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Racism and the Windrush Scandal

As Socialists, the SPGB has been uniquely consistent in its clear opposition to all forms of racism. Throughout the turbulent 20th century, this party alone has maintained its hostility to all ideologies used to divide the working class. Our appeal is to the working class “as a whole – without distinction of race or sex”. Only when the workers come to recognise that their interests as a class are diametrically opposed to those of the international capitalist class will they be able to organise themselves effectively to overthrow this global class system resting on exploitation.

There are very practical reasons for all Socialists to be opposed to racism. Like religion and nationalism, it is divisive. It can be used to justify wars and pogroms, can lead to official discrimination, apartheid, and even genocide, as under the Nazis or ‘ethnic cleansing’ as in Yugoslavia.. The wrongs and injustices of past generations continue to plague the modern world, and racist ideologies and prejudices persist.

The Windrush scandal

Immigration and racism in Britain had a long history. Post-war British governments from the late 1940s had a problem - a labour shortage. That was a period when an unqualified worker could just walk into a job, with no experience, references or CV, while a qualified skilled worker could practically name their terms. If nothing suitable was on offer, British workers were also being encouraged to emigrate to Australia, Canada or South Africa. The new NHS was desperately short of nurses. London Transport could not recruit English workers to work for low wages on unpopular night-time shifts. Many factories and coal mines found it was hard to recruit from the local workforce.

So civil servants were sent to the West Indies to recruit workers to come to the “mother country”. They selected from the brightest and the best, who duly arrived on chartered ships like the Empire Windrush, some with letters of invitation from Winston Churchill, and the Health Minister, Enoch Powell, and expecting to be warmly welcomed. Instead they were treated with hostility and contempt, discriminated against in jobs, in housing and even in pubs, cafes and restaurants.

By the mid-1950s, white racism was on the rise. In summer 1957, the Notting Hill race riots made headlines when gangs of white racists went into North Paddington to violently attack West Indians who rented cheap rooms in that rundown slum area. (It has since been demolished and the shell of the burnt-out Grenfell Tower stands in a Kensington council estate built in that area.) There were race riots in Nottingham and other places too. The next year, the fascist Union Movement’s leader, Oswald Mosley, stood for election in the Notting Hill area, unsuccessfully.

In 1962, the Tory government brought in the first Immigration Act - an attempt to limit the number of immigrants from the ‘new Commonwealth’. That distinction between the white ‘old Commonwealth’ and the non-white ‘new Commonwealth’ immigrants was obviously racist. There were no restrictions on the numbers of Australians or Canadians choosing to come to Britain, but evidently the government, like the racists, saw black and brown immigrants, with their calypso music and curry eating, as a threat to “the entire British way of life”.

In the 1960s there was a racial division of labour: a factory shop floor supervisor – white; a sweeper-up – black; a London bus-driver - white; a lower-paid conductor – black. Always the elite, higher-paid jobs were reserved for the whites, the worst and lowest paid jobs for the ‘coloureds’: a system which for a long time the British trade unions and the Labour Party supported.

The divisive politics of racism became even more overt. In the 1964 Smethwick by-election, the Tory candidate won a safe Labour seat by openly “playing the race card”. In 1968 Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in nearby Birmingham, hyping up the rhetoric of paranoid racism. Though Powell was sacked from his front bench job, he clearly had support among many workers, with a march of about 1000 dockworkers and a strike by 500 Billingsgate porters expressing support for his views. Trade unions and the Labour Party feared to confront this attitude, and avoided the issue of racism. But some on the Left took up the anti-racism cause, especially in groups like the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Anti-Nazi League, which mainly focussed on apartheid South Africa or confronting the ‘fascist’ National Front.

In the early 1970s new laws came in, newly defining the status of immigrants, but not apparently requiring them to register or apply for UK citizenship. Those that needed a passport continued to use passports they had arrived on – Jamaican, Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian etc. Some got themselves British passports. A Race Relations Act was brought in to try to stop the blatant discrimination, common among estate agents and landlords, employers, etc. The outraged racists with full backing from the gutter press sneered at the notion of being “politically correct” and jeered at the “PC-brigade” and the “race relations industry”, much as today’s Brexiteers sneer at the ‘Remoaners’.

Over the decades a series of extreme racist and rightwing, even neo-Nazi, parties and groups came into being, including the National Front demanding “the compulsory repatriation of all non racially compatible immigrants and their dependents and descendants”. Members of that party often denied that they personally were racist or prejudiced but they were also among the first to question and deny the Nazi genocidal Holocaust. Coincidentally there were numerous cases of arson and murder, usually attacking Pakistani shopkeepers and their families.

Perish the thought that any nice British government would be racist or pass racist laws! But how else can one explain the never-ending series of Immigration Acts passed by a series of governments? From 1962, that first step on the road was followed by 14 or more other Acts, 3-4 in each decade, culminating in May’s 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. These draconian laws now force landlords to bar supposed ‘illegals’ from renting, stop people having bank accounts or driving licenses, and also makes the NHS charge patients. As employers can be fined heavily for having these people on the pay-roll, the victims soon become jobless and are also barred from any state benefits. Teenagers are unable to take their exams. Students cannot continue at university. Pensioners cannot get lifesaving NHS treatment. Families cannot unite, even for weddings and funerals. And legal aid is not available to help victims challenge the arbitrary Home Office rulings.

In this nightmare of a Kafka twilight existence – sans job, sans home, sans passport, sans health care, sans law – the victim can expect the Border Agency ‘enforcers’ to arrive with police support, under the policy of “detain and deport”. He or she may be held for weeks at the infamous, secretive Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, then taken to Heathrow and even “deported in error”.

