Windrush: the roots of state racism

The MV Empire Windrush

The Windrush scandal is now being appropriated by the media and all political parties and commentators as a one-off story to divert protest away from the reality of British state racism. It is being used as a cover for the historical abuse of migrants. There is an urgent need to understand what is happening to migrant labour today and just as importantly, the historical roots of British state racism.

The 492 men, women and children on board the Empire Windrush that docked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948, arriving from the British Colony of Jamaica, did not expect to face a hostile reception. They came to Britain because they had been invited by British government departments and ministries to migrate to ‘the mother country’ and they disembarked as British Citizens. Like the vast majority of British Citizens, they did not hold passports but had been recruited to work and many already had jobs to go to. Susan Davidson reviews the history of the treatment of migrants by Britain’s racist state.

The condition of post-war Britain

After the Second World War an economically and militarily weakened Britain was forced to reconfigure its position in the world. The British war debt to the US was approximately $21 billion and very little monetary relief was received from the European Recovery Programme (ERP, also called the Marshall Plan) with its $13 billion budget for the reconstruction of Western Europe. Building a bulwark against communism was the US priority, not bailing out a weakened and impoverished imperial British Treasury.

The 1945 landslide election victory of the Labour Party with the promise of a new welfare state arose from a working class in Britain with raised expectations for the improvement of living standards. The British government, therefore, turned to its major historical resource, the British Empire, to secure future economic prosperity. This had to be done under a new arrangement. After all, almost five million citizens of the British Empire had joined the military services between 1939 and 1945, serving on every military front and in each of the armed services. Clearly the appearance of Empire had to be adjusted to the post-war situation and so the British Empire became the Commonwealth of Nations in 1947, and the British Nationality Act of 1948 created the status of ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC)’, or British citizen. Successive British royals have been Head of the Commonwealth. Today there are 53 countries in the Commonwealth and each was represented by an embroidered flower on the wedding veil of Meghan Markle.

The real reason for the constitutional adjustment of the post-war Empire was entirely bound up with the needs of British capitalism and can only be understood in relation to those needs. Cheap raw materials and cheap labour were necessary to rebuild a nearly bankrupt Britain and fulfil the promises of the 1945 election and to this end the colonies were exploited ruthlessly. In the words of John Strachey, Minister of Food in the Attlee Labour government: ‘By hook or by crook the development of primary production of all sorts in the colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth and throughout the world is a life and death matter for this country’. The super-profits from the exploitation of raw materials and sweated labour from Africa, Asia and the Middle East were ruthlessly extracted for the benefit of Britain.

Migrant labour needed

Immediately after the Second World War, British capitalism went through a period of extremely rapid growth. In 1947, British capitalism, which a decade earlier had proved incapable of employing millions of British workers, was now hungry for labour-power to produce its surplus-value. The Economic Survey for 1947 stated:

‘We shall require a larger labour force than can be expected to be available unless special measures are taken to increase it. The Government therefore appeals to women who are in a position to do so to enter industry, those who can to stay on at their work instead of retiring. Foreign labour can make a useful contribution to our needs. The old arguments against foreign labour are no longer valid. There is no danger for years to come that foreign labour will rob British workers of their jobs, foreign labour is the only substantial source of man-power which is open to us’.

Migrant workers in Britain

Overseas workers were needed and recruited but it was not just a question of numbers in 1948, nor has it been just about numbers since. Immigrant labour has certain specific characteristics, different from other labour, which imperialism exploits. It is not simply extra labour. It has been brought to this country to do the hardest jobs at the lowest rates of pay. Immigrant workers have been used extensively in industries and services which require shift work, unsocial hours and at lower wages than other workers. Extensive employment of immigrant labour by the state has reduced the cost to capitalism of important public and social services. Finally, the fact that these workers come from outside Britain and are younger means that their demands on social services, and thus the cost to capital, are lower than for the working class as a whole.1 All this means that immigrant labour forms a distinct section of the working class, whose jobs, earnings, and conditions of work are worse than those of most other workers in Britain.

