Review | Britain in Fragments

Britain today is falling apart and deeply racist. 75 years after the Windrush Generation arrived and was met with bigotry, Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever bring a historic account of racism in Britain over the last century. Colin Wilson reviews Britain in Fragments.

Britain in Fragments in front of Union Jack
Britain in Fragments: why things are falling apart, by Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever. Manchester University Press, 2023. Photo by rs21.

It’s not long ago that capitalists around the world saw Britain as a stable country with sensible and experienced rulers, an ideal place to stash some dodgy money by buying a big house in Mayfair or a football club. Yet the last ten years have seen those rulers lose their touch. Cameron barely won the referendum on Scottish independence on 2014, and two years later lost the Brexit vote. Johnson campaigned for a Leave vote with no plan on how to make it work – his response on learning of Leave’s victory is reported to have been, ‘Oh shit, we’ve got no plan. We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy crap, what will we do?’ A clear majority of people now think Brexit a failure, 58 percent of people agree that ‘nothing in Britain works any more’ and no one has come up with a credible post-Brexit strategy for British capitalism. How did a ruling class as experienced as Britain’s louse it all up so comprehensively, and what happens now?

One way to answer these questions is to get some historical perspective on Britain over the last hundred or so years, and this is what Virdee and McGeever set out to provide. Racism is a key element of this history, and the authors focus on the attitudes of white British ruling and working class people to racialised migrant populations. This is a really useful perspective when some of the right are plainly nostalgic for empire (as with Johnson’s ‘global Britain’) while the population now includes many black and brown people, often with links to formerly colonised countries and sometimes enslaved populations, who don’t see the empire as anything to go back to. The resulting conflicts over statues, country houses and so forth have become part of what we now know as the culture wars.

Race has been part of class struggles in Britain for over 200 years. Industrialisation in the early nineteenth century – along with the Irish famine of the 1840s, during which British rulers continued to export food from Ireland – saw hundreds of thousands of Irish people arrive in England. Later in the century, antisemitic attacks in Russia led to mass Jewish immigration, with the Jewish population of England reaching about 250,000 by 1919. Both groups faced appalling racism.

All through this period, of course, the empire employed violence against colonised people, while British workers were encouraged to identify with their rulers and take pride in being white. If some workers opposed racism, many of them, and some of their leaders, accepted it – the dockers’ leader Ben Tillett told Jewish workers who were taking collective action that ‘yes, you are our brothers and we will stand by you. But we wish you had not come.’

The post-war settlement – the NHS, mass council house building, the welfare state and so on – is often seen as the high point of the British labour movement. It meant real advances for working people. But these advances were based on Britain’s continuing imperial role. Virdee and McGeever cite Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government, who believed that ‘If we only push on and develop Africa, we could have [the] US dependent on us, and eating out of our hand, in four or five years.’ They don’t mention the Royal Commission on Population, but its 1949 report fretted about immigrants who were not of ‘good human stock’ and wondered how, to put it bluntly, Britain could breed enough white people to both run the economy at home and populate the empire. The Commission felt that the welfare state was crucial to these efforts, including the Family Allowances introduced in 1946, and it recommended many more services, including ‘home helps, sitters-in, day nurseries, nursery schools and other means’.

Black and brown migrants began to arrive, some of the first on the Empire Windrush in 1948. They faced racism from the cops and ‘no dog, no blacks, no Irish’ signs in the windows of rooms to let. Churchill tried to persuade the Tories to adopt the slogan ‘Keep Britain White’ in the 1955 General Election. But the new arrivals also faced racism from some organised workers: ‘Major workplaces like Ford Dagenham, British Railways, Vickers, Napiers and Tate & Lyle operated colour bars enforced by trade unions.’

In other workplaces, unions insisted that Caribbean and Asian people should make up no more than 5 percent of the workforce. In 1955, West Midlands bus workers began a series of one-day strikes against the employment of a trainee Indian conductor. By the 1960s the Labour Party was committed to ‘a contradictory programme of support for racist immigration controls on the one hand, and the promise of racial equality on the other.’ Black people would be accepted, in this view, if there were not too many of them, suggesting that it was black people who caused racism if there were too many of them.

