Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



Martin Upchurch explains that immigration has always existed in Britain
Many migrants were encouraged to come to Britain in the 1950s
Many migrants were encouraged to come to Britain in the 1950s

For 40,000 years Britain has been a destination for migrants. Some of the earliest were the Celts from the Russian steppes, who were then followed over the centuries by invading armies of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from various parts of north west Europe. Roman armies and their administrative structures ruled for 400 years--indeed, there were black Roman soldiers from Africa living in 'England' before the 'English', including a division of Moors who defended Hadrian's Wall in the 3rd century AD.

Centuries of migration have followed, spurred by war, revolution and poverty. Despite this the mythology of 'Britishness' or its regional equivalents lives on, sustained and encouraged by state racism in an effort to discipline and divide the nation's population. For the capitalist state in particular, immigrants have either provided a source of cheap or highly skilled labour in times of labour shortage, or have been portrayed as an 'alien' threat likely to subvert the authority of the state from within. The current racism against asylum seekers is nothing new when framed in historical context.

Those coming to Britain have usually either been fleeing persecution or seeking employment and a new life. Often there is an interaction between the two, making any distinction between 'refugee' and 'economic migrant' spurious. For example, Jews first came to Britain as part of the Norman conquest. They were denied access to many occupations because of their religion and, since Christianity at the time forbade usury, found a role as money raisers and lenders to aristocratic courts. A special Exchequer of the Jews was established by Edward 1 to extract taxes from the Jews, but when by 1290 the profligate spending of the kings became more than Jewish money-lenders could raise, they were expelled from the country. Oliver Cromwell officially allowed Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal back into the country after the English Revolution some 366 years later, having been persuaded of the value of their commercial skills.

From then until 1753 Jews were denied political rights and naturalisation, and it was the parliamentary bill of that year that spurred a series of campaigns against them by media barons and leading politicians. The main newspaper in Bristol, for example, carried negative foreign reports about Jews from as far apart as Germany and Algeria, with editorials, letters, doggerel, spoof stories and domestic reportage. The gist of the reports was that Jews were coming in 'swarms', and threatening to take homes and jobs from local people. Those opposed to the religious authority of the state were continually repressed. This included Catholics and 'papists', particularly when they were Irish immigrants seeking refuge from poverty and famine, and therefore likely to be desperate individuals looking for work.

The development of commerce and industry in this period led to an intermittent thirst for labour, filled mostly by migration into the cities from the surrounding countryside, and by immigration from abroad. Flemish and Rhenish weavers were recruited to work in many of the new factories of the industrial revolution, while between 1680 and 1720 about 50,000 Calvinist Huguenots entered Britain fleeing from persecution in France, many of them highly skilled in fine trades. Catholics were further repressed after the French Revolution of 1789 and the Irish rebellion of 1798. These events set fear among England's rulers of parallel uprisings at home, and government-inspired anti-foreign and anti-Irish feeling reached a peak in the early part of the 19th century.

A second phase of Jewish immigration came from those escaping east European pogroms after 1860. Between 1870 and 1914 some 120,000 Jewish people migrated to Britain. This was a time of mass migration into Britain, paralleling similar movements to the Americas. It led to the 1905 Aliens Order, designed to restrict immigration and reflecting the fact that the state saw little need to encourage such immigration.

Proving fickle

Today black and Asian people, such as these striking postal workers are part of the British working class
Today black and Asian people, such as these striking postal workers are part of the British working class

The two world wars of the 20th century saw massive movements of refugees throughout Europe. A quarter of a million Belgians came to Britain between 1914 and 1919, settling temporarily in most towns and villages throughout the country. The entry of the Belgians was undoubtedly a political response of the British government to its military position, as was the initial welcome given to Bosnians and Kosovans in the immediate aftermath of the recent Nato interventions. However, such state responses have inevitably proved fickle. While Belgians were allowed entry during the First World War, Armenians facing genocide were excluded. Bosnians and Kosovans are now not welcomed by the authorities, as public support for Nato interventions has temporarily passed from the political agenda.

The number of Jews entering Britain while fleeing from Nazism was also heavily restricted in the late 1930s. The home secretary at the time gave the excuse that Jews could not be allowed into Britain because of racist agitation. Unemployment was high, housing shortages were acute and racism was on the rise. Mosley's fascists were also agitating against the Jewish population. Government policy was framed to allow Jewish children to enter (but not their parents), while adult Jews were allowed in only if they then agreed to move on to another country (many of them being forced to stay in detention centres in the process). Alternatively, entry was allowed if they had sufficient means to support themselves, an unlikely event given that most German Jews had had all their assets seized by the Nazis.

