‘We are all foreign scum’ / FRFI 184 Apr / May 2005

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FRFI 184 April / May 2005

• Bloody Foreigners – the story of immigration to Britain
Robert Winder; Little, Brown 2004,
ISBN 0-316-86135-9, £20

As the main parties in the British general election fine tune their racist policies in the battle for votes, we publish a review of a book which charts the history of immigration and immigrants in Britain showing that in an imperialist nation, the state’s immigration policies are necessarily racist.

The good news about this excellent book is that it is due to be published in paperback in June 2005 at a more affordable price. We recommend everyone to beg, borrow or steal a copy, for Winder’s book not only describes the sweep of British history from pre-Celtic times to modern day with humanity and fascinating detail, but he also arms the reader with the politics to stand firm against racism and xenophobia (hatred of foreigners).

Firstly, on the level of historical fact, the book serves to set the record straight both about nationality and about the numbers involved. Britain was a net exporter of people for most of the 20th century; for example, between 1961 and 1981 – a period including Enoch Powell and Mrs Thatcher – Britain’s population declined by over a million. The 2001 Census shows that 7.9% of the total population belongs to the so-called ethnic minorities, the majority of them born in Britain. People from Britain have been and are today active emigrants with over 100,000 living along the French Riviera alone.

Repeated waves of immigration occurred in the thousand years between the Roman occupation of Britain and the Norman Conquest in 1066, let alone the following centuries of French Protestants, Jews, Hungarians, Indians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Africans, Cypriots, Chinese, Poles, Italians, Swiss, South Americans, and Caribbean settlers. This history makes nonsense of notions of racial Britishness; few residents of this island can claim genetic ties to Cheddar Gorge Man. The very category ‘race’ itself lacks substance in terms of this social history, let alone in a scientific sense. And yet the history of immigration to Britain has been a history of racism encountered, fought, accepted and rejected, of integration and persecution.

Time and again Winder peels back the layers of the past to show that much of what is regarded as essentially British is both recent and foreign in origin. Not only the German/Greek royal family but the artists who celebrated their reigns, Van Dyck and Handel, were ‘bloody foreigners’. The flowering of British industrial world supremacy in the nineteenth century was boosted by the immigrant German Mr Volckmar who founded the General Electric Company, retired to an English country estate and was made baronet in 1925. Harland and Wolff in Belfast, the last remaining shipyard of British expansionism, was also established by Germans, as was Reuter’s news agency, which was created by a Rabbi’s son utilising the latest telegraphic inventions.

Like the Jews, the Irish were formally expelled from England by royal decree, twice, in 1243 and 1413. While it is a generalisation that the Irish were, in the main, unskilled navvies, the canal and railroad builders of this country, Winder’s book unveils the stories of many others whose inventiveness and business acumen have long been absorbed into everyday life. Patrick James Foley, whose parents emigrated from poverty in the 1830s, remained a Catholic and supporter of Home Rule all his life and became a founder, then President, of Pearl Assurance, which by 1913 was the third largest life-assurance company in Britain. The Jewish Dubliner Dr Thomas Barnardo set up a school in his own home after seeing the ravages of the 1867 cholera epidemic on the children of the East End, which grew into the most renowned charitable institution in the country. Then there is the glory of the Irish contribution to British literature stretching from Swift, Sterne and Goldsmith to Shaw and Wilde, which continues today. By documenting hundreds of lives of real people in real circumstances Winder’s book attacks the stereotyping that stands between the reader and real history.

The response to immigration by those already settled here is as much part of the history as the story of the immigrants themselves. The defining view has always been that of the title of this book – ‘bloody foreigners!’ Routine hostility is the norm, irrespective of the sufferings of the immigrants fleeing from their homelands, despite the gifts and talents they bring with them, regardless of the economic, cultural and social contribution they can make if allowed to do so.

Winder shows that the ruling class has always been ready to use hatred of the foreigner as a tool to mould patriotism in the service of the state and its wars of imperial conquest. The persecution of German residents in the decade leading up to the First World War by rioting mobs was encouraged by the popular press in language familiar today when asylum seekers are vilified and lied about. The Daily Mail ran articles pointing out that German prisoners were ‘coddled...to the disgust of all right-thinking women and men’ while Horatio Bottomley, editor of John Bull, the biggest-selling weekly journal in the country wrote, ‘I call for a vendetta against every German in Britain, whether “naturalised” or not...You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it. And now the time has come. No German must be allowed to live in our land’ (15 May 1915).