The Legacy of Slavery and Empire

A Labour MP, David Lammy argued that, to understand this institutional racism, you had to recognize how the British Empire had been founded on slavery: how for centuries generations of Africans were seized, transported and sold into slavery for the plantations of the West Indies and north and south America, and how this slavery system had enriched the British economy – cheap cotton gave the kick-start to the Industrial Revolution. True but he did not explain that this persistent problem is exacerbated by the divisive nature of capitalism.

As generations of white British soldiers, policemen and administrators continued to keep the ‘natives’ in their place, the legacy of this evil empire taught generations of children that to be born white was to be superior, while to be ‘coloured’ was the mark of an uncivilised, inferior being. It was this tradition which found its voice in Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” rhetoric, in Mosley’s fascist Union Movement, the National Front, and the Brexiteers, UKIP, the English Defence League etc.

Playing on this divisive issue was common ground for all the parties. For decades Tory governments refused to oppose South African apartheid. Labour’s Gordon Brown spoke of “British jobs for British workers”, blatantly exploiting this racist culture.The Labour Party never dared to challenge and oppose the rhetoric of THE SUN and the Rothermere press: they still fear foul-mouthed attacks from the influential racist and xenophobic propaganda of the infamous, powerful, mass media.

Socialists and Racism

Long ago, the SPGB published several important pamphlets on this question. In 1942 the wartime issue of QUESTIONS OF THE DAY had a chapter on Socialism and Racial Theories. In 1947 a new pamphlet THE RACIAL PROBLEM covered the question of defining ‘race’, mistaken and misleading race theories (past and present), with chapters on anti-Semitism and Zionism, on race-prejudice in the US, Africa and the West Indies, and on the dangers of race-prejudice. A later pamphlet on THE PROBLEM OF RACISM (1966) added more with a chapter on The Colour Question in Britain.

Socialists like scientists argue there is no such thing as a pure ‘race’. It is well known that modern humans are descended from all sorts as, from prehistoric times, humankind has travelled and migrated extensively, and no modern scientist could explain any racial divisions just by skin colour or other physical features. Even Jews who all claim descent from Abraham have a variety of physical types. Nor can ‘race’ be established by language or culture, for much the same reasons. “All forms of race prejudice are based on ignorance, without the slightest scientific justification.”(Preface - The Problem of Racism, SPGB, 1966).

These pamphlets also explained how it is that capitalism fosters race-prejudice – i.e. racism.

Capitalism is a competitive system which sets people against each other in the struggle for a living..... There is no telling what capitalism is doing to people both physically and mentally. Under capitalism people are always insecure and their hopes continually frustrated. In these conditions demagogues find little difficulty in attracting following by blaming the insecurities and frustrations of capitalism on some conspicuous minority.
THE PROBLEM OF RACISM 1966, p48

In the Preface to the 1947 pamphlet, the Party argued:

The Socialist Party of Great Britain recognises only one fundamental social division in the modern world – the division that exists between the capitalist class on the one hand, and the working-class on the other. All other divisions, whether they be based on religion, nationality, language or ‘race’ are incidental to this main division....

The interests of all members of the working-class, whatever the race to whch they belong, are fundamentally opposed to the interests of the members of the capitalist class irrespective of the race to which the members of the latter class belong.

The class division cuts directly across all others.

We say, further, that it is essential to remember that the race problem is but one of many social problems that spring directly from the contradictions of capitalist society itself...

Only as the workers of the world understand their position under capitalism; only to the extent that they absorb socialist knowledge, will they cease to be a prey to the hatreds and prejudices arising from fantastic notions of ‘race’ .
In the final chapter of that pamphlet, the Socialist case is put clearly and emphatically:

The root cause of modern race-prejudice is the capitalist system of Society, a system of competition and struggle... For the working-class ... it is a society of poverty and insecurity... a lifetime of constant heartbreaking effort to earn a living... From the cradle to the grave they are subjected to a mass of propaganda which deadens their minds, works on their prejudices, and endeavours by every means possible to turn their thoughts away from the real cause of their troubles. They are the tools of political leaders and demagogues who make them promises they do not keep. Disappointed, they exchange one set of political leaders for another... They become disillusioned, bitter, and cynical, fair game for dictators and ‘strong men’, who promise to lead them to a ‘promised land’... All the time they are experiencing unemployment, poverty, insecurity, competition for jobs, struggles to ‘rise up the ladder’... For the working-class, Capitalism is a society of mental, social, and economic frustration: as such it breeds race-prejudice as a swamp breeds pestilence.

Today, in the age of Brexit and Trump, with a modern breed of dictators – e.g. China’s Xi, Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, Kim the Third in North Korea, Duterte in the Phulippines, etc , we see the dangerous and murderous politics of xenophobia and racism take centre stage, aided and abetted by the mass media and opportunistic politicians. These are the new set of monsters from the swamp.

Only Socialists argue that it is due to the competitive struggles of capitalism that otherwise sane and sensible men and women are mistakenly led to see in immigrants and other minorities the cause of the many economic problems and social evils inflicted on them by the global capitalist system.

So long as this crazy system persists, so long as the working class worldwide fails to understand its position and organise itself to end this system of exploitation; so long will we still have the politics of division, including the many injustices of racial scapegoating.

200 years after Marx’s birth, we echo his slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” And as in 1904, the SPGB holds as a matter of principle that this unity must be “without distinction of race or sex”.

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