‘Our entire way of understanding and talking about migration has gone awry,’ William Davies writes (LRB, 10 May). It is sometimes hard to remember that immigrants were not always unwanted. There was a time when this country went to the ends of the earth to attract them. After the Second World War, Britain’s economic base was in a parlous state, antiquated, run-down and ill-prepared for economic change. Returning soldiers were quickly sucked into the reconstruction programme, but Britain needed still more workers. George VI, in the King’s Speech of 1951, the first under a Tory government since the war, declared: ‘My government views with concern the serious shortage of labour … which has handicapped production.’
When the first batch of 492 Jamaican immigrants landed on 22 June 1948 on the Empire Windrush, the Evening Standard greeted them with the headline: ‘Welcome Home’. Officials moved fast to find them work and accommodation. Shipping lines offered the inducement of a representative waiting at Waterloo to meet them and make the necessary arrangements. Then it was the turn of Indian immigrants. They were used to shore up an outmoded, almost bankrupt textile industry, particularly in West Yorkshire and south-east Lancashire. The immigrants themselves took their British citizenship seriously. Many regarded themselves as belonging in Britain, and everything they had been taught at school encouraged them in this. So what changed?
The roots of the ‘hostile environment’ can be found in the 1964 general election. Before then immigration had not been a central concern in British electoral politics. Labour came to power after 13 years in the wilderness. Remarkably, however, the shadow foreign secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost to the Tories in Smethwick, in the West Midlands. He did so on a staggering swing to the Tories of 7.2 per cent, when the national swing had been 3.5 per cent to Labour. The patrician Walker lost to a councillor, Peter Griffiths, born and bred locally, who had successfully exploited anti-immigrant sentiment in what many regard as the most racist election campaign ever.
Seeing the writing on the wall, in 1965 Richard Crossman, then minister of housing and local government, described immigration as ‘the hottest potato in politics’, warning that ‘immigration can be the greatest potential vote loser for the Labour Party if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in.’ Labour should bring in controls, he argued, before the Tories did. In April 1968, Enoch Powell made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech just a stone’s throw away in Wolverhampton, where my family came to settle.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 restricted right of entry to the UK to people born here, or who had one parent or grandparent born here. Effectively, it ensured that only white Commonwealth citizens could enter, principally from countries like Kenya, Rhodesia and South Africa. The act came into effect on 1 March 1968. As Parliament sat into the early hours of the morning to pass it, my father was at Nairobi Airport, trying to get on a flight to London. (The British Overseas Airways Corporation, the precursor to British Airways, anticipating passage of the bill, was brazenly preventing people from boarding its flights to the UK.) He made it to Gatwick by just a whisker, one of the last colonial British subjects to enter the UK, on the last day when he could have done so. His passport has no stamp indicating his arrival. We, his family, arrived five months later. We did so on Commonwealth citizens’ visas – we were British subjects no longer – and our passports were stamped with our date of arrival, 24 July 1968. Powell had made his speech in the interval. It is credited with too much influence: the die had been cast in 1964.
King’s College London
‘With each passing month,’ David Runciman writes, ‘there are slightly more old people in the UK voting population, not fewer’ (LRB, 10 May). Until recently this was true. However, in the first four months of 2018 some 20,215 more people died than died during the same period in the previous five years across England and Wales. As a consequence, with each passing month this year, there have been slightly fewer old people in the UK voting population. Most of the additional people who died this year were already old and would probably have been middle class and in their middle age: it is middle-class people who mostly get to live into their late seventies and eighties. A majority of them may well have voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, but it is too late to know. We also remain unsure whether their deaths have been brought forward by austerity in general, or by the cuts to health and social care budgets in particular.
Stefan Collini’s gloomy piece on British universities, in particular his reference to a proposal to rate departments on the basis of the earnings of their graduates, reminded me of a line from David Orr’s book from 1992, Ecological Literacy (LRB, 10 May). Writing about higher education and its lack of engagement with urgent environmental challenges, Orr notes that graduates’ lifetime earnings are ‘nothing but a crude though useful measure of the total amount of carbon the scholar is able to distribute from the earth’s crust to the atmosphere’.
‘Is our political future really to be found in Brexit England?’ David Edgar asks in his review of my book The Lure of Greatness, implying that this is what I argue (LRB, 26 April). Whereas he believes, with hair-raising complacency, that ‘despite Brexit, Britain is heading in a progressive direction.’ My view, as the book sets out, is that ‘Brexit will collapse. The sooner, the less excruciatingly drawn out the pain will be.’ No plausible future awaits this country going solo, and certainly not a progressive one.
