Tearing up the Race Card

Paul Foot

  • The New Untouchables: Immigration and the New World Worker by Nigel Harris
    Tauris, 256 pp, £25.00, October 1995, ISBN 1 85043 956 7
  • The Cambridge Survey of World Migration edited by Robin Cohen
    Cambridge, 570 pp, £75.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 521 44405 5

Every Tory attempt at ‘renewal’ – the staged leadership election last summer is a good example – pushes the Party closer to the abyss. Every poll indicates that they are losing more heavily than ever before. There is one possible remedy. Labour may be soft on immigration. The electorate may be scared away from its obvious intention, even at this late hour, by the prospect of hordes of foreigners being seduced into the country by Jack Straw. Several ministers, some for lack of any other strategy, some out of an instinctive xenophobia, press the Prime Minister to ‘play the race card’. The hawks on this subject are the two Michaels, Portillo and Howard, whose fathers were both immigrants, and Peter Lilley, whose holidays in his house in France enabled him to break into colloquial French in the course of a ludicrous comic turn about foreigners coming to this country to partake of the social services which he is assiduously dismantling. As always when a course of action is urged on him by his enemies in the cabinet, whom he describes as ‘bastards’, nice Mr Major rolls over on his back and pants happily in agreement. The Queen’s Speech makes it clear that immigration and political asylum will be an issue at the general election. Judging from the predictions of the very right-wing Hugh Colver, who has resigned in disgust after a few months as chief Tory press spokesman, there will be no holds barred. No doubt Tory chairman Brian Mawhinney will be in close touch with his colleague Peter Griffiths, the MP for Portsmouth North, who first won a seat in Parliament in Smethwick, in the general election of 1964, by concentrating heavily on the race issue. It was in that election, without the sanction of Mr Griffiths, that the slogan first appeared in stickers, leaflets and verbal sallies on the doorsteps: ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’

Almost as grotesque as Mr Griffiths’s performance in that election was the response of his main adversary, the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon-Walker. Gordon-Walker had led Labour’s Parliamentary opposition to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1962, the first ever legislative restriction on the right of entry into Britain of some 600 million citizens of the Commonwealth. He and his leader Hugh Gaitskell opposed the new controls with some passion and considerable intellectual force. Yet having led their troops into the No lobby on the second reading, they persuaded them to abstain on the third. When Griffiths taunted his much more experienced opponent at Smethwick with favouring free immigration, Gordon Walker hotly denied it. When a heckler shouted ‘nigger lover’ at him, he retorted angrily that he was no such thing.

Harold Wilson, the new Labour Prime Minister, denounced the young MP from Smethwick as a ‘Parliamentary leper’, and before long Griffiths was drowned in the full Labour tide of 1966. But even before the 1966 election, the Labour Party had turned the retreat at Smethwick into a rout. Further controls on Commonwealth immigration were imposed in the summer of 1965; and in 1968 the notorious ‘East African Asians Act’ was passed with the specific purpose of denying access to Britain to refugees from the tyranny of the Abacha of his time, General Amin of Uganda. The new Labour controls were justified by the glorious argument that the only way to prevent racial tension in Britain was to pass overtly racist legislation to keep out foreigners who might want to come here. This is a traditional push me, pull you. Denounce the blacks when they are out of the country – but make friends with them once they arrive. The strategy was a predictable disaster. It opened the door, when the Tories won the election, to the yet more restrictive Nationality Act of 1971, and an increasingly rigid immigration policy, and hence yet more racism, all through the Seventies, including the Labour years of 1974 to 1979.

This is one of the many areas of modern politics where Old Labour meets New Labour. When the Tories play the race card they know for sure that they will not be opposed by Labour. There will of course be the usual platform squeals – ‘you’re playing the race card!’ – followed at once by panic-stricken attempts to trump it. Both parties will career through the campaign assuring the electorate that they remain implacably committed to the strictest possible immigration controls. Anyone interested in the basic case for and against immigration controls will have to travel far outside the normal political boundaries. They could start with Nigel Harris’s timely book.