Certainly, the Windrush generation did not experience a welcome as fellow citizens upon their arrival at Tilbury but British industry gladly absorbed them, and they became the core workers in certain service sectors of London. In 1956 London Transport began recruiting staff in Barbados and within 12 years 3,787 Barbadians had been taken on. Even this number was not enough and in 1966 London Transport began recruiting in Trinidad and Jamaica too. In 1966 the British Hotels and Restaurants Association recruited skilled workers in Barbados. Tory Health Minister Enoch Powell welcomed West Indian nurses to Britain.

The hostile environment

Many of the West Indian migrants, almost half the men, and a quarter of the women, were skilled workers. Yet most had to accept a lower job status than they had before. The discovery that they were only offered jobs that local white people did not want, such as general labouring and night-shift work, was the first big disappointment with the ‘mother country’.

The next disillusionment was with the housing conditions that they had to accept. The stories of boarding house notices, ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’ are all too true. Although much post-war housing was slum-like, the new arrivals had no choice but to settle for the worst. Peter Rachman was a notorious landlord who owned more than 100 properties in west London. A refugee himself, he nevertheless carried out a reign of terror against his white tenants to make them move out of houses he then let by the room and at exorbitant rents to Caribbean arrivals. Today, some of the large Victorian terraces that he ruled over are the most expensive housing in London in the shadow of Grenfell Tower.

For almost ten years the Commonwealth migrants lived alongside a working class that was held in deep subservience to the ideas of Empire. Myths of racial and national superiority dominated all public discourse and institutions. Schools celebrated an annual Empire Day, with flags and bunting and children were dressed up with sheets and feathers in crude caricatures of figures from ‘our colonies’. The hymn to Empire was Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, favourite of last night of the Proms, extolling the extension of the British Empire to new territories colonised by British people.2 The ‘colour bar’ and generalised prejudice against black people were almost everywhere, although many, many personal experiences and relationships overcame the divide, just as had happened in the period when segregated black US army units were stationed in Britain towards the end of the Second World War.

The first uneasy years for the new immigrants ended with violent outbursts of racist attack. In Camden Town in 1954, a petrol bomb was thrown into a house occupied by a Caribbean family. Four years later racist gangs roamed the streets looking for victims and there were reports of a fascist group using the Kensington Park Hotel as their organising centre. By 1959 West Indians from Ladbroke Grove formed a defence squad and closed down a white café where they knew that a racist group met.

In addition to the threat of physical force black migrants from the Commonwealth frequently experienced a hostile response in the workplace. In 1955 Wolverhampton bus workers banned overtime ‘as a protest against the increasing numbers of coloured workers employed’. The Transport and General Workers Union insisted that no more than 50 of the town’s 9,000 bus workers should be black. West Bromwich bus workers staged a one-day strike against the employment of a solitary Indian conductor and a TGWU official said, ‘I do not think there is any racial antagonism behind this’. This denial existed alongside the customary trade union practice of never allowing the promotion of a black worker over one who was white.


This is the hostile environment described with great humour and pathos by Trinidadian Sam Selvon in The Lonely Londoners, 1956. Another autobiography that captures the time is To Sir with Love, 1959, by ER Braithwaite who was a teacher to some of the poorest white schoolchildren in the East End of London. He noted that they were treated with almost the same contempt as that reserved for black people.

A leading figure in the resistance was Claudia Jones who was born a British citizen in Trinidad in 1915. She was expelled from the US for membership of the Communist Party and deported to Britain in 1955. In 1959 protesters rose up against racist thuggery on the streets of west London following the murder of a West Indian carpenter named Kelso Cochrane. Claudia chaired the defence committee that was set up against the criminalisation of ‘rioters’. She launched the West Indian Gazette, the first edition of which was a single-page flyer appearing within days of Kelso Cochrane’s murder. Claudia Jones also organised the first Caribbean Carnival in London in 1959 determined that the black migrants to Britain should stand together visible and proud of their West Indian culture.

Successive governments responded to the upsurge of protest on the streets by passing the first of a series of Race Relations Acts in 1965 and setting-up the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 1968. Step by step, the question of racial identity was institutionalised, legitimised and nationalised as a ‘problem’. All that Commonwealth migrants wanted was to receive the same rights as other citizens.