I do appreciate the way Edgar directly confronts the English force that exploded in the referendum, when most Remain supporters are afraid of addressing the issue. Yet by examining what I say about the role of England in 2016 in such forensic detail, Edgar misses my larger argument, which is not about identity but concerns democracy and the state. We need more and much better self-government. This is the precondition for sharing sovereignty, which a country of our size must. When Boris Johnson, with his cruel insouciance, says the US would never share its government, he is issuing a challenge to Remainers. It is easy to show that we need permanent, practical collaboration with the other countries in our continent. But our system is founded on the autonomy of parliamentary absolutism. To free ourselves of Johnson’s baleful influence we have to confront the inner, constitutional consequences of becoming a normal European country, and give Ukania the state funeral it deserves. If we run away from this, as Edgar does, every revival of the left, including the challenge mounted by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and half a million Labour Party members, will be asphyxiated.
The cry to ‘Take Back Control’ joined two very different elements: the welcome democratic toppling of a complacent and venal elite was tragically captured by hedge-funded bigotry. Now, we need to build on the first to frustrate the second. The elite structure that led us to Brexit has to be replaced not restored. Any attempt to return to the status quo, as advocated by Blair, Clegg and others, is fatally misconceived. Not just in economic policy, where Edgar and I agree, but also in terms of our political institutions. We would both like all the nations of Britain to become European countries. But Edgar wants them to remain locked in the old British state in the hope that Corbyn will prove their new Attlee, while I am convinced that Westminster and Whitehall have now become the twin stranglers of democracy, and that our emancipation from them is the precondition for any progressive future.
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna
David Edgar makes the suggestion that Anthony Barnett is a Chestertonian English nationalist. This seems to me to be another case of the left only being willing to see nationalism as pastoral and reactionary, and not understanding its own basis in it. I think we should read Barnett differently. One of his key points is that Scotland, including its deprived working class, voted Remain because post-devolution nationalist politics includes the possibility of serious domestic reform. England, by contrast, is stuck with only the undemocratic leftovers of an imperial state, its politics still motivated by illusions of grandeur. Barnett suggests that Brexit is a display of inchoate rage at the absence of legitimate democratic power in London. To ignore the implications of this point – that the nature of the British state matters – is bonkers. I don’t share the New Left view of the British state as antique and imperial, but its nature and capabilities and democratic legitimacy – and the ways in which they have changed – are critical issues for the left and cannot be wished away. For example, there is a good chance that Brexit will collapse even sooner than Barnett predicts, as a result of the inability of the Anglo-British state to face up to the realities Brexit will impose. If that happens there will indeed be a specifically English crisis of major proportions.
There’s a story that Robert Graves once approached Chester Himes at a reception at the British Embassy in Paris and asked (LRB, 26 April): ‘What instrument do you play?’ Himes’s reply was curt: ‘The radio.’
Port Vendres, France
Reading Seamus Perry’s piece reminded me of a brilliant comment I once heard a 12-year-old pupil make about Auden (LRB, 10 May). He pointed out that the last words of the first five lines in the second section of the elegy on Yeats form the sentence: ‘All decay poetry still survives.’ I don’t recall seeing this mentioned elsewhere. Auden, the compulsive crossword-solver and player of word games, surely put it in on purpose.
Seamus Perry mentions that Auden’s skin condition in later life is thought to have been an effect of Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome. Not long after Auden died, I asked Robert Medley (who first suggested at Gresham’s School in 1922 that Auden might write poetry) if he thought there was a medical reason for the famous wrinkles. ‘Wystan never washed,’ was his reply.
Conrad Teixeira has got the wrong end of the stick (Letters, 10 May). We are entering an era in which machine translation is already opening up a wide landscape of literature and language previously available only to specialists, or restricted to the biggest names in the canon. It takes only a small effort to type or paste the inexplicable into one app or another, and you can have Jibanananda Das as well as Tagore, Tanpinar as well as Pamuk, or an instant if occasionally surreal translation of any quotation in just about any language you like. All this is good (if not so good for the human profession of translation, but that’s a more difficult matter), and to say that untranslated French in a literary periodical is ‘just atavism’ is quite the reverse of the current position. Bring it on, and Vietnamese too.