This essay was my column in the Observer, 22 April 2018. It was published under the headline ‘Elites still use the working class as an excuse for their own prejudices’.
The ‘white working class’. It has become, in recent years, almost a synonym for ‘racist’. The belief that racism is a working-class problem, and that many in the white working class voted for Brexit for racist reasons, has become widely accepted among liberals (and not just among liberals).
So, where does the Windrush scandal fit into this narrative? After all, it’s not the white working class that promised to create a ‘hostile environment’ or refused Britons who had been here for decades the right to use the NHS or ripped up their landing cards. Polls show, to the contrary, that most people are shocked by the unfairness and cruelty of the government’s policy.
What the scandal reminds us is that while it may be convenient to pin the blame for racism on the working class, it is politicians and civil servants who bear responsibility for implementing the policies that deny migrants their basic rights. Theresa May’s government may be particularly deaf to issues of fairness or justice, but suspicion of immigrants has been a feature of elite attitudes throughout most of the postwar years.
Consider, for instance, the case of Enoch Powell, the 50th anniversary of whose infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech fell last week. Powell was seen, then and now, as an outlier in British politics. Fifty years ago, the Times called his speech ‘evil’. Edward Heath sacked him as shadow defence spokesman. The public was far more sympathetic. A Gallup poll suggested that 74% agreed with Powell. Dockers and others came out on strike and marched to Westminster carrying ‘We want Enoch’ placards.
The contrast between public support and establishment hostility has led many to suggest that Powell was giving voice to a public concern ignored by the elite – that he was an early ‘populist’. The reality, though, is that while the political establishment may have heaped opprobrium on him, what really distinguished Powell was less his racial views than the vehemence with which he expressed them.
Seven weeks before Powell’s speech, the Labour government had passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which, as I observed recently, remains perhaps the most nakedly racist piece of legislation of postwar years. Its sole aim was to prevent British passport holders of the wrong colour – Kenyan Asians – from entering Britain. Cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend suggested that ‘a reasonable case could be put… that the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense’. It was a view in keeping with Powell’s vision of Britishness – and with British elite attitudes to immigration that stem from the very arrival of SS Windrush in 1948.
Britain needed labour from its colonies to rebuild the nation after the war. But politicians feared that, as a 1955 cabinet minute put it: ‘If immigration from the colonies and, for that matter, from India and Pakistan, were allowed to continue unchecked, there was a real danger that over the years there would be a change in the racial character of the English people.’ In the 1950s, race was a central feature of elite self-identity.
The dilemma politicians faced, however, was that while they feared a change in the racial composition of Britons, they could not be seen acting in an openly racist way. In the post-Holocaust world, there was a moral imperative against such discriminatory policies. As a secret 1950 Labour cabinet committee put it: ‘Any solution depending on an apparent or concealed colour test would be so invidious as to make it impossible for adoption… nevertheless, the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would, as a general rule, be more or less confined to coloured persons.’ The hypocrisy of elite attitudes of the time could not have been better expressed.
The events that transformed the domestic discussion were the Notting Hill ‘race riots’ of 1958. These were, in fact, a series of racist attacks on West Indians by white mobs. The riots drew two responses: on the one hand, condemnation of the perpetrators; and, on the other, condemnation of immigration for having undermined what we now call ‘social cohesion’. The riots allowed politicians to make public their longstanding private fears about immigration while at the same time providing in ‘public anxieties’ an alibi for those fears. It is a political template that is still in use 60 years later.
Today, race is far less salient in defining elite identity. Indeed, it is difficult to talk of ‘elite identity’ in the singular and populists often deride the mainstream political elite as too ‘cosmopolitan’. Nevertheless, immigration retains its symbolic role in politics, being both emblematic of, and an explanation for, unacceptable social change. Control of immigration – and of immigrants – remains a means by which politicians seek to demonstrate that they are ‘in control’.
And the working class continues to provide an alibi behind which the elite can hide its own prejudices and failures. ‘We are only responding to popular concerns,’ claim politicians every time a more coercive policy is introduced.
Popular concerns are, however, only a response to politicised panics about immigration. They stem largely from the way that politicians frame the issue; for instance, blaming ‘benefit scroungers’ or ‘health tourists’ for Britain’s social problems. Theresa May’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ was an attempt to give the impression both of a nation under siege from fraudsters and of a government taking firm action against them.
External controls inevitably entail internal controls. The tighter the external controls, the more coercive the internal controls. And, inescapably, more and more sections of the population become treated with suspicion and their rights trampled upon. Hence the Windrush scandal.
Certainly, many within the working class are hostile to ‘uncontrolled’ immigration and often blame immigrants for wage cuts or housing shortages. But most are also driven by a sense of fairness and equity. Which is why, even though they may be hostile to immigration in the abstract, many also want just treatment for migrant groups in practice, whether those groups be EU citizens or the Windrush generation.
Many politicians, on the other hand, may pay lip service to liberal values, but too often care little for fairness or equity, whether for migrants or for the working class. Until the public pressure got too great, Theresa May and Amber Rudd were happy to ignore the evidence of gross injustice towards the Windrush generation. That is not an aberration. That is how the elite has always acted. That is how the system has always worked.
The images are, from top down, The SS Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury, 1948; a still from Horace Ové’s 1975 film Pressure.