In a panoramic survey of worldwide migration over the last fifty years, Harris asks the questions which always arise wherever the subject comes up. If there are no statutory controls, will a host country (‘we’, whoever ‘we’ are) be, in Mrs Thatcher’s tasteful word, ‘swamped’ by immigrants? ‘No’ is Harris’s firm answer. All the evidence shows that large-scale migration has a single cause, the movement of labour; and that ‘labour supply is increasingly sensitive to labour demand.’ People move wherever there is work to move to. If there isn’t any work, they don’t move. The book is packed with examples. When the oil price dropped in the early Eighties, 750,000 immigrant workers left the Gulf states. In a small recession in the late Fifties, when there were no restrictions at all, immigration to Britain from the Commonwealth was suddenly and spontaneously cut in half. In the Depression of the Thirties, immigration to the Americas almost dried up. Harris concludes: ‘The truth seems to be the reverse of the popular wisdom: people are not generally driven to work; they are attracted to it.’ The nightmare of the Western rich – that they will be ‘engulfed’ in a ‘flood tide’ of barbarian poor – is the exact opposite of what really happens. Abject poverty is not a spur to emigrate. The people who try to get into the growing economies of the ‘developed’ and half-developed world are almost without exception better educated, more dynamic, more enthusiastic, hard-working and ambitious than the people they join and the people they leave behind. Their impact on the absurdly-called ‘host countries’ is always beneficial. Compared with the people who are already there, they ‘take out’ less from the economies they visit than they put in: they staff more hospitals than they use; build more houses than they occupy; clean and teach in more schools than their children (if they have any) attend; drive and service more buses and trains than they can travel in; manufacture, process, provide, prepare and serve more food than they can ever eat. But surely, it is argued, by accepting worse wages and conditions they depress the standards of indigenous workers? Not at all. Harris quotes a monumental study which ‘cannot find a single shred of evidence that immigrants have a major adverse impact on the earnings and job opportunities of natives in the US’. In a typically chauvinist campaign to ‘free jobs for Americans’ in the early years of Reagan’s Administration, 6000 people were deported. Their jobs were advertised and some Americans applied for them. When they found out what the conditions were – $3.35 an hour for a 50-hour week – they walked away in disgust; and ‘illegals’ took the jobs.

What about those ‘illegals’? Are they not, as everyone from Pat Buchanan in the US to Michael Howard in Britain keeps telling us, mere human refuse: a menace to civilised society? On the contrary, they do the dirty work which makes the civilised comfort of Buchanan and Howard possible. Society gets their contribution cheap. In the most extraordinary figure quoted in this very statistical book, Harris cites a Department of Labour survey which found in 1982 that 73 per cent of illegal immigrants had income tax deducted from their pay and 77 per cent paid social security taxes – but only a half of 1 per cent of them received any of the welfare benefits the taxes were meant to pay for. No wonder the Wall Street Journal mused: ‘Throughout the south-east of the United States the idea of life without illegal immigration is as alarming as the idea of life without the rays of the sun.’

Capitalism prides itself on its dependence on the free movement of goods and capital. If such a system has any logic, it should insist on the free movement of labour. Immigration control leads to intolerable disappointment, harassment, insults and deprivation for people whose chief crime is that they want to move from one country to another so that they can work. Harris inveighs against a system which treats its hard-working benefactors, its immigrants, with the sort of gratitude that is bestowed on a stray dog with rabies. He concludes with what he rightly calls a ‘brave and bold argument’ for the free movement of labour throughout the world. This argument is not extreme. The Cambridge Survey, a prodigious compendium of more than a hundred expert essays on aspects of migration all over the world, again and again, if rather apologetically, comes close to Harris’s conclusions. Robin Cohen’s article notes that ‘international migration’ has replaced Communism as a ‘key threat’ to Western security organisations such as Nato, and asks: ‘Are such organisations simply trying to stay in business? Does the world system of states only function through a kind of free-floating anxiety that fixes on different objects as old foes appear as increasingly unlikely hazards?’

Harris’s conclusion is admirable, but the arguments which get him there leave too many holes. In his schoolmasterly way, he airily dismisses the central capitalist paradox – free movement of capital in tandem with tightly restricted movement of labour – as if it were a silly mistake made by people who have not properly studied the matter. There is, however, an ugly logic in the apparent contradiction. Capitalism is not only an economic system which relies on capitalists’ freedom to make decisions and to make money from them. It is also an exploitative system which depends on arbitrary control over the people who do the work. Freedom for capitalists to do what they please must of necessity be combined with the strictest possible control over labour, whether that labour is combining to form trade unions or moving of its own accord from one country to the next. I remember interviewing Enoch Powell on this subject more than 27 years ago, just after he had made his monstrous (and, in hindsight, ridiculous) speech against immigration. What future would there be for his precious free market, I asked, after he had imposed the most rigid regulations on the workers in that market? He saw no difficulty at all in the argument. He was for a free market in capital – and an unfree market in labour. The asymmetry was not a problem.

Harris is again impatient with the nationalism and racism which inevitably emerge from the argument for immigration control, repeating without substantiating it the fashionable modern view of everyone from the City of London to the Shadow Cabinet: that the nation-state is an anachronism, and that ‘globalisation’ is the order of the day. This is, however, a trend, not an accomplished fact. Three-quarters of the assets of the US multinationals are still invested in the US and two-thirds of the wealth of Japanese multinationals is invested in Japan. These huge corporations still swear allegiance to their states. They need states to run administrations, police forces, armies. (In an extraordinary passage Harris seems to suggest that wars are not as likely nowadays as in the past – perhaps he should read the newspapers.) Above all, the nation-state survives as a focus for the loyalty of the people, an icon before which people can bow and scrape and feel proud of something with which they had nothing whatever to do: their birthplace, their birthright, their precious stone set in the silver sea. Nationalism and racism have not declined with the increasing globalisation of markets. Both are on the increase and are ushering in a new era of Fascist politics – as is grimly attested to in France, in Italy, in Russia, and by scores of strutting Fascists in the ‘proud new states’ of Asia and Europe.