1960s >> 1962 >> no-689-january-1962
If you were living in one room with seven children and another on the way, what would you do about it? This was the problem which confronted a family of Irish immigrants in Paddington, not long ago. The mother tried to solve it by visiting an abortionist, but the operation was a drastic failure and she died.
This sad, and true, story spotlights some of the problems which face the immigrants who have been pouring into Britain over the past decade. Why do they come? Post-war expansion in this country has created a demand for a lot of workers. At the same time over a million people have emigrated from this country since the war. The labour shortage has been felt particularly keenly in hospitals, catering and public transport, all industries which pay badly and involve awkward shift work. For the employers, the problem is more than one of mere shortage. Sometimes these industries have been near cracking point, a situation which workers can use as a lever when they are trying to increase their pay or improve their working conditions.
In Ireland, Cyprus, India, Pakistan and the West Indies are large armies of surplus labour all seeking employment, higher living standards and the much vaunted attractions of big city life in a heavily industrialised country. For them, Britain must seem something like a land of milk and honey. Never mind that some Irish and Cypriots have spilt blood in Nationalist struggles against British rule—economic necessities override such ironies. So they come over and cram themselves into the slums of the big cities. Paddington is only one example of an area where developing industry’s need for workers has succeeded in pouring a quart of humanity into the pint pot of accommodation—and still has room to spare!
The influx of overseas workers can change the face of any town. Accents and brogues are as common in some parts now as broad Yorkshire or Cockney used to be. This has brought its problems, of course; apart from the revival of colour bias there is the mammoth of all social headaches—housing. This problem is an old favourite on election manifestos, old even when Kilburn and Moss Side were pure white and largely Anglo-Saxon. The immigrants have increased the problem simply because they have increased the number of workers who are seeking the unobtainable.
The coloured immigrants find that the housing problem seems to revolve around them because they are so easily noticeable in a white community. (Although one town in the Lea Valley is restricting Italians from local employment). This is a familiar story, which we have heard before from many other countries. The immigrants are poor and they therefore tend to flock together in cheap, decaying areas. Here they are forced to struggle for social acceptance in the teeth of opposition from workers who are already established in that particular piece of slumdom. The wealthier few buy houses often with loans from firms which stand well outside the established and recognised building societies. As the interest on such loans is high, the borrower can only ensure his profit by letting every available room angle at the highest possible rent. It is a good market to be in.
There seems to be no end to the folk seeking somewhere to sleep and to store their suitcase of worldly possessions. Friction grows as “white” tenants (in time it will be “coloured” ones as well) are edged out to make room for more profitable lodgers. So the process goes on: “human little fleas on bigger fleas and so ad infinitum.”
In fact, bad housing is simply one aspect of working class poverty. This is the explanation for the slums, the acres of out of date, badly neglected and overcrowded houses which are kept that way so that the income from rent exceeds any expenditure on them. What does it matter, whether such hell holes are occupied by English workers or those from abroad? A sane society would not have the things at all.
This is the sort of point which is ignored by so-called remedies like the Immigration Bill. The Tories must be aware that many workers have a colour bias–any move to conciliate the white voters is good political strategy. Again, perhaps the government calculate that membership of the Common Market may provide some of the labour which British industry needs, or perhaps they feel that the need has been met. After all, the most astute economist cannot tell when an economic blizzard may create a large force of unemployed. The discrimination in favour of Irish workers is not the outcome of soft-heartedness. Eire has a lot of unemployment and if nothing is done to skim this off, there may be political unrest in that country. And British capitalism cannot afford an unsettled Ireland, nor one which is tied politically and economically to some powerful continental enemy. So Ireland must be placated.
It is doubtful if even the government think that their Bill will solve the problems of immigration. Workers have to sell their labour power and they have to live near the available markets for it. Shipping clerks and foundry men, for example, cannot live in the beauty of the Quantock Hills or the Ring of Kerry. Sometimes, they must travel to reach the labour market. And when they do, they usually meet snags just like the ones they left back home. This has been the experience of the Puerto Ricans in New York, the Algerians in Paris, the Pakistanis in Southall, the British in Canada and Australia.
Bawling out “Keep Britain White,” or perhaps “Keep Kenya Black” will not help matters. There are plenty of organisations to make our flesh creep with stories about leprosy, allegedly introduced by West Indians, sweeping through Manchester. But to support them means that we only saddle ourselves with the political neurosis of a New Hitler.
No, the working class must do better than that. We must aim for a world in which men and women are truly free and can move over the earth as they like without meeting economic hardship or racial prejudice and violence. Until that happens, the reformist tinkerings will continue to blunt themselves against an insoluble problem. Whilst capitalism lasts, the hardships of the working class will follow them all over the world. That is the lesson they must learn. There is no hiding place down here.