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Britain is a land built by migrants. After all, there was no one inhabiting these islands 50,000 years ago, and for most of human history there were no international borders. The emergence of the modern British nation state and the advent of a global economy brought with it the movement of capital in search of profit and the movement of people in search of work. Britain, home of the industrial revolution, saw successive waves of immigration from the 19th century onwards. It was driven by the needs of capitalists to find an adequate supply of workers. However, from the beginning, the capitalist class also grasped that the migration of cheap labour into the country provided them with a ready mechanism for dividing working people.. This was not automatic; it depended on an invented common identity of Britishness, which offered a false sense of solidarity between workers and bosses, while dividing native born from “foreign workers”. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the treatment of Irish workers who came to Britain in the 19th century to work on the canals and railways. They were forced to leave their homes—much like Roma people in Slovakia today—because of impoverishment or oppression, and usually both.
Our rulers have always tried to sow divisions among workers but there is a powerful history of class solidarity.The next time you walk down a canal towpath or ride a train think of the thousands of Irish labourers—the navvies—who died building the infrastructure of the industrial revolution, housed in the most squalid living conditions imaginable. Textile mill bosses also imported Irish workers. Initially this was often to use them as strikebreakers. In situations of sharpened competition in the labour market among low-skilled workers, it is not difficult to see how tensions arose. Karl Marx observed the process and got straight to the heart of the matter: “Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps… The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standards of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his own country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” Marx went on to explain how this antagonism was kept alive by “the press, the pulpit and the comic papers” in much the same way that the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express do today, with their relentless attacks on migrants and Muslims. But there was another process cutting aganist the divisions between workers. The bringing together of workers in the factory system created a need for unity against the common enemy exploiting their labour. Despite the best efforts of the capitalists to stoke racism, the impulse to class solidarity was often stronger. Many leading members of the Chartists, Britain’s first mass workers’ movement in the mid 19th century, came from the ranks of Irish labourers. Class fighters such as Feargus O’Connor and James Bronterre O’Brien led British workers into struggle, as did other “foreign” workers like the black Chartist organiser William Cuffay. Unfortunately the Chartists were defeated, and racist ideas were able to fester.
The New Unionism of the 1880s brought a new wave of Irish activists into politics. Ireland was officially part of Britain at this time so there was no issue of immigration controls—it was the availability of work not controls that adjusted the flow. At the end of the 19th century millions of Jews from the economically undeveloped parts of eastern Europe fled poverty and persecution. State-sponsored anti-semitic pogroms killed thousands of Jews in Russia and Poland. Three million largely poor Jews migrated to the US and perhaps a quarter of a million to Britain. Ruling class figures responded with racism. Tory MP William Evans Gordon said in parliament in 1902, “Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders.” This racism paved the way for the Aliens Act of 1905, the first to limit immigration and which defined some groups of migrants as “undesirable”. It made it easier for racists to argue that Jewish people were a problem in British society - however, Jewish workers came together with other sections of the working class. In the 1930s fascist attempts to turn “native” Britons against Jews were defeated on the streets. The long economic boom after the Second World War saw capitalists respond to increasing demand for labour by again looking to workers from overseas.
This time they looked further afield in the British Empire—to the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent—for workers to plug the shortages in areas such as public transport and the hospitals. Black people soon found that the land of opportunity was also a land of racism. Some landlords and pubs in places like London and Birmingham put up signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. But socialists and trade unionists organised reception committees to welcome the new workers and to help them settle in. However there was no automatic unity among the oppressed. Some established migrants, who had become assimilated into British society, came to view more recent immigrants as outsiders, and at times as a threat.
Some British people of Irish backgrounds could be among the most antagonistic towards Black people, seeing their own “whiteness” as making them superior to African-Caribbeans. Post-war Britain’s open door policy wasn’t to last as the boom ebbed and turn into crisis towards the end 1960s. The Tory politician Enoch Powell who had once implored Jamaicans and others to come to find work in the “mother country”, now scapegoated black and Asian immigrants for the mounting problems faced by a British economy in decline. This was even though many so-called immigrants were in fact born in the country. The 1971 Immigration Act brought a shuddering halt to “primary” immigration to Britain. Future migrants would be the dependants of those already here and not new workers. But the rising racism, especially in the mid 1970s, led to a powerful anti-racist response that reached a crescendo with the formation of the Anti Nazi League (ANL). The ANL drove the predecessors of the Nazi British National Party (BNP), the National Front, off our streets. Today asylum seekers, living in forced destitution, are blamed for “ruining areas” and bringing crime. Or in the case of “economic migrants”, like those from new European Union countries in eastern Europe like the Irish before them, lowering wages.
It can sometimes appear easier to kick the “foreign” worker next to you, especially during times of low class struggle, such as after the defeat of the Chartists in the 19th century. Equally however, during times of rising struggle, divisions are overcome time and time again. A key task of socialists today is to harness that class solidarity to fight both against the bosses and in defence of the rights of all working people, regardless of spurious notions of nation and race. Socialists must act as “tribunes of the oppressed”, as the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it. We must oppose all racism and bigotry. Today that means standing up against Islamophobia and racism, and breaking the back of the organisations these twin poisons are breeding, the Nazi BNP and the English Defence League.