into this realm .. who are fostered and powdered here, to the great annoyance of her own loyal people" be deported. Here we have the earliest attempt to play the race card by a British politician, as Elizabeth was, through and through.
As for the manpower needs of the growing plantation economy of the West Indies, in the following century, Cromwell supplemented these by deporting Irish prisoners to the islands, which cost a lot less than buying slaves in Africa.
Of course as the needs of the bourgeoisie for slave labour increased in the late 18th century, black people, both free and enslaved, became a permanent feature of London and the main trading ports. Given that no laws actually existed at the time as to the rights of slaves while in England, many legal cases set precedents until the most famous of these, that of the runaway slave known as Somerset in 1772, led to the ruling that a slave could not be forcibly taken abroad by his master. Slaves therefore once in Britain had the right to stay. Not that this provided much protection for runaway slaves, but for those who found legal backing it was possible to remain more or less as free men or women. And this meant that for a period of time - until the freeing of slaves in 1834, England was a refuge for runaways. However they were more or less doomed to a marginal existence in utter poverty. Eventually this led to the scheme of creating a homeland in Africa for such refugees - a scheme hatched by well-meaning English philanthropists among others, which, as it happens, led to the founding of Sierra Leone in the 1780s.
By the beginning of the 19th century there were an estimated 10,000 black people of diverse origins - including Indian seamen, known as Lascars - living in Britain.
William Cuffay, a tailor, who was a prominent leader of the Chartist movement, was the son of a freed slave from St Kitts, and was one among a significant number of black British of the time who fought on the side of the working class for social justice. Cuffay, who belonged to the militant wing of the movement ended up being deported to Tasmania in 1849, along with fellow Chartists after a failed attempt to organise an uprising.
Irish, starved and rebels
Ireland was England's first colony and it was only 40 miles off the English coast. As such it was the obvious source for that essential ingredient of capitalist exploitation of wage labour - a reserve army of workers who would ensure that supply of labour always outstripped demand, thereby keeping wages as low as possible. Indeed right up until the 1950s it was the Irish who were the only working class immigrants into Britain on any scale at all. And in fact as black immigrants did in the 1950s, in the 1830s, Irish labourers took on the work that the English workers were unwilling to do - unskilled, low paid and back-breaking. This immigration was a peasant immigration - it was the poorest peasants who came to Britain, unable to afford the fares to America. And the new arrivals were often used as strikebreakers, as a Manchester silk manufacturer was quoted saying: "the moment I have a turn out and am fast for hands I send to Ireland for ten, fifteen, or twenty families..." Where Irish and English unskilled workers were in direct competition as on the docks and building sites violence often broke out. In the 1830s and 1840s, pitched battles occurred among railway navvies.
To quote from Engels, in 1848: "The rapid expansion of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command. The Irish had nothing to lose at home, and much to gain in England; and from the time that it became known in Ireland that the east side of St George's Channel offered steady work and good pay for strong arms, every year has brought armies of the Irish hither. It has been calculated that more than a million have already immigrated, and not far from fifty thousand still come every year, nearly all of whom enter the industrial districts, especially the great cities and there form the lowest class of the population. Thus there are in London 120,000; in Manchester, 40,000; in Liverpool, 34,000; Bristol, 24,000; Glasgow, 40,000; Edinburgh 29,000 poor Irish people".
Of course, Irish immigration into Britain was ostensibly "voluntary". But a number of political factors made this the only viable option for the many who could not find the fare for a passage to America. After the Act of Union in 1800, the Irish parliament was abolished and Irish MPs were elected to the British House of Commons. All Irish who were tenants paying rents of forty shillings or more had the right to vote, regardless of their religion - but there was a catch. They had to declare who they were voting for to the clerks of the election and whoever else happened to be present. As a result, few dared to vote against the nominee of their landlord.
In 1829, however, a new Act deprived smaller tenants of the vote, raising the amount required for voting from 40 shillings to £10. Up till then the landlords had encouraged the growth of tenancies on their estates because this increased the number of their political adherents. Now this reason no longer stood, so they began the wholesale eviction of their tenants and the conversion of their arable lands into grazing farms. The evicted tenants struck back with the formation of secret societies which attacked the landlords, but this was no more successful in preventing the forced clearances than the many previous guerilla activities in the Irish countryside over the centuries of English occupation. The bulk of the peasants thus thrown into destitution were forced to emigrate in the hope of avoiding starvation.
During the Great Irish Famine of 1845-8 the British actually prevented desperate immigrants from coming to England by raising the fares of steamship passages to levels which families just could not afford. This did not prevent some ships from loading their decks full of desperate migrants. One such journey led to tragedy, when the steamship "Londonderry" - which left Sligo with 220 steerage passengers aboard, hit a storm. The passengers on deck were driven below by the crew and the hatches were battened down to prevent them getting out. As a result 72 of them suffocated to death.
In 1847, the same year that the famine killed 250,000 people, the British government passed a law euphemistically called the "Poor Relief" Bill. It made provision for the employment of labour on public works, for a small wage. But it stipulated that no-one who occupied a tenancy of more than a quarter of an acre of land could be employed. Tens of thousands of starving Irish peasants gave up their land just to get a bite to eat, saving the landlords the expense and trouble of eviction. Once these tenants had given up their land to a sufficient extent, the public works discharged them - a total of 734,000 persons were, as James Connolly later wrote: "now as helpless as men on a raft in mid ocean. ... the number of persons evicted between 1838 and 1888 was 3,668,000; the greater number of these saw their homes destroyed during the years under consideration, and this Poor Relief Bill, nicknamed an "Eviction-Made-Easy" Act, was one main weapon of their undoing."
It is not surprising that the Irish in Britain played a role in every significant British social movement of the nineteenth century, including the Luddites and of course the Chartist movement, of which James Bronterre O'Brien and Feargus O'Connor were well-known leaders. The Luddite secret society was modelled on the secret societies of Irish poor who wreaked terror amongst the landlords in Ireland. For more than 20 years, one Irish county after another had seen agrarian disturbances in which these societies - the Threshers, the Carders, and later the Molly Maguires resisted tithes, held down rents and drove out English landlords.
