It's deja vu all over again: the rise of a xenophobic nationalist party upsetting the established political parties, who then feel they have to compete in demonstrating their anti-immigrant credentials. This is a recurrent scenario in a number of European countries, especially England. This article revisits the 1960s and 1970s, Powellism, the National Front and the British National Party (BNP), the Conservative immigration controls of the 1990s and New Labour's attempts in the 2000s to balance populist hostilities to immigration with the fact that immigrants and migrants are vital to the UK economy. It brings us round to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a party which asserts that it is not racist, but which unites anti-European Union stalwarts with anti-European migrant, anti-refugee and anti-asylum seeker elements, and those who remain determinedly 'anti' long-settled former colonial citizens, into a toxic brew which may get worse before the next election. The article draws out the long history of the problem the left faces in trying to compete with populist anti-immigration activists, while retaining a commitment to liberal beliefs in tolerance and equality.
Nationalism as a movement for self-determination of majority groups emerged with the French revolution of 1789 and rapidly spread over Europe. After the First World War, national boundaries were redrawn to favour ethnically homogeneous nations, a situation upset by the second half of the twentieth century when unprecedented mass movements of peoples around the world were taking place. These included forced migrations and often brutal attempts to separate ethnic and cultural groups, voluntary migrations as groups embraced religious and political freedoms, and, especially, economic migrations. Economic migrations were encouraged by European governments for labour purposes, but there was a widespread failure to deal with the resulting ethnic, racial, and economic conflicts. The British Empire came home to roost with the arrival of the fabled Empire Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, carrying 492 skilled workers, who were described in a Privy Council memo to the Foreign Office as an 'influx' (Winder, 2004). If there had been some political leadership at this time to point to the contribution Black and Asian migrant workers would make to the economy, public ignorance and xenophobia might have been softened over the years. But legends of imperial triumphs formed the basis for nostalgia and an unproblematic notion of a superior British heritage, and there was a pervasive popular belief, shared across all social classes, that the white British had economic, moral and intellectual superiority over arrivals from colonial countries, and indeed over most 'foreigners'.
The 1950s and 1960s
The British Nationality Act of 1948 notionally gave all imperial subjects the right of free entry into Britain, although it distinguished between UK citizens and those from the colonies (or, as non-white citizens of the colonies would later be known, 'New Commonwealth' citizens). The political assumption was that immigrants would be assimilated into labour positions white workers did not want, and initially liberal beliefs in equality before the law held. But ideological self-images of a Britain characterised by paternal tolerance were always under strain. The 1950s and 1960s saw increasingly evident contradictions between the need for labour and antagonism to 'coloured immigration'. Socialist movements which saw themselves as fighting for the working class became confused when this class began to incorporate an unwelcome colonial underclass which had little intention of staying in that subordinate position. Political debates over the course of the 1950s were characterised by a growing realisation that there was electoral advantage in taking an anti-immigrant stance, and the development of a populist nationalism harking back to the 1930s fascism of Oswald Moseley
The Conservative governments of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan resisted agitation for immigration control, but pressure grew after 1959 when migration from the Asian subcontinent increased, and after the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill, often begun by Teddy Boys' attacks on Jamaican men. The Conservative government managed to retain a measure of toleration by presenting the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962 as one controlling all Commonwealth immigration. They left it to further acts to exempt the white Commonwealth from these controls, and to Labour to extend a system of employment vouchers for migrants in 1965. After a Conservative won the Midlands seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election with the slogan 'if you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour' nervousness was obvious. Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman worried about Labour becoming illiberal but 'fear of immigration is the most powerful undertow today. We felt we had to out-trump the Tories'' (Crossman, 1975, 299). He wrote in his diary in February 1965:
Ever since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in and blight the central areas of our cities. (Crossman, 1975, 73) The rhetoric of floods and blights and blaming immigrants for inner city decline was taking hold well before Enoch Powell made his infamous 'rivers of blood' speech in 1968. After Labour's re-election in 1966, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins envisaged a society based on cultural diversity, mutual tolerance, and equal opportunity. Indeed, the Wilson governments of 1964-70 did pass two Race Relations Acts (in 1965 and 1968), outlawing overt discrimination. But in 1968, Home Secretary James Callaghan...