Labour Party and immigration
High-flown phrases about “the brotherhood of man” fall thickly from the lips of the Capitalist politician, and perhaps some of them are sincere, at least some of the time. Fenner Brockway, until last October the Labour M.P. for Eton & Slough, tried and failed no less than seven times to interest the Commons in a bill to outlaw racial discrimination. “When a child is born”, he said with a note of Christian piety on December 13th, 1961, “ it is not its physical form or the pigment of its skin which makes it sacred—it is the spiritual life, the personality within.”
The precise meaning of those words is a matter for discussion, but what is undeniable is the anxiety of Mr. Brockway and other M.P s over the growing signs of racial friction in Britain. However, it is one thing to condemn racialism, but quite another to deal with it effectively in a world of private property, where antagonisms and prejudices of all sorts are fostered. In any case, whatever Mr. Brockway’s opinions may have been, he was a Labourite and cannot escape responsibility for his party’s actions over the question of racialism and immigration control.
Indeed, despite fierce Labour opposition to the Commonwealth Immigration Bill in 1962 (and we shall come to that later), it may not be generally remembered that it was two Labour members, H. Hynd (Accrington) and M. Lipton (Brixton) who over four years before (on April 3rd, 1958) had said in the Common that “. . . the time has come for reconsideration of the arrangement whereby British subjects from other parts of the Commonwealth are allowed to enter this country without restriction”. At that time, it was the Tory spokesman, Miss P. Hornsby-Smith, who resisted their motion and reminded the freedom lovers of the Labour benches of the part coloured workers had played in taking jobs rejected by whites:
“Anyone who uses public transport in our big cities, will know that they have filled a very great gap in staff and . . . have done a very good job.”
But as she also had to admit, the heavy demand for labour was easing, and coloured workers were finding it more difficult to find employment than before. Here we can detect one of the economic pressures which made the question politically explosive in the early sixties, and perhaps cost the Labour Party three constituencies in 1964-5.
It was convenient for the Macmillan government that so many people seemed to forget that housing and employment problems existed long before coloured immigrants set foot here in any numbers. The Tories saw the issue as a political godsend, among other things an opportunity to deflect criticism of their own failures to solve these problems onto the innocent shoulders of the coloured minority. And despite their assurances to the contrary, the subsequent Immigration Bill was far from colour-blind in its provisions. The Tories were in fact pandering to the worst prejudices of public opinion and, by using a minority as a scapegoat, were taking crafty advantage of racist sentiment without incurring the stigma usually attached to it.
Here it was that the Labour opposition under Gaitskell committed a first class tactical blunder in assuming that it was still enough to label a party racialist to condemn in in the eyes of the public. Conditions in British politics were changing, but Gaitskell showed little awareness of this when commenting on the Queen’s speech on October 31st, 1961:
“. . . whatever hon. Members opposite may say, whatever the Home Secretary may say . . . this will be regarded very largely throughout the world as the imposition of a colour bar over here…. To impose restrictions is a very grave step indeed, and , one that I personally hope the Government will not, when they come to it, actually take.”
This bitter and unqualified attack was resumed the following day by George Brown. He threw the words of the Tory Cyril Osborne into the Government’s face (“This is a white man’s country and I want it to remain so ”), and ended by saying:
“The proposal to take these powers is not really to solve the difficulties and the real consequences of the proposal is to give themselves gn alibi for what they are refusing to do, whether for brown, black or white.. . . The casual way in which this is dealt with is a gross reflection on H.M. Ministers, and if the house were easily to accept it, it would be on the house.”
It is old news now, that the government’s measure was passed in the teeth of fierce labour opposition, something which was to cost Gordon-Walker his seat at Smethwick three years later. By then, however, Labour policy under Wilson’s leadership hail undergone a right-about-face on the issue. Forgotten were Gaitskell’s words (“ immigration from the Commonwealth has been of economic benefit to us.”) for the new leader was wily enough to see that the old stand was a positive vote loser.
So the 1964 Labour manifesto talked of retaining the very measure of which they had been so scornful, and indeed since their return to power, Labour have actually tightened control at all points of entry. Of course, they are at one with their Tory sparring partners in denying any racial bias, but in the light of this, the words of their home secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, have a strange ring. In a Commons debate on Match 23rd, he resisted any extension to the law because:
“I should have to ask you to give these powers to be used against Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, against all members of the old Commonwealth countries as well as the new. They would have to be operated against visitors and students, from all these countries with complete impartiality.”
True, the Labour government have since introduced a bill outlawing racial discrimination in certain spheres, but this is as much a question of public order as anything else. Statesmen can learn from the mistakes of their counterparts elsewhere and British capitalism cannot afford another Selma or Little Rock in Smethwick or Brixton.
However, even if immigration restrictions achieve their purpose, there are almost a million coloured workers in Britain and they are here to stay. They will have children and their numbers will swell. They will suffer the same problems as their white brothers, but with the added indignity of resentment and prejudice which no law enactment can cure. The coloured vole will also increase and this is something which no Labour or Tory politician will be able to ignore when trying to keep the situation in check.
They have all pandered to ignorance and bigotry in the furtherance of their vote catching—racially prejudiced workers are always impressed by government restrictive measures against minorities—but the boot may not always be on the same foot. The present set-up could conceivably produce an offspring in the shape of mounting coloured resentment against while workers in the future; already some ugly signs of this are appearing elsewhere in the world. But whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch Labour and Tory antics as the drama is played out. and should prove as instructive a lesson in political tightrope walking as we have ever seen.