Irish workers were also quick to join unions. They played a prominent role in the building of the non-skilled unions towards the end of the 19th century on the docks, in particular - among them, Ben Tillet, one of the leaders of the 1887 dock strike. It was also the Irish immigration which produced both James Larkin, born in Edinburgh and James Connolly, born in Liverpool, the city where he served his revolutionary apprenticeship on the docks. Larkin went on to found the Irish Transport Union and lead the Dublin dockers in strike. Connolly, who became a Marxist joined Larkin in his endeavours but went much further, organising the Irish Citizens Army and leading the Easter uprising in Dublin in 1916, for which he was executed by the British.
Throughout the 20th century the movement backwards and forwards of Irish workers between Britain and Ireland has continued. The poverty of the South and the political repression of the North has seen to it. More people left Ireland then stayed there.
And, contrary to popular perception, Irish immigration to Britain in the post-WW2 period far outstripped immigration from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent.
The Jewish immigrants and the East End of London
The Port of London has always been a destination for successive waves of immigration right up to the present day. Between 1870 and 1914, East London received the largest influx of immigrants until the arrival of people from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent after WW2.
Over 120,000 mainly Russian and Polish Jews - among them the most dispossessed and impoverished of the European proletariat - arrived in this period, fleeing Czarist-sponsored pogroms in Western Russia.
They found work in the tailoring sweatshops which had sprung up in the East End. The conditions were disgusting. Newly arrived workmen slept in the workrooms, and the lives of most of these people were precarious, to say the least.
But the Jewish immigrants soon found themselves facing anti-alien sentiments. The Pall Mall Gazette published a letter in 1886 saying that "the foreign Jews of no nationality whatever are becoming a pest and a menace to the poor native born East Ender...fifteen or twenty thousand Jewish refugees of the lowest type... have a greater responsibility for the distress which prevails there than probably all other causes put together". Even Ben Tillet a leader of the famous 1887 dockers' strike and who was the son of an Irish immigrant himself stooped to blaming the Jewish refugees for the problems of workers in the East End. In the "Dock Labourers Bitter Cry" (1889), he wrote: ".. the influx of continental pauperism aggravates and multiplies the number of ills which press so heavily upon us... Foreigners come to London in large numbers, herd together in habitations unfit for beasts, the sweating system allowing the more grasping and shrewd a life of comparative ease in superintending the work."Unemployment was growing in the late 1880s and in 1888, the government appointed a Select Committee to report on immigration. Though the Commons found no urgent need for legislation (and no wonder as the relative surplus of labour kept wages down), the anti-Semitic wave continued to grow. The famous Ripper murders were even blamed by the press on a Jew because "no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime"
With rising unemployment, in the 1890s, the mass expulsions of Jews from the Ukrainian capital Kiev (the 19th century's version of "ethnic cleansing") and the arrival of many of them in an absolutely destitute state in London, gave further impetus to this anti-Jewish campaign and calls for restriction of their entry into the country. In 1900 a British Brothers League was founded in East London. Major Evans Gordon, Tory MP for Stepney, moved an amendment to the Queen's Speech in which he painted a lurid picture of Stepney resulting from the consequences of what he termed "uncurbed immigration". "The working classes know that the new buildings are erected not for them but for strangers from abroad; they see notices that no English need apply placarded on vacant rooms; they see schools crowded with foreign children; they see themselves deprived of their Sunday... A storm is brewing which, if it be allowed to burst, will have deplorable results."
Well, what changes? This is a remarkable echo of Enoch Powell's notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968. It almost word for word the kind of racist language one could find in the tabloids of the last few decades - but today aimed at immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or, even more recently, from Eastern Europe!
However despite the fact that this was all the most blatant nonsense, demagogy prevailed and the first Aliens Bill aimed at restricting entry to immigrants became law in January 1906. Up to 1914, the entry of immigrants was reduced to 4,000 a year. When World War 1 broke out the East End Ghetto had consolidated itself to a population of around 100,000.
But again, the immigrants found their revenge in the same sense as every group of immigrants had before them. They joined those progressive organisations of the working class which fought for justice ensuring that the attempts to divide worker from worker on the basis of nationality or religion backfired. The Jewish migrants had the experience of organising resistance and certain political traditions which go with this, namely that of socialism. The East End became a hotbed of the early Communist Party in the interwar years, and unions were set up, linked to the party, such as the Garment Workers' Union. When fascism reared its head, it was unable to get very far in the East End, due to the solidarity of the Irish dockers with the Jewish community, not to mention their own local organisation for defence against attacks on their homes by Mosley's Blackshirts.
Black immigration to Britain
Until after WW2, black immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent was minimal. Those settled permanently in Britain at the outbreak of World War 1 numbered several thousand, though the exact figure is unknown. In the interwar period in fact an unwritten policy actually discouraged immigration from the colonies.
The main concentrations of Asian and black settlement were still to be found in the docklands areas of the port cities, largely as a result of settling by ex-sailors. Of course many of these settlers remained transient, working as seamen as the era of the steamship increased Britain's overseas trade. Lascars, or Indian sailors were chosen by shipowners because they could pay them less. By this time the National Union of Seafarers was fairly well organised and the shipping companies had an interest in maintaining immigrant seamen on board at lower rates, whenever they could get away with it.
Black sailors were therefore caught in a catch 22 situation. Those who signed on at a British port were accused of depressing wages by British seamen. And those who looked for a berth in Britain where equal pay was enforced were accused of depriving local seamen of jobs. In 1911 there was a general seamens' strike and when shipowners threatened to use Chinese sailors to break the strike, the small 200-strong Chinese community in Cardiff came under attack by locals supporting the strike.
However during World War 1, 8,000 merchant seamen recruited from the colonies joined the armed forces. After the war, they were demobbed in British ports and left homeless and unemployed, to fend for themselves. This led to the setting up of repatriation committees often led by the National Sea Farers Union to persuade black seamen to go home. However many of these black seamen were unwilling to just sail home with absolutely nothing in their pockets and were determined to either get a seaman's job or a job somewhere else. But they found that they were discriminated against by the employers. As an ex-soldier from British Guyana wrote in a complaint to the Colonial Office in 1918: "Every morning we go down to shipping offices to find ourselves work so as to make an honest bread and are bluntly refused on account of our colour. Whereas foreigners of all nationality get the preference."