Economic and industrial change

By the 1960s the needs of the British economy for post-war recovery and expansion were taking a different form. Capital accumulation had to intensify and growth in the productivity of labour was necessary to keep up with increasing foreign competition. Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously spoke at the Labour Party Conference of 1963 about the future impact of new technology: ‘the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry’. Planning for ‘modernisation’ actually started under the Tory government in 1962. In this year the National Economic Development Council was founded and Industrial Training Boards and Economic Development Committees were set up. Government assistance was given to the shipbuilding and aircraft industries and the state increased its sponsorship of research and development. As old industrial production methods were replaced by new technologies, the workforce was rationalised with manual labour being replaced by machinery and electronics. A reserve army of cheap migrant labour already existed in Britain and it was expected that British imperialism would not need to import labour on the previous scale.

At this time the colonies of the British Empire were gaining independence following the example of India, often after a brutalising liberation struggle against their imperial masters as in Kenya and Malaya. While the new nations were encouraged to remain within the British Commonwealth, British citizenship was discarded step by step along racial lines. Blocking the entry of British passport holders of Asian origin from the former African colonies in particular became a priority for the government.

Commonwealth Immigration Acts – from citizens to aliens

The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act signalled that hostilities had begun. The Conservative Government imposed a voucher system to regulate the movement of people. There were three kinds of vouchers: ‘A’ vouchers, which were issued to employers so that people with specific jobs to come to could enter; ‘B’ vouchers, issued to intending immigrants with recognised skills or qualifications; and ‘C’ vouchers for unskilled immigrants. Maximum numbers were given for each class of worker per year.

This 1962 Act set up the precedent for future immigration legislation to be based on race. The Labour Government’s 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in an emergency parliamentary debate, with the sole purpose of restricting the entry into Britain of Kenyan Asians holding British passports. At the same time Kenyan ex-colonials with white skin were given the continued right of free entry to Britain.

By the time of the Tory Government’s 1971 Immigration Act, kinship bonds and blood-line criteria were formalised by introducing the categories of ‘patriality’ and ‘non patriality’ into immigration law for the Commonwealth. At least one grandparent had to have emigrated from Britain to qualify for entry into Britain. These so-called patrials could enter without controls, with no restrictions on employment and could not be deported. Non-patrials needed permission and a work permit to enter Britain, initially for a year, with renewal to be granted each year for three more years at the discretion of the Home Secretary. The blatantly racist immigration laws of Labour and Tory governments in 1965, 1968 and 1971 and 1973 together virtually ended all primary immigration from the Commonwealth.

One of the consequences of the voucher system was that it gave licence to the police and other state bodies to carry out every kind of abuse against immigrants. Harassment, detention without trial, ‘fishing raids’ where a whole workforce would be rounded up and interrogated, were all within the law. Families were separated, either through deportation or refused entry at all, including young children joining their mothers. Some women were subjected to vaginal examination at airports to establish that they were virgins before they could enter the country to join their fiancés.

Throughout these decades migration from the white-skinned European Economic Community (EEC) was virtually unrestricted. However, this was an insignificant source of labour and decreased rapidly when wages in the UK fell from 160% as a percentage of EEC earnings in 1947 to around 100% in 1972.

Social services and the welfare state

The promised state welfare grew rapidly and migrant labour from the Commonwealth, both skilled and unskilled, entered through the voucher system to make up a notably large percentage of all those employed in the public sector and particularly in the National Health Service (NHS). By the early 1970s medical practitioners from the Commonwealth were keeping the health service going. In 1971 30.7% of medical and dental workers in Greater London were born and educated outside Britain. Nursing, which accounted for 73% of all workers in the NHS at that time, depended considerably on the employment of black women who were concentrated in the lowest grades and in night-shift work.

The employment by the state of women and immigrant labour, the least organised sections of the working class, helps to maintain the rate of profit across the economy as a whole. State expenditure on welfare is a charge on the capitalist class overall but is necessary for the provision of infrastructure, roads, sewerage, etc., and for the reproduction and replacement of the workforce. All this is a cost financed from taxation. State control over the wages and conditions of the public service workforce ensures that expenditure on workers is kept to a minimum. In this way, during a crisis of profitability, public services can be maintained on the cheapest possible basis.

