TThe unspoken logic of British immigration policy since World War II has always revolved around race. A new leaked document from the Ministry of the Interior, which was not supposed to be released to the public, explains this. The report, commissioned by the Home Office in the wake of the Windrush scandal, was leaked to the Guardian after repeated government attempts to prevent its publication. It comes to a stark conclusion: that the origins of the “inherent racism in the Windrush scandal” lie in the fact that “during the period from 1950 to 1981, every piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was aimed, at least in part, at reducing the number of black or brown people who were allowed to live and work in the UK.”
This was true no matter which political party was in power. Who can forget the red mug that was marketed by Labor in 2015 with the words “Immigration Controls” written on it? The problem wasn’t the cup, but the fact that suppressing immigration was one of our campaign promises in the first place.
It was the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 that imposed restrictions on Commonwealth citizens entering the United Kingdom. Previously there was freedom of movement for all citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies. Post-war Britain suffered from a labor shortage and by the late 1940s employers were recruiting directly from the Commonwealth. For example, the London Transport Manager has had recruitment drives in Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica.
But even then there were outbursts of indignation. On the day the Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex, in 1948, 11 Labor MPs sent a letter to Prime Minister Clement Attlee demanding immigration controls and declaring that the British people were “so blessed to have no racial problems. The influx of local people of color is likely to lead disrupting harmony, strength and cohesion in our public and social lives, and creating discord and resentment among all concerned.”
In 1949, the Royal Population Commission stated that “immigrants of good backgrounds will be welcomed unreservedly”. “Good stock” might mean white in this context. In 1956, a ministerial committee was formed to study colonial immigration—and whether it should be curbed. She argued: “The principle that the United Kingdom should keep an open door to British subjects arose implicitly at a time when the colored races of the Commonwealth were in a more primitive stage of development than they are at present. There was no threat of a Colored invasion of that country… Circumstances have since changed…” the report continues: “Of course, we cannot commit ourselves… to accept all immigrants of color who wish to come here.”
Fearing an “invasion of colours,” these MPs alluded to what Margaret Thatcher would say more than 20 years later when she spoke of the “drowning” of immigrants in Britain. Fittingly, the 1956 report also states: “There is no doubt that the bill, though not discriminatory in form, will nevertheless be clear to whom the bill is really intended.”
In the decades that followed, we never doubted those who fought racist immigration laws as to who they were really targeting. When the first Commonwealth immigration bill reached the House of Commons, Home Secretary Rab Butler nearly betrayed the game, in response to the rising anti-immigration clamor in the debate over the legislation, when he said in the House of Commons that the legislation wasn’t “only on color biases” it would be based . In theory, at least, it shouldn’t be based on chromatic bias at all. But a 1962 law ended freedom of movement, restricted immigration by Commonwealth passport holders and for the first time distinguished between skilled and unskilled workers.
The Labor Party opposed the law and vowed to repeal it. But the few Labor MPs who actually voted against the bill in Parliament indicated that they did not oppose it as enthusiastically as it might have been. And the next Labor government did nothing to the contrary. Instead, it introduced another Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968, which was piled through Parliament in just three days by Home Secretary Jim Callahan in response to media hysteria over the prospect of 200,000 Asian Kenyans with British passports arriving in the UK fleeing the African Politics in Kenya.
There must have been some concern in the government that they didn’t want the legislation to look as blatantly racist as it was. So they invented the concept of ‘parents’ – anyone who has a parent or grandfather who was born in the UK or was a British citizen. However, no one suspected that the word “Patrial” was a euphemism for white.
By 1971, the Conservatives were in power and another immigration law was introduced that year, embodying the (completely erroneous) legal concept of “patriarchy,” placing more restrictions on Commonwealth immigration and expanding deportation powers. Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in the UK before 1973 were allowed to stay in the UK indefinitely. But crucially, he made those who came to Britain responsible for proving their right to stay. It was this requirement that had dire consequences for the Windrush generation, whose cases finally surfaced in 2018.
Secret Cabinet minutes at the time show that ministers knew that the decision to exempt “old” Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand and Australia from immigration controls would be criticized as discriminatory in favor of the White Commonwealth. But Home Secretary Reginald Modling said curbing Asian immigration was “necessary and justified”. The 1981 Citizenship Act, the most fateful of this decade, would reverse the age-old convention that every person born on British soil is British. British citizenship is no longer an automatic right to citizenship.
Since the 1970s, immigrant communities in Britain have started to organize and campaign. One of the first cases was Rochdale housewife Anwar Dita. Britain’s increasingly complex and strict immigration laws meant she could not bring her three children from Pakistan. She wasn’t the first immigrant to suffer under the rules, but she was the first to build the Rainbow Coalition of Support. With no experience, she fought from 1976 to 1981, winning the right to bring her children to Britain.
This was one of a series of campaigns directed against Britain’s degrading practices of immigrants such as “virginity tests”. Some of us spent the following decades writing about these rules and demonstrating against them, even if it meant fighting our Labor government.
But what has the government learned? Look at recent events and you’ll see: very little. Toni Sewell’s cowardly and superficial report from the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Differences, released last year, is now seen as an official attempt to placate and neutralize anti-racism campaigns.
The first step toward a fair immigration system is for politicians from both major parties to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. It does no good to run out of platitudes about good race relations when generations of black and brown have suffered from the brutality and inhumane reality of the immigration system.
The system is calibrated for racism. It always was. We know, and now we know that behind closed doors, Priti Patel’s Home Office knows. Dirty secret is no longer a secret.
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