Thousands of Arab, Somali and Caribbean seamen sought work in vain and found that they were even confronted by NSFU officials inciting white seamen against them. In 1919 Arabs fought white seamen on Tyneside. In Liverpool fighting started between Scandinavian and black seamen. Police raided boarding houses used by the black seamen and local mobs attacked them.
Of course the root cause of these riots was the post-war depression and the huge rise in unemployment and fall in living standards. But racism became a factor amongst seamen. In 1922, the advent of a card system for employment on British ships administered by the union - the PC5 - led to the further exclusion of black seamen who were barred from the union and therefore could not obtain these cards.
A new Special Restrictions (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order was brought in 1925, the first government order that specified skin colour as a reason for restriction. Shamefully, it had the backing of the NSFU. All black seamen were required to produce evidence that they were British subjects in order to stay here, but many were refused because the authorities did not recognise their papers, no matter how valid they were, or even destroyed them.
Undoubtedly the racism of the National Seamen's Union backfired on them. In 1925 ship owners decided to reduce seamen's wages. As a result the first international seamen's strike right across the British Empire was launched, despite the opposition of Havelock Wilson's leadership of the union, which had actually agreed the wage cut. The strike lasted 100 days but ended in defeat. However this was not due to the success of the ship owners to get Lascar or other black seamen from the colonies to break the strike. In fact some black sailors joined the unofficial leadership of the strike - which was in fact the CP-led Minority Movement amongst seamen - on their platforms, to argue for an international union with no colour bar.
War and reconstruction
When WW2 broke out, the Ministry of Labour, in conjunction with the Colonial Office organised a scheme to bring workers from the West Indies to Britain to help in war production. Unlike what happened after the war, the idea was to bring over skilled workers. 11 separate contingents were brought to Britain - 5 from Jamaica and the rest from British Honduras, the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana the Leeward and Windward Islands. The first three contingents from Jamaica were technicians who already had training and experience on the island. The rest were mainly unskilled workers and were sent to government training centres to receive basic engineering training.
However immediately after the war many were repatriated to the West Indies, only to find that there were no jobs for them there, so they returned. In 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived with 492 Jamaicans aboard, two thirds of whom had already seen service in Britain during the war, prompting the Evening Standard to publish a headline "Welcome Home!". Several hundred immigrants in search of work arrived every few months between 1948 and 1951, probably, according to some figures as many as 1,750 per year. The British government attempted to discourage this immigration even going to the lengths of producing a film showing the worst aspects of life in Britain in deep mid-winter! Yet this immigration was taking place in the context of post-war economic expansion, when the size of the 20-44 year-old British population was actually falling by 100,000 a year.
However the British government's policy was to seek Polish and Italian labour rather than to resort to taking the unemployed from its colonies and later, with the wave of post-war independence, its ex-colonies.
With pressure coming from the governments of Jamaica, among others, eventually a government commission agreed that the health service had demands for labour which could, in their words, be "satisfied" by workers from the colonies.
The reluctance of the British officials was based on their assumption that if they used European labour for reconstruction, they could be selected for their specific skills and then returned to their home country once they were no longer needed. Workers from the far-away colonies were less likely to return, and along with this argument went a number of racist ideas - that black workers were harder to control, could cause social problems, etc.
In 1949, the Ministry of Labour decided that black women workers could be recruited for the cotton garment industry, as domestic servants or hospital orderlies, and that male workers could be accommodated in the heavy metal industry and foundries as unskilled workers. This despite the fact that among those Caribbean workers who were arriving in Britain already, the majority had skills as carpenters, clerks, mechanics, welders, electricians, etc. Only a tiny minority were non-skilled.
The unions put up arguments against recruitment however, particularly the miners' and the agricultural workers' unions. As a result the officially-backed recruitment schemes were kept more or less secret. But two schemes certainly existed during the period from 1945-50 - one which brought 33 Barbadian women to the NHS for domestic duties and another which brought 100 men from St Helena for agricultural work.
Time and again in this period the question of the difficulty of assimilation of so-called "coloured" immigrants and the problem of "racial conflict" were discussed as a reason to restrict their entry. In fact the policy of dispersal was mooted at this time to "avoid concentrations of black immigrants"
This of course set the tone and it was hardly surprising that disturbances did indeed break out already in 1948 at immigrant labour hostels in Deptford and Birmingham in 1949.
Once the Conservatives had taken over in 1951, the problem of labour shortfalls of around 140,000 per year became more pressing.
By 1955, there was an acute shortage of labour in the state-run transport and catering industries, so again, a joint scheme was undertaken with the Barbadian government whereby assistance to migrants - their passage to Britain was paid - and jobs and accommodation in Britain were arranged. This direct recruitment scheme was run in conjunction with the British Transport Commission, the London Transport Executive and the British Hotels and Restaurants Association. Domestic workers for hospitals were also recruited in Barbados at the request of the Regional Hospital Boards. However Barbados was their second choice. Awareness that race relations may become a problem led the British Transport Commission to first seek to employ Italians on the railways. But this was refused by the National Union of Railwaymen, so the Transport executive had to instead focus their recruiting efforts on Ireland and the West Indies.
By the end of 1958, London Transport employed 4,000 black workers. 3,000 had been recruited in London and 1,000 directly in Barbados. They reputedly received two days training and then were inserted into the lowest grades, where many of them stayed.
In the 1950s West Indian immigrants outnumbered immigrants from Africa and Asia. It was only in the sixties that the numbers of immigrants from Asia increased to the point where they came to constitute the largest minority living in Britain. By the mid-1950s there were altogether around 210,000 black people living in Britain, constituting less than 0.5% of the total population.