Immigration from Europe and beyond continued in the postwar period, reflecting labour shortages in the long economic boom. Many Chinese and Greek Cypriots arrived in Britain in the 1960s, for example. But another major source of immigration was political refuge from persecution: some 22,000 Hungarians came to escape from the Stalinist purges after the 1956 uprising; 5,000 Czechs and Slovaks came after the defeat of the 1968 'Prague spring'; and 3,000 Chileans came in the 1970s, mostly sponsored by the trade union movement after Pinochet's coup and bloodletting against the left. Political immigration has met a mixed response from the British state, reflecting the ruling class's own specific interests. For example, the Thatcher government welcomed 19,000 Vietnamese (many of them 'boat people') during the 1980s as identifiable 'victims' of the Cold War. Prominent Eastern Bloc 'dissidents' were always given a welcome, and were the first 'asylum seekers' in official state vocabulary. This is in stark contrast to the hostility shown to Chinese or east European 'economic migrants' after the collapse of Communism, who were seeking a better alternative to the ravages of neoliberal globalisation policies in their own countries. No longer are they brave dissidents--instead they are categorised as potential scroungers.

The major source of economic immigration after the Second World War was of black and Asian people seeking employment and a new life. The long postwar economic boom led to labour shortages. While the early origins of black people in cities such as Liverpool, London, Bristol and Glasgow can be traced to slavery, in later centuries the Caribbean was the source of migration for the descendants of former slaves to the 'mother country'. Many of the first new immigrants were actually those who had signed up for the RAF during the war. These young men were mostly educated and talented sons of the black West Indian 'officer' class, and they became bomber or fighter pilots, some serving in the Battle of Britain (and more often than not ignored in official war histories). Some 250 alone were recruited from the small island of Trinidad, 52 of whom were killed. However, it was after the arrival of SS Empire Windrush in 1948 and in the following decade that blacks of Afro-Caribbean descent settled in Britain, and developed communities in major towns and cities. They had been recruited to work in this country after government official visits to the West Indies such as that made by minister of health Enoch Powell to recruit nurses. Acute labour shortages had occurred on the public transport system and the newly expanding NHS, and the British state sought to solve the 'problem' by recruiting abroad.

Initially the British establishment expressed a welcome. At the time of Windrush, for example, the London Evening Standard (21 June 1948) account of the arrival was headlined 'Welcome Home'. Further immigration also began in the 1950s from the Indian subcontinent, as employers in towns such as Bradford in Yorkshire, Leicester in the Midlands, and Southall on the western edge of London recruited labour direct from villages on the subcontinent to work in low wage factories. By 1958 there were 125,000 West Indians and 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis in Britain who had come for jobs since the end of the war.

By the end of the 1960s the postwar economic boom was beginning to fizzle out, and it was in this period and through into the 1970s that the government's official 'welcoming' position changed to one of racism and open hostility to immigration. From 1962 Britain's immigration laws have become progressively tightened and directed particularly at those from 'non-white' countries. William Deedes, then minister without portfolio in the Conservative government, later stated that the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act's real purpose was 'to restrict the flow of coloured immigrants. We were reluctant to say as much openly. So the restrictions were applied to coloured and white citizens in all Commonwealth countries--though everybody recognised that immigration from Canada, Australia and New Zealand formed no part of the problem.'

By the time the publication of the even more restrictive 1971 Immigration Act, Enoch Powell had followed up his racist 'rivers of blood' speech by calling for a 'Ministry of Repatriation'. The blame for the racism experienced by black people in Britain was, as now, consistently given to black people themselves or to too much immigration. Rather than challenge the economic ills of our capitalist society, leading politicians, employers and the media consistently sought to divide working people on the grounds of race. The 29,000 Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin's regime in 1972 were treated with hysteria by the national press. The pattern was repeated in 1976, when the Daily Mail ran a front page virulently attacking refugee Malawi Asians.

The story of immigration into Britain is a rich history in which human compassion from ordinary people for the victims of persecution and poverty has eventually overcome the hostility shown by leading politicians, the media and the state. In its hostility the ruling class has consistently attempted to vilify, isolate and scapegoat refugees when their use as reserve armies of labour no longer serves capital's purpose. Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test', Anne Cryer's compulsory English language proposal and David Blunkett's new work permit scheme for 'skilled' migrant workers are the latest examples of a long line of repression and exclusion. As socialists we argue against all immigration controls not just for compassionate reasons, but because we refuse to be divided and cowed by ruling class interests and spurious notions of nationhood.

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