The origins of racism in Britain

Submitted by Matthew on 5 October, 2016 - 12:03 Author: Camila Bassi

The second of two articles by Camila Bassi on racism and hate crime in Britain today. You can read the first article online here.


It was by the close of the nineteenth century that the political economic domination of the global capitalist system by Britain came under threat from sources inside and beyond Europe, and as such, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century:

“a new, right-wing English patriotism, which was simultaneously royalist and racist, was created […] the whole world was racialised, including Europe, in an attempt to comprehend the rise of competing European capitalisms, each embodied in a separate national shell, and each seeking its ‘destiny’ on the world stage” (Miles, 1993)

Irish immigration into Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was racialised, as was immigration from Eastern Europe and Germany. There was widely perceived to be an “alien” problem in the country:

“Commencing halfway through the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, a political campaign against the settlement of immigrants from eastern Europe achieved prominence […] Those involved in the campaign consistently exaggerated the scale of immigration […] and demanded the introduction of an immigration law which would permit the state to control and limit the entry of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. […] the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] legislation regulating the entry of aliens into Britain was introduced immediately preceding and after the First World War. […] Assertions about the existence of a German conspiracy multiplied, and myths about the German ‘national character’ which signified Germans as having certain (negatively evaluated) natural attributes were widely articulated […] The categories of ‘German’ and ‘Jew’ were often used synonymously” (Miles, 1993).

The political debate surrounding the Aliens Act of 1905, and the subsequent Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 and Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Bill and Act of 1919, identified the problematic presence of three population groups:

“First, there was a lingering desire to find additional ways of punishing the defeated foe, the ‘Hun’. In addition, two ‘new’ enemies were found. These were trade union radicals or ‘Bolshevik sympathisers’, and Jews, including those who had arrived as refugees in the late nineteenth century as well as the longer-established Jewish community, a proportion of which formed part of the British bourgeoisie […] Collectively, this Other constituted the quintessential ‘alien’” (Miles, 1993)

Nonetheless, confronting major shortages of labour, the 1945 Labour government reluctantly opted for large-scale foreign-sourced labour. By the close of 1946 a system was in place for the resettlement of Polish people and the European Volunteer Scheme (EVW) came into existence. The political discourse underpinning this immigration was one of “assimilation” and (as it later transpired) a problem of lack of “integration”:

“The concern was to find the most suitable ‘races and nationalities’ that would not only provide labour power but also possess the kind of ‘vigorous blood’ that could be expected to benefit ‘our stock’. […] As evidence accumulated showing that the Poles and the EVWs were not learning the English language, that they continued to identify themselves with the nation states from which they originated, and that they were forming ‘exclusive communities’, official concern increased.” (Miles, 1993)

A stark comparison can be made here with the present-day racism against Polish people, who are accused of failing to integrate and assimilate to the so-called British way of life. Across Europe, including Britain, integration has become a state objective: “‘they’ are expected to learn to behave like ‘us’ because cultural homogeneity is considered to be a necessary precondition for the survival of the nation” (Miles, 1993).

Miles identifies a shift vis-à-vis immigration to Britain during the years 1945-1951, from Europe as the major source of labour migration to that of the British colonies and ex-colonies:

“because the British state proved unwilling to realise its racism in law at this time, the rights of British colonial and ex-colonial subjects to enter and settle in Britain were not withdrawn. Migration from the Caribbean (as well as from Ireland) continued and increased through the 1950s, and was paralleled by migration from India and Pakistan. It was not until 1962 that the British state imposed controls on the entry of British subjects from what had become known as the New Commonwealth.” (Miles, 1993)

Decisively, “by removing the right of entry to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom from certain categories of British subject, the state established new (racist) criteria by which to determine membership of the ‘imagined community’ of nation” (Miles, 1993).

A critical aspect of this post-1945 era has been the response of the British state to political agitation for immigration controls against “coloureds”: such immigrants have been “simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles, 1993).

Similarly, in recent times, both European and non-European migrants to Britain have been racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic problems of the British people; it has become widespread “common sense” that immigration is a problem and must be controlled.

The development of the European Union has brought with it a new specificity of tensions vis-à-vis immigration, nationalism and racism. What isn’t new is the political debate about immigration — framed as alien populations flooding in to threaten the identity and existence of the nation. However, what is distinct is that:

“the effects are refracted through a novel international conjuncture, one in which the reality of the nation state, and the power of the individual state to regulate social relations within its ‘sovereign territory’, is being transformed in Europe as a result of the interplay between the power of international capital and the political reorganisation embodied in the evolution of the EC [EU] as a supranational political unit.” (Miles, 1993)

From the early 1950s through to the early 1970s there was large-scale labour migration into western Europe which (with some exceptions) the state promoted as an economic necessity.
But since then this political discourse has been replaced by one of the need for stricter and stricter immigration controls. And so:

“Every official statement expressing support for the ‘principle’ of increased [immigration] control […] legitimates political opposition to immigration within the electorate in circumstances where the state faces structural constraints on its ability to deliver what it promises: this contradiction will ensure that immigration remains at the centre of political conflict within most European nation states and within the European Commission during the 1990s and beyond. The contradiction is overdetermined by the reality of the EC [EU] as a political entity: because of the attempt to create a European immigration policy, the politicisation of immigration as a problem in one member state can have immediate repercussions in the others. Moreover, in so far as a consequence of continuing immigration is a magnification of political opposition to it, and in so far as that opposition is grounded in, or expressive of, racism, the intervention of the state reinforces that racism.” (Miles, 1993)

One response that has emerged on the Left defines the European Union as a “Fortress Europe”, which “prevent[s] ‘black’ people from entering its borders and […] sustain[s] a common ‘white’, Judaeo-Christian heritage by repelling or subordinating alien (non-European) cultural influences (such as Islam)” (Miles, 1993).

During the EU referendum, this was what Lexit campaigners such as the SWP raised in their incoherent arguments. What is indeed rampant in the contemporary era surrounding Brexit is a pan-European racism — reflected in the growth of far Right parties across the continent — against, for example, an African Other, an Islamic Other, a Syrian Other, et cetera. That said, Fortress Europe racism is not the whole picture. As observed by Miles of the late twentieth century:

“For geo-spatial and ideological reasons, the greatest apprehension originally concerned migration from the southern edge of the EC [EU]. The fear was, and is, that the Mediterranean Sea will become Europe’s Rio Grande, no more than a minor obstacle for the ‘millions’ of Africans seeking to enter the EC illegally […] Since 1989, new fears have been articulated: speculation has increased about a large-scale migration from eastern Europe, one that places Germany (and Austria) in the front line against an ‘invasion’ from the east.” (Miles, 1993)

Alongside then a Fortress Europe which negatively racialises an external (non-white and/or non-Christian) Other, what has also become prevalent is a negative racialisation of an internal (white) Other, most notably, Eastern Europeans.

These racialisations and their associated racial hatreds have historical origins in capitalist (and pre-capitalist) social relations and the nation state, with colonialism one integral moment within this
In this context, “theories of racism which are grounded solely in the analysis of colonial history and which prioritise the single somatic characteristic of skin colour have a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles, 1993).