Racism flares up
In 1958, an estimated 2-3,000 mainly West Indian immigrants were living in Nottingham, concentrated in what amounted to a ghetto. In a pub called the Chase, on 23 August 1958, a fight between a black and a white man just before closing time sparked a generalised fight leading to the stabbing of several people. A crowd of 1,500 gathered and the police and fire brigade were called in. Several black men were carted off by police under the pretext that this was for their own safety. Indeed the tension had been building up for some time after gangs of white "Teddy Boys" had been focusing their attentions on the area. The disturbances got wide press coverage, attracting even more whites to the area, looking for a fight. The following Saturday a mob of some 4,000 gathered and when a car with three West Indians drove through, some voices in the crowd called out to lynch them. They tried to turn the car over but the police eventually beat their way through the crowd and the car made its escape.
However feeling remained high and whites fought whites and the police. The Chief constable later reported that this was not a racial riot blaming the violence on drink and irresponsible "Teddy Boys".
However it is indisputable that there were elements who were interested in what they called "nigger-baiting" and in fact homes of black people were besieged in the following days.
More serious were the London riots which took place more or less simultaneously that summer, spreading from Shepherds Bush to Notting Hill and Maida Vale. In London, slogans such as "Keep Britain White" and "people of Kensington act now" were raised and a group called the White Defence League and the remnants of Mosley's Union of British Fascists held meetings and leafleting campaigns. These groups explicitly set out to attack black people and some homes were petrol bombed. Indeed the same picture emerged in Manchester on a smaller scale. The seriousness of the situation was underlined when Jamaica's Chief Minister, Norman Manley and the Prime Minister of Barbados, Hugh Cummins arrived in Britain, and proceeded to have discussions with the government and tour the riot areas. The violence eventually died down, nine "nigger-hunting" youths were given severe jail sentences, but the underlying creeping racism remained.
Stuck in low-paid jobs
It was always far harder for the much more impoverished Asian immigrants to come to Britain, both in terms of the difficulty entailed in obtaining passports and the cost of the fare. In the period of four years from 1958 to 1961, there was a fall in total immigration from 46,050 in 1956 to a low of 21,600 in 1959. But a sudden peak occurred in 1961, when 136,400 people arrived - three times the previous peak of 1956. In fact that year there was a tenfold increase in immigrants arriving from India and Pakistan. The reason for this sudden increase was the imminent passing of immigration restrictions. In fact, of the half a million Third World immigrants who came to Britain between the end of WW2 and the passing of the 1962 Immigration Act, a quarter of a million came between 1960 and 1962!
One can say that the first wave of immigration in the years before the 1962 Act constituted workers who served as a replacement labour force for socially undesirable jobs vacated by white workers, mainly in the public sector where low pay was wide spread and in the context of very low unemployment.
The plight of black nurses and ancillaries in the NHS is a particular example of how immigrant workers were never intended to improve their lot in terms of getting out of the low-paid and low-skilled workforce in the public sector. There was in effect a colour bar - job reservation for black workers. Black women, recruited abroad were told that they could qualify as State Enrolled Nurses in two years rather than the usual three years required for the State Registered qualification. They were not told that this would preclude them from promotion, relegate them to lower grades of pay and that this qualification was not even recognised outside of Britain. In fact this category was specifically designed to bring in cheap nurses for the NHS. In 1959, 6,000 aspirant nurses were recruited in this way and by 1970 there were 19,000, coming mainly from the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Mauritius and Malaysia.
Between 1972 and 1974, agency nursing became a better alternative for black nurses, who felt they had no real chance of advancement and could at least this way gain the flexibility they would not have when directly employed in the NHS, and more often than not they could demand higher wages. However the switch to the use of agency nurses in order to ease nursing shortages in the hospitals was met by the unions and for that matter many of the left organisations in the most irresponsible way. They saw this as a threat to their own bargaining power and instead of enroling the agency nurses on their side actually promoted a policy of refusing to work with them!
Eventually the possibility of upgrading to SRN was offered to SENs in the early 1980s and the SEN category was phased out as late as 1986 under the Tories' "Project 2000".
Immigrant workers and strikes in the private sector
After 1962, and despite the passing of the Immigration Act, many more of the new arrivals in Britain came from the Indian subcontinent, and there was an increase in immigration from Bangladesh. But due to the requirement of having to have a job to go to, many more immigrant workers concentrated in specific industries in the private sector.
By this time, however, a large section of the immigrant working class was settled and started to become consolidated as an integral part of the British working class. The issue now became one of breaking down the barriers to their employment in traditionally "white" sectors. An example is provided by the experience at the Oxford Cowley Morris plant. By the 1960s the only black workers there were a few in the cleaning department. In fact what amounted to a colour bar operated and no black workers were recruited for production. However in 1967, under pressure from left-wing shop stewards, the management opened all jobs to black workers. By the end of the 1960s, the workforce was 20% black.
Ford Dagenham, located to the east of London, however, had been more active in recruiting black workers for production, encouraging, in particular, workers from the Indian subcontinent to invite their relatives over to work in the plant. By the mid 1970s, 60% of the workforce was black and the figure has remained more or less the same ever since. And because this recruitment occurred in a period where immigration from Asia had far overtaken immigration from the West Indies, it was Asians who occupied many of these jobs - in 1977, 24% of the total jobs in British vehicle manufacture as a whole, in fact.
By 1977 a relatively high proportion of minority groups worked in manufacturing (47% of men from minorities compared with 33% white British). There was a high concentration of Asians, particularly Pakistanis in the textile industry. 62% of Pakistanis in Yorkshire and Humberside worked in this industry compared with only 6% of whites.
It was in the textile industry that, in 1965, one of the first "immigrant" strikes took place at the Courtalds Red Scar Mill in Preston. Management decided to force Asian and West Indian workers who were crammed into one section of the production process, to operate more machines with less pay. Behind this was a secret deal between the local transport union official with the management, agreeing to a small productivity bonus in exchange for workers to operate one and a half machines instead of one. The workers pointed out to the union's regional organiser that this meant a 50% increase in output for a 3% increase in pay, and voted against the proposal. However management decided to implement it nevertheless, with the union's blessing. The men promptly staged a sit-in strike for three days. The union official fulminated as he was held responsible for not being able to control his members and actually denounced the strikers as "tribal" and called the strike "racial". The 120 strikers stayed out for a number of weeks but were talked back to work by representatives of the West Indian High Commission.