The right wing is utilised

The British state always defends the capitalist system but is often divided on the means to do so. The interests of finance, industry and land are all present in the ruling class but unity is fragile at times of crisis. Today’s splits in the Tory party between the Brexiteers and the rest have their origins in the post-war period and the end of Empire. The illusion that the United Kingdom can reclaim its position as an independent world power with trading links across the globe was the dream of national chauvinism after the Second World War.

In 1954 the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL) was founded by a former officer of Mosley’s Union of British Fascists to prevent the dissolution of the British Empire. The LEL which appealed to reactionary racist tendencies within the working class was later to split into the British National Party (1960-1967), then again into the National Front (1967 onwards). It also continued to act as a pressure group within the Conservative and Unionist Party at the time of Edward Heath’s ‘one nation’ leadership. Popular response to the anti-immigrant lobby was closely monitored by the parliamentary parties for electoral advantage. In the 1964 general election the Smethwick Tory candidate, Peter Griffiths, stood on an overtly racist platform demanding the ending of immigration and forced repatriation of ‘the coloureds’. His slogan was ‘If you want a n***er neighbour, vote Labour’. In that election, Labour came to power in Westminster for the first time in 13 years with a national swing from the Tories of 3.5%. In Smethwick, however, the Labour Shadow Home Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost on a 7.2% swing to the Tories. Much moral outrage was expressed by MPs when Griffiths took his seat in the House of Commons but this did not prevent the Labour government from passing the punitive 1965 Commonwealth Immigration Act the next year.

Peter Griffiths was a local working-class candidate but the next notoriously racist electoral platform would come from the elitist, classically-educated former cabinet minister and political chancer, the MP for Wolverhampton, Enoch Powell. In an address to the Birmingham Conservative Association in 1968 he gave a highly publicised speech in which he posed as a great prophet of doom for the future of Britain. Together with much statistical nonsense he told unverified anecdotes, including one about an old white lady who had excreta pushed through her letter box. He conjured up a vision of a civil race war. ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. Powell had made his bid for leadership of British racism and London dockers and Smithfield porters downed tools and marched to the House of Commons in his support.3 Within days of Powell’s speech, the terror campaign against black people took off again with a Jamaican shot and killed, a black school boy in North Kensington almost killed by a white gang with iron bars, axes and bottles and burning crosses placed outside black people’s homes in Leamington Spa, Rugby, Coventry, Ilford, Plaistow and Cricklewood. The ‘rivers of blood’ speech was made two days before the 1968 Act was to be presented to parliament in a calculated bid to win support for the Bill. It has been estimated that as a result of this speech the Conservative Party gained an added 2.5 million votes at the 1970 general election.

Seventy years on

Over the 70 years since the Empire Windrush docked in London, the form but not the substance of British imperialism has changed. The former colonies are now exploited by British multinational companies backed up by British military interventions. The national origins of migrant labour have changed, but the function of immigrants to the capitalist class supported by the state remains the same. Whether as seasonal agricultural workers, overseas students, or low-paid casual labour, they are the most vulnerable sections of the working class. They are imported and deported as employers and institutions require and the hostile state provides the legal framework for their exploitation.

The treatment of the Windrush generation is not an accident or mistake, it is another example of the racism rooted in British imperialism. It is the urgent and evident need for the British working class to stand together against this blatant manipulation of the workforce. Under apartheid South Africa black workers were referred to as ‘units of labour’. This will be the fate of the entire working class unless there is unity against this racist, imperialist state.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 264 June/July 2018

[1] Many migrants arrived without their children or dependants. The reduction of workers to individual units of labour, without the additional costs to capital involved in reproducing the working class as a whole, was an attractive feature of migrant labour – an advantage already at that time recognised and institutionalised in apartheid South Africa where the pass laws and Group Areas Act ensured that the reserve army of labour, the children, the old and the sick were banished to distant ‘bantustans’.

[2] The chorus runs:

            ‘Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

            How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

            Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

            God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet…’

[3] Enoch Powell was a maverick big mouth. He served the Loyalist cause in the north of Ireland as MP for South Down from 1974 to 1987. His last political act was to endorse three UKIP candidates in the 1990s. The BBC has recently revived interest in his racist claptrap by broadcasting the ‘rivers of blood’ speech on radio. There is pressure to erect a ‘blue plaque’ for Powell in his old Midlands constituency.


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