Claudia Jones, the Commonwealth and the Immigration Act of 1962
Reading Claudia Jones’s broadside against 1962’s Commonwealth Immigration Act as reproduced in the latest Race & Class, a few things struck me. This first immigration act, passed by a Tory government in the year following Jones’s opinion piece in the West Indian Gazette, significantly changed British views on immigration. The targets she rages against should make us reflect on some of the assumptions we have so naturalised that we no longer recognise them as assumptions at all.
Jones predicts that Conservative Home Secretary Rab Butler’s “Colour-Bar Bill … would mean the scuttling of the Commonwealth” and indeed it has. Until then, members of the former British empire were all British citizens, meaning that they had the right to live in the Mother Country. The Windrush myth is that non-white immigration started after the Second World War, despite there being a long history of black people in Britain before that. It is true, however, that the end of Empire and the (relative) freedom granted to its former colonial subjects alongside the need of the British state to import labour meant that there were a large number of arrivals, particularly from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent. African colonies achieved their independence later.
Jones recognised, as no doubt many others did, that the Bill’s “main aim is to cut coloured immigration” and in doing so it would “proclaim before the world that this is not to be a multi-racial commonwealth; but one in which the majority will be second class citizens.”
What strikes us now is that we have forgotten that Britain was indeed once the entirety of its (former) empire not this lonely island of pure, white civilisation standing strong against the swamping, swarming hordes of dark barbarians. Of course, people of the ‘new Commonwealth’ always faced discrimination and the idea of equality within ‘the multi-racial’ was always a fiction. However, such fictions are useful checks on state and popular racism. Just as today the fiction of ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ provide useful counters to authoritarian politics, the fiction of One Commonwealth meant that people like Jones could argue rhetorically that people of colour should receive the rights in theory granted to them.
The Immigration Act did not do much to halt the arrival of black people. Instead it, as Jones predicted, created “divisions between white and coloured workers and people”, providing the “green light to racialism … to racial prejudice in theory and practice”. It is not to say that the arrivals to Britain before this act did not experience racism, far from it, but the Act marked a turn from the social discrimination in housing and social life to the institutionalised racism of work permits, border controls and immigration officials. It separated and distinguished between the white Commonwealth of Canada, USA, Australia and (to some extent) Ireland from the rest of the former empire. Jones was also prescient in predicting how the right to deport was a “McCarthyite threat to the democratic way of life”, because by establishing a category of people who were potentially threatening, we allowed for an intrusive security state which has been gradually applying more and more of its clandestine power to track, monitor and persecute those who might go against ‘British values’, using colour of skin as the first indicator of dissidence.
I am somewhat biased as I have recently got involved with the Institute of Race Relations who publish it, but in my opinion, this issue of Race & Class: ‘the colour of struggle 1950s-1980s’ is an essential document. It recreates a history of the struggles, divisions and unity of black people in Britain through archived texts such as Jones’s editorial, interviews with activists and academic articles looking back at aspects of the period, when, as A. Sivanandan says in a 1998 interview with Kwesi Owusu, “Black was a political colour … the colour of our politics not the colour of our skin, the colour of the fight, if you like, because of the common experience of racism and colonialism that bound us – something unique to Britain.”
This story of race and racism, “unique to Britain”, is sadly not taught in British schools. Movements such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ are challenging the lack of range in texts and topics taught throughout the education system and there has been some development on this score. Young people throughout the country have an awareness of the history of slavery and a basic outline of the US Civil Rights Movement. Of course, due to the nature of geo-politics, the US struggle had a global impact like no other campaign against racism did. Yet, is there not also an opportunity for teachers to take on Michael Gove’s call to tackle young people’s “radically impoverished” knowledge of British history by teaching them about the Grunwick strike, the Bristol bus boycott, the fight against Moseleyites, the National Front and Powellites, the SUS laws and the struggles against racism in housing? As well as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, could they not also know about Claudia Jones and Jayaben Desai?
Reading Jones now, we should be ashamed as we take a pause to realise what she means by ‘the majority’ of British citizens being not white, when as she says the black population of mainland Britain was in 1961, just 1%. The 1962 Immigration Act was, as she predicted, “the death knell of the Commonwealth”. Our “impoverished” understanding of history has meant that British people have limited or distorted understanding of how Britain became rich while other countries remained poor. Thus, there are now even plenty of black people complaining about immigrants exploiting ‘our’ NHS and welfare state as if they have forgotten where the exploitation started in the first place. Our defective memories are well summed up by Ford worker, union activist and member of Newham Monitoring Project, Sadar Ali Malik, in a 1990 interview with Liz Fekete, also published in this same issue of Race & Class:
“I personally think we have a share in the British economy, not out of charity, our countries were destabilised by the British imperialists. India was one time called the Golden Sparrow and now the same India is called ‘hungry’, ‘poor’ – why? British were there in the name of East India Company, the trader, through the trade Golden Sparrow was left a starving nation. And we made a contribution to build this Great Britain by the way our forefathers fought wars, gave their life for the British Raj. This is not an Englishman’s country, this is a country of all people who are citizens of the Commonwealth and have been colonised.”
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