By 1974 a pattern had emerged. This was demonstrated during a strike at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester. Between 1968 and 1972, Imperial began to replace their all-white workforce with mainly Asian women, at lower wages. Of 1600 workers, 1100 were Asians. On Mayday 1974, 39 workers from Imperial joined 300 workers from British United Shoe Machinery, 300 from the Bentley Group and 200 from GEC in a walkout. But the Imperial workers did not go back and over the next few days managed to bring another 500 workers out with them. The main grievances had been over productivity bonuses but others emerged including the fact that there had been a covert colour bar operating in the election of shop stewards. Out of the strike emerged leaders amongst the Asian women workers - two of whom led the unofficial strike committee. Between 50 to 200 workers manned the picket lines for the ten weeks of the strike in which at least half the workforce participated. But the union would have nothing to do with it - or rather they dissociated themselves from it actively and denounced the strikers. Yet the strikers remained loyal to the union and defended it at all times, hoping that it would make their strike official. Finally they lost their jobs as the management decided to close down the factory rather than even make minimal concessions to the strikers' demands.
The Grunwicks strike in 1976 however proved that even if the unions backed a strike that it was not necessarily going to win. Grunwicks was a film processing plant in Willesden, London, which employed 429 workers, mainly Asians from East Africa. When a worker was sacked, he and three workmates stood together at the gates of the factory where they were joined by a middle-aged Indian woman worker. Thus began the famous Grunwicks picket line. They sought help from the Transport union technicians' section APEX which attempted to unionise the factory, but workers who joined the union were sacked. APEX declared an official strike for union recognition but the dispute dragged on, in and out of the courts, arbitration and the national media of course, for the following two years.
It became a cause celebre - a focus for mass pickets and a way for the unions to prove their solidarity across sectional lines, not to mention their eagerness to recruit black workers. However these mass pickets, which were often attacked by the police, were used primarily as a publicity weapon by union officials, rather than a means to extend the strike. And when they began to embarrass the respectable TUC leaders they were called off, leaving the resolution of the dispute to the government's arbitration bodies and the appeal court. In the end the court ruled in favour of the Grunwick's boss and the strike was lost.
If anything can be concluded from these strikes in the 1970s which were instigated and led by black immigrant workers, it is the fact that they were now full participants in the class struggle, and that they were experiencing the same betrayals by the union leaderships and the same defeats as the rest of British working class.
One single working class
Over the next two decades the immigrant black working class merged more and more with the rest of the working class. So much so that over the 1980s and 1990s black workers were no longer seen as immigrants but rather the black part of the British working class. Indeed most were now black British, since the majority were now second or third generation - the children or grandchildren of the original immigrants of the post-war period.
This integration into the ranks of the working class did not and does not, however, iron out inequalities, nor eliminate discrimination. Black workers remain over-represented amongst semi-skilled and unskilled workers and under-represented amongst the skilled working class and the professions. They remain over-represented in the ranks of the unemployed. And every time there has been an increase in poverty and unemployment they have born the brunt of the reactionary "send them home" cries of the far-right.
Black immigration, mainly from Africa, which has occurred over the last decades has been mainly as a result of civil wars, famines and growing impoverishment. This immigration, occurring after the Tories' privatisation and deregulation spree has again relegated these immigrants into the worst paid, casual jobs on offer. Thus one finds that the privatised cleaning operations in the public sector employ almost exclusively African immigrant workers. However the tighter controls on immigration and asylum mean that this section of the working class remains small. And today, no doubt the new immigrants from Eastern Europe find themselves in the same kind of precarious employment when they are eventually allowed to find work.
Many of these recent immigrants have come from white collar or even professional backgrounds, and aspire to get back their middle class status. Yet the realities of their daily exploitation elicits a reaction against their employers, more often than not, and given the limited prospects of upward mobility, perhaps a new generation of activists is being spawned, which can only have the effect of strengthening the working class for the future struggles it inevitably must wage.
Above all, one of the consequences of the economic crisis of the past two decades has been to level out conditions in the working class as a whole to the lowest level. Casualisation and low pay, which used to be predominantly the lot of black workers, are now the norm for a large section of the working class, regardless of skin colour. To an extent, the bosses' offensive of the past decades has made the working class more homogeneous. This may well prove to be the capitalists' undoing.
The development of immigration controls
Immigration controls have always existed in one form or another, even after World War 2 when the flow of immigrants increased significantly. Indeed, British ministers always proved extremely receptive to the pressures of the most backward prejudices among the electorate.
Of course, the 1948 British Nationality Act introduced by the postwar Labour government had formally granted all Commonwealth citizens the status of British "subject". But this had only put into writing what had been so far common practice, without giving these citizens any new rights. In fact the main purpose of this Act had been to reassert Britain's colonial influence, including over the formally independent member states of the Commonwealth, against potential imperialist rivals. But while, in theory, the right to enter and settle in Britain for all Commonwealth citizens was recognised , in practice this right was restricted by their ability to get travel documents.
Despite the small trickle of immigrants, as a result of these hidden restrictions, the postwar Labour government became concerned about what they called "coloured colonials". In June 1950, Attlee set up a secret Cabinet committee to review, according to the official records published later, "means which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from the British colonial territories". Among the recommendations which were made by this committee was the setting up of a working party to "tackle the problem (..) by dispersal, by finding employment and by arranging for voluntary repatriation of misfits." Indeed the Home minister's report on housing and employment noted the "undisciplined behaviour of the coloured colonials" as well as the "certain amount of prejudice in this country against coloured people". In the end, however, it was decided that "the problem can be kept within bounds without resorting to any drastic measures."