Today such inflammatory language may be modified into snappier insults, ‘Asylum Seekers Ate Our Donkeys!’ or ‘Scroungers!’ but the intended results are the same: xenophobia, riots and the random murder of strangers. The immigrants are further demonised, isolated and driven into the hands of ‘people-traffickers’ and suffer the kind of extreme exploitation that led to the drowning of some 49 Chinese cocklers on the sands of an English beach in 2004. (See FRFI 179, June/July 2004)

At the same time Winder’s history shows that since mediaeval times fear of and hostility to immigration comes from those workers whose jobs and housing are most hard-pressed in the place and at the time of immigrant settlement. In 1903 and in the following years, the Trades Union Congress passed a series of resolutions calling for strict legislation against immigrants who were stealing their members’ jobs, the Dockers’ Union being the most powerful. The Cardiff Maritime Herald carried a typical article at this time saying: ‘You know, we know and they know that a Chinaman isn’t worth a toss as a seaman: that his only claim to indulgence is that he is cheap’. Despite periodic drives by British trade unions to recruit black and other immigrant workers to bolster membership, the unions never effectively represented such workers’ interests when it came to struggles over equal pay and conditions or even the right to join a union, as at Grunwicks in the 1970s and Hillingdon Hospital in the 1990s. Only socialists were able to make the case that the harsh, grinding conditions of labour existed in spite of, not because of immigrant labour.

There are those today, like disgraced Home Secretary Blunkett, who ‘play the race card’, as it is put, and claim popular support for harsh treatment. Liberals may welcome immigrants but the working class does not, they say. Nothing new there then! But Winder’s book shows the repercussions of a diet of unrelenting lies and distortions. When polls showed in 2001 that the public believed that Britain accepted 25% of the world’s asylum seekers at a time when the real figure was only 2%, we see the impact of deliberate manipulation of racist opinion. The concerns of the present workers are perverted by a presentation of the foreigner as the criminal, the scrounger and in the most recent period, the potential terrorist.

The role of socialists and all progressive people is to fight racism and organise against the real oppressor, the ruling class.

This book covers in some detail the history of the fightback against racism including the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign (VMDC) in the late 1980s in which this newspaper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and the Revolutionary Communist Group was centrally involved. Racist British immigration laws are connected to British imperialism’s global multinational interests. In the case of the VMDC the campaign took on the issue of British arms sales and military training for the Sri Lankan government in pursuit of its war against the Tamils.

The present immigration into Britain from the Balkans, the Gulf, Colombia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq are all tied to the struggle for national independence, imperialist wars of intervention and multinational investment strategies. Emigration – from war, from poverty, from military occupation – has always. throughout history. been the other story of the foreigners who come to this country.

Fortress Britain legislating against immigration is itself a meddler in the countries of the immigrant. The imposition of trade barriers, the neo-liberal domination of national economies and the arms trade all make a British presence as solid and real as any immigrant community in Britain could ever be. The foreigners’ intervention in ‘our’ lives is always more than matched by British intervention in theirs.

Winder concludes his book with a useful review of the current discussion about asylum seekers showing how there is a division in the ruling class about the usefulness of allowing in foreign labour. Recent Treasury figures show that the immigrant population is contributing more in tax (£31.2 billion) than it receives in benefits (£28.8 billion) and that furthermore it provides an international aid service by transferring up to £2 billion back home each year, a sum a hundred times the amount that Britain gives to the UNHCR to help support displaced people. Winder also documents the massive contribution of doctors, nurses and other workers in the National Health Service, as well as the cuisine, music and cultural enrichment foreigners have brought to Britain. And yet all the audits of support for immigration are, in the end, beside the point.

The driving force of the movement of people will remain as long as wealth is so unevenly distributed across the globe. Racism is the form national oppression takes in imperialist countries. In 1968 the defining chant ‘We are all foreign scum!’ was the response in Paris and London to those who attacked the leadership of the student protest movement. Winder’s book shows how profoundly true this slogan is. It is a good book. Read it.
Susan Davidson