Jamaican immigrants arriving at Tilbury Dock in 1948 on the Empire Windrush.

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.


  1. damon

    To me, this idea that there has been an upsurge in racism is entirely down to the reality of what our multiracial immigration project has become. Powell’s call for a halt to mass immigration in 1968 was rejected, mainly because of the nasty way he made his speech. Even though, as this article suggests, his idea was supported by the majority of the population. Now fifty years further on down the line, things have come to a head.
    People are again saying that they are unhappy with immigration rates running at a million people every three or four years. We can see how it’s changed society beyond recognition and made things more congested – and all the accusations of racism all the time are wearing people down (I think).
    Just today on the radio, people were still calling the police “institutionally racist”.
    Life in our most diverse (and poor) areas can be quite grim and challenging. Not everyone likes the idea of having an open door to the world, where people just come and go and you hardly have time to get to know your neighbors before they move out and new people move in.

    As for the Windrush crisis, it’s as much a bureaucratic mess as anything deliberate. Far too many people have been living in the U.K. without proper documentation. Some of those people must take some of the blame.
    If you have been living your whole life in the U.K. on the strength of a stamp or a note that was written into your mum’s 1950s Jamaican passport, then you must have known it was time to get your papers in order.
    I understand that cost can have been a big deterrence, as it often costs a couple of thousand pounds.
    I know Indian people who have become British citizens who have had to go through this procedure.
    They didn’t particularly like it. But that’s the way of the modern world. If you don’t have a new biometric passport, you can’t even get into some countries, or it will be increasingly difficult to do so.

    I’m rejecting these accusations of racism, whether it’s against the working class, or even the so called elites.
    Racism is not the right word to describe what’s been going on in the last five or ten years.

    • Can you point me to where I said there was an ‘upsurge of racism’? In fact, I have always argued the opposite – that Britain today is far less racist than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. And in this article, too, I point out that ‘race is far less salient in defining elite identity’. But that does not mean that racism was not a central feature of elite attitudes and policy for much of the postwar years. Nor that immigration has not retained its ‘symbolic role in politics, being both emblematic of, and an explanation for, unacceptable social change’. Nor yet that control of immigration, and of immigrants, is not a means by which politicians seek to demonstrate that they are ‘in control’.

      As for your claim that the Windrush generation and their children ‘must have known it was time to get your papers in order’: If you had followed the discussion you would know that those who arrived before 1973 did not need papers. The governments of the time did not, however, document the fact that they were British citizens. And, further, in 2010 the government destroyed all their landing cards, which provided proof of the date of their arrival and hence of their citizenship. Many of the Windrush children do possess a British passport. But that was not sufficient to prove their legality. They had, rather, to provide four pieces of documentary evidence for every year they had lived in Britain. Even you might struggle to do that.

      Nor is it simply a ‘bureaucratic mess’. It is the inevitable consequence of the policy of creating a ‘hostile climate’. As I wrote above:

      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.

      The consequences of the 2014 Immigration Act could have been, and indeed were, foreseen. There is mounting evidence that government ministers were warned about those consequences and chose to ignore the problem. Just a month ago Theresa May refused to intervene in a particularly egregious Windrush case because he needed first to provide ‘evidence [of] his settled status’. And last year Amber Rudd promised to be even harsher in creating a ‘hostile environment. None of this suggests merely a ‘bureacratic mess’.

      • damon

        I didn’t mean you said that. Any sensible person knows that things are much better to how they were in the 1970s. But there has been an upsurge of something regarding the diversity in our society.
        So many formally white working class areas in London, now have a non-white majority.
        Some people like the new reality, and plenty of others have voted with their feet.
        I think it would be good to do surveys on attitudes to race amongst football fans who return to where their families are from on match days, from out in the Home Counties where they live now.

        I can’t figure out why if those elites and governments are so racist, why they opened up Britain so widely in the 1990s. Or maybe it was just down to the leadership of the Labour government.

        The Windrush thing is a simple error in my opinion. But not that easily fixed as it’s going to take loads of bureaucracy to fix it and it’s bureaucracy that so often fails when it comes to immigration matters.
        It’s people working for wages in places like Lunar House in Croydon who are required to bring everything together. I knew someone who worked there and she said the cases were really difficult to get through and to work out properly. So many people told lies.

        As for the “hostile environment” there has to be one or society will not work properly.
        But don’t blame people, blame the system which allowed this chaos to come about.
        It seems we just can’t afford to run proper systems like border protection, Home Office staff, police and prisons etc. The country has showed it is unable to deal with big changes. We can’t build enough houses for the increased population. Even trying to introduce a national identity card system would probably fail.

        I watched singer Beverley Knight being interviewed about Windrush on Channel 4 News at the weekend, and I wondered which other countries in the world would have such a discussion.
        There’s only a handful which would. Canada is probably one. I can’t think where else.
        In sanctuary cities in the US they would.

        • I can’t figure out why if those elites and governments are so racist, why they opened up Britain so widely in the 1990s.

          They did not ‘open up Britain so widely in the 1990s’. There was freedom of movement for people from EU countries. There was no freedom of movement for non-EU migrants. Even as the Treasury pushed the idea of greater immigration as an economic good, the Home Office continued to project the image of immigration as a social problem requiring tighter control. Asylum seekers, in particular, became the target of mean-spirited and demeaning policy. And this has been true, incidentally, not just of Britain but of the EU as a whole.

          The Windrush thing is a simple error in my opinion.

          You keep repeating that the Windrush scandal was an ‘error’ or a ‘bureaucratic mess’. It’s a convenient mantra for all those who really don’t want to face the facts. Who refuse to acknowledge that the stricter the external controls, the more coercive the internal controls. That such coercive internal controls require greater suspicion of greater sections of the population. That the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ was designed to create such a climate of mass suspicion. That the consequences of the 2014 Immigration Act were understood at the time – and ignored. That the Windrush cases have been piling up for years – and ignored.

          If one person, or a handful, had been treated disgracefully, we might consider it a ‘simple error’. But it’s a case of hundreds, possibly thousands, who have been treated as guilty until proven innocent because that is how immigration policies work. The problem is the policy, not the bureaucracy. And the scandal reaches well beyond the Windrush generation and their children.

          I wondered which other countries in the world would have such a discussion

          Don’t kid yourself. Have you, for instance, been watching the public debate in America about Dreamers, deportations, undocumented workers, the tactics of ICE, etc? And it’s a debate not just in sanctuary cities as you suggest.

  2. Keith

    This video shows racism is still an issue in America.

    It’s an issue that’s created through culture and hate, but it’s a treatable cancer: it can be fought and be gotten rid of.

    Black people in the US are still, on average, considerably worse off compared to whites. They don’t deserve this, at all. The stats are shocking.

    Discrimination, unequal treatment and abuse are just some of the ways in which it manifests. It is everywhere. It still hasn’t been driven out, and it must be.

    It’s cruel, unfair and silly. It still has to be nonviolently fought until it’s gone.

  3. This sounds like you’re trying to make excuses for racism perpetrated by working class people.
    All racism is bad.
    You shouldn’t get a free pass if you’re underprivileged.

    • I’m not sure where I wrote that ‘you get a free pass if you’re underprivileged’. I don’t countenance racism from anyone. Pointing out the story of elite racism, and seeing through the historical amnesia that now often surrounds the issue, is not to ‘make excuses for racism perpetrated by working class people’.

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