After the Tories took over in 1951, the working party framework set up by Labour was kept in place and the same concern about "coloured colonials" remained high on the government's agenda. The content of the reports brought to this working party speaks for itself. For instance, a report from the Metropolitan Police stated that "on the whole coloured people are work-shy and content to live on national assistance and immoral earnings. They are poor work men (..) They are said to be of low mentality and will only work for short periods." Other police reports described Indians and Pakistanis as "unscrupulous" and West Africans as "lazy and arrogant". As for immigrant women, a report from the ministry of Labour stated that "it is reported that they are slow mentally and find considerable difficulties in adapting themselves to working conditions in this country." The overall Cabinet atmosphere was clearly deeply impregnated with racism. It was Churchill himself who set the tone. He liked to be quoted as a white supremacist, like for instance when he told Jamaica's governor that the settlement of black people in Britain would turn the country into a "magpie society". By 1952, it was Churchill who inspired moves to seek ways to restrict "the entry of coloured workers into Great Britain" and "the number of coloured people obtaining admission to the Civil Service." Whether this policy reflected Churchill's own views or not, he certainly saw it as a vote-winner, judging by his proposal to make the slogan "Keep Britain White" a central theme in the Tories' campaign for the 1955 general election - although the idea was eventually dropped.
The 1962 Act
In the end, however, the Tory governments of the 1950s stopped short of passing any legislation restricting immigration. Not because they became convinced that this was unnecessary, but because of the many obstacles this threw up. Indeed, the Tory government's main problem was to find a way to limit the immigration of black workers without putting any obstacles in front of white Commonwealth citizens, particularly from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Thus, in 1954, the Commonwealth Relation minister Lord Swinton argued that "if we legislate on immigration, though we can draft it in non-discriminatory terms, we cannot conceal the obvious fact that the object is to keep out coloured people". And this de facto "colour bar" meant taking the risk of retaliation on the part of India, Pakistan and Jamaica, in particular.
It took until September 1958, after the riots in Nottingham and Notting-Hill, before the Tory government made its first public statement in favour of introducing immigration controls, but even then as a long-term perspective that had to be looked into rather than as an immediate response to the riots themselves. Nevertheless, this statement did spell out clearly that it was the victims of the riots, who would be made to foot the bill.
By the time the Tories returned to office after the 1959 general election, there was still nothing in the situation that they could use as a pretext to restrict immigration. Unemployment figures among immigrant workers, which ministers monitored secretly, were not showing a dramatic increase. Moreover a Treasury report showed that the contribution of immigrant workers to the national economy was significantly larger than what they consumed or sent back home. Besides, added the Treasury report, the cost of restricting immigration was likely to be a significant increase in the average wage.
Nevertheless, this time the Tories were determined to go ahead with their plans. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was the result. This Act required any Commonwealth citizen entering Britain to obtain a job voucher. These vouchers were automatically granted to those who had a job to go to or a particular skill which was designated as being in short supply. In addition, the Labour ministry would issue every Commonwealth country with job vouchers for unskilled workers. While the first two categories kept the doors wide open to white citizens from Canada, Australia, etc.., the third category effectively provided a means of limiting the numbers of immigrants selectively country by country, under the pretext of meeting the requirements of industry. At the same time the Act gave right of admittance to the wives and children of Commonwealth citizens settled in Britain. On the other hand, it also provided for the forcible repatriation of immigrants on the grounds of ill health or criminal convictions. Only those with five years continuous residence were to be exempt from such threats.
However, the impact of this Act was more complex than may be thought at face value. On the one hand it gave official credit to the idea that immigrants somehow presented a risk to the British population, thereby feeding racism. By the same token it undermined the position of all immigrant workers in Britain, who became suspect of having entered the country "illegally", thereby weakening the working class as a whole.
On the other hand, this Act was not aimed at ending the inflow of unskilled immigrants, at least not at first, since the Tories did not intend to undermine the bosses' efforts to keep wages down. Nor did this Act result in reducing the existing immigrant population in Britain. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Many immigrant workers who had maintained ties with their home countries with the view of returning at some point, decided to opt for British nationality and settle in Britain for good, since this put them outside the scope of the Act. As a result the 1962 Act also stabilised permanently a sizeable section of the immigrant population.
Labour turns against immigrants
As far as the issue of immigration controls was concerned, the Labour party had been split up to 1962. A small number of its MPs were vocally in favour of restricting immigration, and a sizeable number probably agreed silently. In any case the party leadership was careful not to challenge prejudices within its own ranks and among its supporters by enforcing party discipline on this issue.
However, when came the debate over the 1962 Act, the right-wing leader of the party, Hugh Gaitskell, led a vigorous opposition to it. And he was able to win an amendment forcing the government to submit the Act for renewal the following year. But by the time this happened, in November 1963, Gaitskell had died and Harold Wilson had taken over as leader of the party. And despite his alleged "left" credentials Wilson took a very different attitude. Not only did he fail to oppose the Act in principle, as Gaitskell had done, but he actually argued in favour of tightening some of its provisions: "I must point out that there are loopholes in the Act and we should favour a strengthening of legal powers (..). We believe that health checks should become more effective. We should be prepared to support a change in the law relating to deportation.(..) If an individual found guilty of certain crimes has been in this country for more than five years, he is excluded from the operation of parts of the Act." And the following year, Labour's election manifesto had this to say on immigration: "Labour accepts that the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom must be limited. Until a satisfactory agreement covering this can be negotiated with the Commonwealth, a Labour government will retain immigration controls." In other words, Wilson was clearly not prepared to lose any votes over this issue.
These developments fed a vicious cycle. The Tories' promotion of anti-immigrant demagogy and Wilson's failure to confront it encouraged far-right and racist currents to demand more immigration controls. Groupings such as the Birmingham branch of the British Immigration Control Association and the Southall Residents' Association even managed to win some electoral support on this basis. And in the 1964 election, which brought Labour back into office, the Tories won the safe Labour seat of Smethwick, in the west Midlands, with the slogan "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour." All this, in turn, prompted politicians to make more allowances to anti-immigrant demagogy.
Only one year into office, Wilson was already complaining in the Commons about "fatal erosion" of the 1962 Act. By the end of 1964, the allocation of job vouchers for unskilled workers had ground to a halt with a waiting list of 300,000. Nevertheless, the 1962 Act was tightened up the following year. Job vouchers for unskilled workers were abolished and the number of other vouchers cut to 8,500 a year, including 1,000 for Malta alone. The right of entry for relatives was restricted, time limits were set for students and visitors, while more drastic deportation rules were introduced including powers to deport anyone attempting to evade the new rules.
