The Illiberal Hour

Mark Bonham-Carter

  • Black and White Britain: The Third Survey by Colin Brown
    PSI/Heinemann, 331 pp, £22.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 435 83124 0

The publication of the third PSI Survey, Black and White Britain, if a political event. The first and second surveys were undertaken by PEP in 1966 and 1972, the third by PEP’s successor, the PSI, in 1982-83. Black and White Britain acknowledges that the UK is a multi-racial society and that this fact has brought with it considerable benefits and at the same time posed problems which call in question the civility of our society, our flexibility, and our ability to face and then tackle our own deficiencies. The last of those problems is to a great extent a measure of our self-confidence. The British or, as they used to be known, the English, who are in fact the group most closely concerned, were for many centuries without an inferiority complex. This ‘complacency’ carried with it a number of unattractive characteristics, but allowed a spirit of self-criticism that was healthy. Henry Adams reports in his autobiography that at a dinner at the American Embassy at which John Bright was the chief British guest, he thumped the table and announced: ‘the English are a nation of brutes and should be exterminated to the last man.’ This statement shocked Henry Adams, James Russell Lowell, the Minister, and the other Americans present. They felt it inappropriate that a leading English politician should condemn his countrymen in such forthright terms in front of foreigners – as they saw themselves. They were, of course, wrong. No more patriotic statement could have been made. Such was John Bright’s confidence in the British and the British political system that he felt free to discuss its deficiencies with anyone – and anyhow who cared about foreigners, least of all the Americans? It was that unthinking self-confidence which carried us through World War Two. Since 1945 it has largely disappeared. Our attitude to the people who have come here from out former colonies reflects this decline in self-confidence.

There is no evidence to support the popular belief that immigration from the Caribbean and subsequently from the Indian sub-continent took place in a fit of absence of mind. Its origins lay in the labour shortage of the Second World War, when West Indians were recruited to work in war industries and in the RAF. They were greeted with gratitude and looked after with some care by the Colonial Office. The splendid Learie Constantine was one of those appointed to help. At the other end of the spectrum Indian divisions fought in the Eighth Army and of course in the defence of India. They were colleagues, comrades, in the battle for our survival. When the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 carrying some five hundred immigrants, its arrival was immediately brought to the attention of the Prime Minister, Mr Attlee. Its cargo consisted largely of West Indians who had served in the UK in the war and who, having returned to the Caribbean, found conditions there – high unemployment, a low standard of living – unacceptable. In the UK at that time – happy days – there may have been shortages of food and clothing, but there was also an acute shortage of labour. The so-called ‘flood of immigration’ started, first from the Caribbean and then, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, from the sub-continent of India. The numbers who came conformed closely with the employment situation in the UK. When unemployment increased, the numbers of immigrants dropped: when employment increased, so did the number of immigrants. When immigration laws were in prospect, a ‘flood’ of immigrants came in to anticipate the restrictions, and not only adult males but their dependants too. Thus those who had come with the intention of only staying temporarily now brought over their wives and their children, pulling down roots in this country. It is not implausible to argue that if the aim of successive immigration laws was to restrict the number of immigrants, their effect was to frustrate the purpose of the sponsors of those laws.

Immigration did not go unnoticed, or unworried about, but at the same time it was deliberately encouraged by government and by industry. The London Passenger Transport Board recruited Barbadians to drive our buses and to run the Underground system. It was Enoch Powell who was Minister for Health when doctors and nurses from the Commonwealth were being recruited to supply the services we required. The jobs were filled, more immigrants arrived and problems arose. The problems had two different causes, both vividly demonstrated in the present survey but difficult to distinguish – colour prejudice and cultural differences. As the problems emerged so came the protests from the politicians, often phrased in demagogic and racialist language and mostly, but by no means exclusively, from the right. There was the famous ‘riot’ in Notting Hill in 1958, which was dubiously typecast as a race riot. At the same time, there had been a long history of agitation, originating with the Nazi persecution of the Jews and associated with the name of Fenner Brockway, to introduce a law outlawing incitement to racial hatred.

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