Forty years ago, in April 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell gave a speech in Birmingham attacking immigration from the British Commonwealth into Britain. He declared, ‘We must be mad, literally mad as a nation to be permitting the annual flow of 50,000 dependants... it is like a nation busily engaged in building its own funeral pyre’. Forty years on Guyanese-born Trevor Phillips OBE, on the same date and in the same place, put forward the opposite position: immigration is what will save the British economy in today’s competitive and globalised world. Susan Davidson reports.

The intervening 40 years saw the rise of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) which institutionalised ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘ethnic diversity’ into a large, well-resourced non-governmental organisation. Almost every group of immigrants in Britain was encouraged and funded to establish its own community centre and full-time paid workers, hire translators, celebrate cultural festivals and present a sort of corporate face to the rest of society. All this had little to do with the fight against racism. In fact it effectively marginalised the anti-racist struggle, even though all social indicators continued to show, as they do today, that immigrants are among the poorest of the working class in Britain.

By the time Trevor Phillips was appointed as head of the CRE in 2003 times had changed. Labour had been in power for six years, and British armed forces had been at war for five of them. Hostility to the British Muslim population was officially encouraged in the so-called ‘war on terror’. The international turmoil caused by wars for oil and precious resources in Africa led to an increase in asylum seekers to this country. Thousands more migrants were to follow, seeking work, at least temporarily, from the new accession countries of Europe.

It was then that the Labour government decided a change of direction was necessary for the ‘race relations industry’, as it had come to be known. The CRE was closed down and in September 2006 Trevor Phillips was appointed as Head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has overall responsibility for race, disability and gender equalities.

But there were other warning signs to give notice that the CRE had had its day and that its very existence had become an irritation to core Labour voters. By 2006 a growing chorus of commentators claimed to speak out for ‘the white working class’. A flurry of books, memoirs and biographies were published celebrating the much whiter working class community of the 1950s. Such selective views of the past sentimentalised long-disappeared skilled workers as essentially conservative, patriotic and British – useful characteristics when the ruling class is engaged in ever more military aggression abroad. Prime Minister-to-be Gordon Brown, in particular, was quick to use ‘Britishness’ to enhance his own populist image. ‘British jobs for British workers’, he declaimed to the TUC conference.

Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Dagenham in Essex, argued that the white working class could turn to the British National Party (BNP) because it perceived the government as privileging immigrant communities over native whites.
The death knell for the CRE, however, was the violence between white and Asian youths that erupted on the streets of Bolton and other northern cities in 2001. Reflecting on these events  in 2005 Trevor Phillips concluded that Britain ‘is sleepwalking into segregation’ and that  the CRE had been totally ineffectual in addressing the fundamental structural problems of communities in Britain.

In his Birmingham speech Trevor Phillips offers a new way forward for Britain. He rejects the racism of Enoch Powell and the BNP which is based on the notion that assimilation of the races is impossible and repatriation the only answer. He rejects the special pleading of the ‘white working class’ lobby and finally he casts off the multiculturalism of the former CRE which, he now says, ‘encouraged divisions in British society’. Instead, Phillips speaks on behalf of British capitalism in a globalised world in which national competitiveness is an urgent need and in which the planned immigration of skilled workers is part of the solution.

Phillips first describes a Britain where integration of the races has worked well on the
whole, citing a rate of intermarriage in Britain that is higher than that of the rest of Europe and the US, while ‘official surveys indicate that 81% of people in England agree that their local area is a place where people of different backgrounds get on well together’. 

He claims, however, that this Britain is threatened, both by those who whip up antagonism to immigration and from immigrants who do not accept integration and British values. Speaking on behalf of British capitalism, Phillips argues that future economic competitiveness and growth depends upon adaptation to the needs of multinational corporations.

Using Britain’s Premier league football as an example, Phillips unfolds his vision of a race-blind global interchange of workers. Football is ‘watched by half a billion people in over 200 countries...its revenues are touching two billion. Its foreign stars can earn in excess of £100,000 every week – but their good fortune does not depress the wages of home-grown talent. We have an effective system of controlling entry: and none of the teams for which the foreigners play needs some kind of bureaucratic multiculturalism to effect their integration to their club. No-one has had to abandon their flair and brilliance to fit in. In fact the migrant players have for the most part played by the rules... [and] become better at their jobs for learning British ways’.

From the Premier League Phillips draws the lesson that ‘the need for skilled labour is more important than anxieties about cultural difference’. In today’s globalised world, he claims, the importation of skilled workers is vital for the economic benefit of a modern Britain and in this we are in competition with the US, Australia and Canada who are already sweeping in clever foreigners from other nations. Britain needs ‘tens of thousands of qualified care workers from the rest of Europe, Africa and elsewhere’ if British women are not to be forced out of work to return to work in the home. Already, ‘we know that there would be no NHS without foreign doctors, nurses, cleaners and administrators... no Crossrail in London, no Olympics, no new wave of housing...without immigrant carpenters, electricians and bricklayers’.

‘Immigration is part of our future,’ says Philips, approvingly quoting Tory leader Cameron’s view that ‘skilled foreign workers expand our economy and make us more competitive’. He urges the British government forwards to a new social contract: ‘Managed Immigration, Active Integration’. He urges the interests of big business.
The immigrant communities for their part will have to make an exchange. They must learn English and, for example, play by the rules on the equality of women and children under the law – though a flexible view on arranged marriages should be taken. A reasonable, accommodating sense of British fair play ‘is the essential attitude of British people to difference’.

The ‘white working class’, for its part, will just have to accept that the needs of big business come first. In exchange they should get more funding to expand and develop the infrastructure of schools, homes and services in areas which are unfairly carrying the burden of increased immigration. Such monies must be presented as public investment for the community as a whole. That, says Phillips, is the way to manage the anxieties of the white working class. Their concerns must be addressed but not by ending immigration: ‘We should not try to unlock the potential of our own citizens by locking out the citizens of other countries’.

Phillips’ speech is a grovelling manifesto on behalf of British capitalism. He speaks in the interests of the ruling class about the economic benefits of utilising migrant skills and labour. He urges the greedy seizure of talents, developed and paid for by other countries, in the interests of the British state. His talk of British fair play, British law and British decency ignores the reality of Britain at home and in the world. This is a country which is conducting an illegal war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and supports Israeli violence against the Palestinian people. The British companies on whose behalf he speaks so eloquently are involved in the exploitation of resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. In Britain employers have sweated legal immigrant labour in the picking fields of Norfolk and the British state has criminalised asylum seekers fleeing from imperialist offences against humanity abroad. The public service sector is being delivered into the hands of the capitalist class by an ongoing programme of privatisation and the British state is increasingly persecuting the Muslim community and limiting the right to protest. Yet this is the boss for whom Phillips is advocate and negotiator. Like a castle made by a child from building blocks, the combined reality of the profit motive, British imperial interests and cutbacks in public spending will knock his house down. The only planned economy is a socialist economy and Trevor Phillips, true servant of the British ruling class, would not like that.

FRFI 203 June / July 2008

 

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