To all intents and purposes, these new rules achieved what the previous Tory government had not dared to do, by banning completely new unskilled black immigrant workers. However Wilson was not taking the risk of reducing the existing pool of unskilled labour which was so useful for the bosses. The regular inflow of children and other relatives of settled immigrants ensured that this pool was be maintained and rejuvenated. Thus Labour was both conceding ground to racist prejudices and preserving capitalist interests at the same time.
From Wilson to Thatcher
Indeed, the capitalist class no longer needed this pool of unskilled labour to grow. The increase of consumption which had powered postwar expansion was beginning to slow down worldwide. As a result profit margins were beginning to shrink and capital to flow out of the production sphere. In 1967, the number of unemployed increased by 60% to over half-a-million. From the point of view of the bosses, the pressure of rising unemployment was now strong enough to keep wage levels down, so immigration was no longer needed.
By this time, however, it seemed as though there was not much more ground that the Labour government could concede to anti-immigrant prejudices. But they soon found it. In a number of former African colonies which had been granted independence, the British state had offered European and Asian settlers the option of retaining their British passports. Kenya was one of them and due to the regime's "africanisation" policy, the numbers of Kenyan Asians moving to Britain had increased. This was enough for the anti-immigrant lobby to launch a hysterical campaign against the "threat of a new invasion". Wilson immediately rushed through a new Act, in 1968, which effectively deprived non-resident British citizens of the automatic right of entry unless they were born in Britain or had at least one parent or grandparent born in Britain. This meant that Kenyan whites could come freely to Britain, but not Kenyan Indians. It instituted two kinds of non-resident British citizens - one, white, with all privileges, and the other, without any rights.
Subsequently this provision was to be slightly relaxed to allow in a trickle of African Asians from Uganda and Malawi. But the 1968 Act provided the basis for the complete rewriting of the Immigration Act enacted by Heath's Tory government in 1971 and subsequently further tightened by Callaghan's Labour government in 1979. To all intents and purposes immigration to Britain was now closed to all black British subjects, just at the time when British borders were to become increasingly open to white Europeans in accordance with EEC rules. And Thatcher's 1981 Nationality Act only formalised the situation by translating the rights provided by previous legislation into three different categories of British nationality for people from former colonies.
The dangers of anti-racist posturing
There was no difference between Labour and the Tories with regard to their policies towards immigrant workers. But there was a difference, or so Labour claimed, in their policies towards the black population already settled in Britain. This difference was that every time a Labour government took more stringent measures against immigrants, at the same time it took measures against racial discrimination in Britain. So, Wilson's tightening of immigration rules in 1965 was counter-balanced by the first Race Relations Act, which made racial discrimination unlawful - except in the vital areas of housing and employment - and created the Race Relations Board to investigate discrimination cases.
Subsequently such policies became the rule under Labour as well as Tory governments, all the more so because both parties were keen to capture the votes of a growing black electorate. Countless bodies and quangos were thus created in order, supposedly, to protect British black citizens against racism and discrimination. But no matter how well-meaning these bodies were - which was not always the case - the fact that they did not and could not address the social roots of racism, made their activity at best useless and at worst dangerous.
Indeed all these race relations bodies, and the massive publicity that every government gave them for the sake of gaining votes, led to the impression that a lot of resources were being poured into fighting discrimination. But only the black working population and jobless, who were at the receiving end of racism and discrimination knew that they gained very little, if anything at all. For the poor whites on the other hand, it looked as though a lot was being done for black people and nothing for themselves. And this provided the basis for a further development of racist prejudices in the most deprived layers of the British working class, the very layers which should have felt closest to the majority of the black population because of the very similar conditions they shared with it.
Over the past thirty years, all kinds of demagogues have been using this stick to whip up support for themselves. There was, for instance, the famous case of the Tory MP Enoch Powell and his Birmingham speech in 1968, in which he warned: "As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman I seem to see the river Tiber foaming with much blood." Powell was not calling for blood. Beyond the flowery style of an irrelevant eccentric, Powell was a white supremacist warning against the danger of racial explosions and arguing for the repatriation of black people as the only way to avoid it. But above all, he was a god-given gift for the main parties. The Tories were able to take the high moral ground by expelling him from their ranks. As to the Labour government, it was able to regain some credibility for its anti-racist credentials, which had been badly damaged by its measures against the Kenyan Asians, by calling a demonstration against Powell and in support of its new Race Relations Act.
No-one bothered to ask the few hundred London dockers who demonstrated outside the House of Commons in support of Powell their exact motives. They were just dismissed as racists. Yet, these dockers were not among the most backward or deprived sections of the white working class. They were certainly racist, but probably not much more so than many other workers. In any case, they did reflect a real problem which was the direct result of this dangerous combination of anti-racist tokenism and use of the racist card. And in this field the union machinery had a direct responsibility. At this very point a plea was being processed through the structures of the Transport union in favour of an immediate ban on any immigration, regardless of race or skin colour. Rather than a racist plea, it was a sectional one by workers who felt it was easier to limit the supply of labour than to fight the bosses. This sectional outlook - which could easily be diverted towards racism - was encouraged if not promoted by a union machinery, which was keen to avoid confrontations with the employers and did nothing to counter the prejudices of their members.
The inner-city explosion and after
The combination of anti-racist tokenism, daily racism and increasing poverty led eventually to the inner-city explosions, first in Bristol in 1980, and then in Brixton in April 1981, followed in July by Southall, Liverpool and Manchester, to mention only the main flash points. The immediate cause of these riots was the same - the brutality and overt racism of the police. The new Thatcher government was confronted with an explosion it had no means to prevent.
This was all the more ironical because of the way Thatcher had begun her reign. She had made headlines by saying that "this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture". There had been talks about internal controls and passport checks. She had even created a post of "permanent secretary for Black Affairs", giving it to Enoch Powell who had began to talk about "induced repatriation" of black people. Some Tory local councils had gone further, by paying black people to go back to their home countries.
Needless to say, the inner-city riots brought all this white supremacist demagogy to an abrupt end. All of a sudden Thatcher became concerned about "community problems" and the funds which had been unavailable for the maintenance of inner-cities were made available to launch all sorts of programmes designed to dampen down this outbreak of anger. And ironically again, Thatcher resorted to Labour's good old recipes of anti-racist posturing.