This racism reached a peak with a speech in April 1968 by Enoch Powell, shadow Tory Defence Minister, condemning immigration in lurid language. Some twenty strikes broke out in support of Powell, many in the West Midlands, involving 10,000 to 12,000 workers. In London 6,000 to 7,000 dockers went on strike – unions on the docks controlled who could work, and that right was often passed on to the sons of existing dockers, ensuring an all-white workforce. One dockers’ leader declared, ‘I have just met Enoch Powell and it made me proud to be an Englishman.’

This racist underside of the post-war settlement, however, faced major challenges in the 1970s. These years saw an explosion of militant strike activity, such as the coal miners’ strike which brought down the Tory government in 1974. At the same time, drawing inspiration from anti-colonial struggles, and the huge anti-racist movement in the US, workers of colour began to organise in Britain. As Avtar Jouhl of the Indian Workers Association put it:

We feel that we are an integral part of the British working class while we are here… It is another thing that the British working class may not think so. It is not the sincerity, the willingness, the class position of the Indian and the black workers which is on trial. It is the internationalism of the British working class which is on trial.

Changing working-class attitudes were made clear in a strike in 1976-77 at Grunwick, a photo processing factory in north west London where most workers were Asian women. Management sacked the strikers, but their union responded by calling mass pickets including up to 18,000 workers, as well as socialists, anti-racists and feminists. Miners from the north of England took part, as did London dockers – the same group of workers who had marched in support of the racist Powell nine years before.

Black and white workers and young people also united against racism in the Anti Nazi League, which successfully opposed the National Front, a fascist organisation which marched in the streets and had won over 100,000 votes in London elections. This black and white unity set limits on what Thatcher could do after her election in 1979 to put her racist ideas into practice – the ‘repatriation’ which fascists had favoured had become impossible, and she distanced herself from the far right.

Virdee and McGeever continue their account with Blair, who combined the ‘market individualism’ of Thatcher with a ‘gloss’ of social justice, as later exemplified by the Equality Act. If these were the years when racist discourse focused on the so-called ‘bogus asylum seeker’, they also saw the appearance of the ‘white working class’. These disadvantaged white people were typically counterposed to ethnic groups without, apparently, class divisions, but which could be separated into those who became ‘multicultural success stories’ and those who failed to assimilate – a category including, for example, Muslims targeted by the government’s repressive Prevent strategy. But as we arrive in the twenty-first century, the breakdown of the postwar settlement starts to make a real difference.

First, the large vote for Scottish independence sees large numbers rejecting identification with the British state as the Yes campaign began to morph into a popular anti-austerity movement. Finally, racism returns to the agenda with Brexit. While leaving the EU meant an end to freedom of movement within Europe, it’s plain that some or many Leave voters identified it with an end to all immigration, and indeed with repatriation – a Sikh radiographer recounted that a patient asked them, ‘Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out?’ And yet the Brexit years also saw the development of a ‘fragile but discernible everyday multicultural reality’ with one in ten people in England and Wales involved in so-called mixed relationships.

There is much to recommend in this book, but I must mention a few disagreements. I was surprised by some important and more recent developments it covered thinly or not at all – the revival of anti-fascist campaigning after 2000, for example, or the anti-war movement, in which so many Muslim people playing an active role alongside white campaigners. When Corbyn’s principled internationalism was the thing about him which the right hated most, it’s odd not to see more about his period as Labour leader. Black Lives Matter is mentioned only in passing, when these widespread and popular, if short-lived, protests surely reflect something important about race in Britain today.

And there are a few points of analysis I can’t accept – I don’t think you can say that the postwar settlement meant the white working class’s ‘incorporation into the state’ via the Labour Party. The relationship between the state and workers, however compliant they are, is surely always more conflictual than that. Nor do I think that, while there was undoubtedly a racism element to the Leave vote, it can simply be cited as an example of ‘reactionary populism’. But on the whole, Britain in Fragments gives an excellent and accessible long-term account of racism and the British working class in the last eighty years, and deserves a wide readership.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A good review Colin, but I think to describe the UK as racist is difficult, if not impossible if you are judging popular opinion by the policies of populist governments desperate for votes via what they perceive to be quick and easy tabloid phobias. Also Bevan, not Bevin.

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