Among Labour's proven recipes used by Thatcher was that of "ethnicity". This had been invented while Roy Jenkins was Home minister in the 1960s. The idea was not to put the emphasis so much on anti-racism as such, than to encourage each ethnic or religious group to close ranks as a separate entity - in the obvious hope that this would create enough rivalries between them to make it easy for the government to get its way. So each group was invited to nominate its own "community leaders" to represent them with the authorities. These "leaders" were often reactionary characters who represented no-one except themselves. They were flattered by being invited to sit on all sorts of "conflict resolution" committees next to police and government officials, and in addition they were offered funds to finance their own "community projects" - more often than not some religious outfit which was certain to divide rather than unite the ranks of the black population.
The Commission for Racial Equality, which Thatcher had intended to close down before the riots, was reopened for business to channel the flow of state funds towards black "self-help" projects. In 1982 alone, £270m were devoted to funding 200 new "ethnic projects" approved on the basis of "specific ethnic needs and problems". But while a few of the young radicals produced by this period found a slot for themselves in the new bodies, thereby integrating into the system, hardly any of these funds translated into positive changes for the inner-city population as a whole.
On the other hand, the Tory government's reactions to the riots, produced policies that were utterly divisive in the long run. The so-called "positive discrimination" policy was one of them. A whole consultancy industry developed around its implementation and monitoring. In many places this policy did a lot more to divide workers than to fight racial discrimination. A major factor in this was the fact that, in the absence of any control of the workforce on the hiring of employees, this policy was bureaucratically applied by managers in the interest of management. But this was precisely the whole point about all these tokenistic policies - those directly concerned were not meant to have a say.
Black separatism and class interests
Thatcher's policy following the inner-city riots was primarily aimed at securing the support of the aspiring black petty-bourgeoisie, relying on them to take the heat out of the inner-city powderkeg.
Indeed, a whole section of this petty-bourgeoisie found jobs in the new bodies set up by Thatcher, or in other areas such as the media, thanks to the development of positive discrimination. At the same time the sudden political interest generated by the riots, prompted some of them, to bid for the role of representatives of the black population as a whole, in the name of its special separate interests. It was at this point that the demand for the setting up of black sections in the Labour Party gathered momentum, on the grounds that black members needed to be able to organise separately in order to discuss their specific problems. Likewise it was argued that the Labour Party should develop their own form of positive discrimination by reserving seats on its leading bodies for black members and by having a certain proportion of black candidates in parliamentary and local elections.
These middle-class activists who were playing the black separatist card only aspired to the same privileges enjoyed by British politicians. They certainly felt well suited to represent all black people in Britain. But they certainly did not represent the interests of black workers any more than white politicians represent white workers. Putting to the fore the "special interests" of the black population was merely a way of pushing aside the specific class interests that all workers - black and white - have in common, in the fight against their exploiters.
In any case the attempts at setting up black sections in the Labour Party failed due to the party leadership's unwillingness to allow the development of another potential focus of opposition at a time when Kinnock was trying to discipline the party. But the aspiring black politicians were encouraged to come forward, so long as they stood on the basis of party policy - i.e. crass reformism. After all the black vote was well worth the effort. So, by the 1986 local election, 160 black Labour councillors were elected, mostly in inner-city wards, and three London boroughs had black Labour leaders.
And one can see today, where the black separatism of these politicians has led them - into the shoes of ordinary Labour party politicians who, in most cases, have willingly endorsed Blair's attacks against the working class and swallowed Straw's whipping up of racist prejudices into the bargain.
The working class is international
Today, yesterday's immigrant workers make up a large black working class, which has become an integral part of the British working class. However, the problem of immigrant workers is posed once more by this government's demagogic finger-pointing at what Labour up until recently still called "bogus" asylum seekers. Straw claims to be in favour of welcoming "genuine" asylum seekers. But why should economic migrants who are trying to escape the dictatorship of the imperialist market in their own countries, because of the poverty it generates, be treated differently from Serbian intellectuals running away from Milosevic's regime? After all, British multinationals play a significant role in plundering the Third World. The least the British state could do is to welcome their victims and provide them with the jobs they are looking for.
The excuse that somehow the conditions of the British working class have to be protected from the threat of an immigrant flood is nonsense. Scrapping just a few of the new military programmes which this government intends to fund would be enough to pay for hundreds of thousands of new immigrants living at the expense of the state. But this is not what immigrants are asking for. Despite the politicians' hypocritical lies, they do not come here to live on miserly benefits but to earn a living through their labour. And once they do, capitalist exploitation guarantees that they give more to the economy - that is to the capitalists and the state - than they get from it, like every other worker.
Of course, it is true that there are already not enough jobs available for the British working class. But given the fact that we are already 4.2 million jobs short, turning away a few hundred thousand immigrants is not going to help either. The only way out of unemployment would be the mobilisation of all resources - including the enormous profits of large companies, the financial profits of the bourgeoisie and the resources of the state - to create useful jobs and production. Then accommodating a few hundred thousand immigrants would pose no problem.
The demagogues who tell the British working class that it should insulate itself from the competition of foreign workers are in the same league as the racists who are argue for the repatriation of black workers. They are enemies of the working class. Just as those union leaders and politicians who tell us that we must defend "our" British industry - that is the British bosses' profits - against foreign competitors by agreeing to cuts in jobs and conditions. The interest of the working class is to strengthen and unite its ranks, not to divide them. It is to force the capitalists to surrender their ownership of the economy and their profits, not to help to increase these profits.
Throughout its entire history, the working class of this country has been reinforced by generation after generation of immigrants who brought us new blood and energy. Thanks to this past it is one of the most international working class in the world, with physical and family links to practically every one of the planet's countries. This is an enormous asset, not a liability. It gives the British working class a potential that the British bourgeoisie, despite its expensive network of banks and financial institutions, does not have. This asset must be developed constantly so that in the course of this generation or maybe the next one, we will be in a position to use it, to reach out to our class brothers and sisters across the world and join ranks with them in the fight against the capitalist system.