A Brixton street sign. Photo: Wikimedia/Zleitzen A Brixton street sign. Photo: Wikimedia/Zleitzen

The fight against ruling class divide-and-rule has never been more urgent and the Tory leadership are a sitting target, argues Lindsey German

Britain was, we should never forget, at the heart of an empire on which famously the sun never set. How could we forget in this week, when on the one hand we heard more and more of the scandalous revelations about the treatment of Afro-Caribbeans from the Windrush generation; and on the other the Queen told Commonwealth leaders that the hereditary principle means that her son would succeed her as head, thus demonstrating beyond doubt that Britain calls the shots and there’s no democracy in its successor to empire?

Such is the contempt for this supposedly equal and diverse Commonwealth that Theresa May refused initially – only a week ago – to meet the leaders of Caribbean countries who were concerned about the treatment of its nationals as a result of the immigration laws passed in 2014, which essentially passes on the duties of immigration officers to schools, employers, universities and hospitals. That decision was quickly reversed, with May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd offering profuse apologies for mistakes (although unable to tell us how many people had been deported to the Caribbean as a result of these laws) and promising to put their house in order. 

None of this should be acceptable. The law should be instantly repealed. It deliberately created a hostile environment which treated immigrants as criminals,. It encouraged the use of tactics such as the poster vans touring areas with high numbers of ethnic minorities telling them to go home. It adopted a zero-tolerance approach to any minor discrepancies or errors which might occur in individuals’ cases, and it enforced a brutal detention and deportation regime. 

The person not only responsible for it but who revelled in it was one Theresa May, then Home Secretary, who built her political reputation on being tough on some of the most vulnerable people in society and was cheered to the echo at Tory conferences for doing so. To its shame, parliament voted nearly unanimously for the law, with only a few Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott voting against it. We now know from a leaked Home Office memo that Amber Rudd was determined to outdo May in her vindictiveness and callousness towards migrants.

Both should resign immediately. They are not fit to hold public office. Not just because of the Windrush episode which is deeply shocking, but because they deliberately set up a system which would penalise and criminalise all migrants. Labour is in a good position to press hard on this and should do so.

The episode, like the Grenfell fire last year, demonstrates that racism in Britain comes from the top. It is deeply institutionalised in government, the police, education, housing and many other areas. We are in the somewhat strange situation where there is widespread lip service to equality and anti-racism while this kind of targeting of migrants – especially those with black or brown skins – is regarded as completely acceptable, indeed vital. 

One of the ways in which this is done is in trying to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrant. The Windrush generation are now put into the former category. But it wasn’t always so. When they came here 70 years ago, life for them was very hard. They did the most menial and low-paid jobs, and were barred from some altogether. Their qualifications were often not ‘recognised’ in Britain. They were prevented from getting housing by councils changing residency rules for who qualified. They were subject to violence and abuse. I remember I had a holiday job in a factory in Hayes in the summer of 1967 I think, where I made friends with a young Asian girl of my age who worked there permanently. She hated the job so I suggested she try Woolworths, where I worked on a Saturday. Her response was that Asians would not be employed in any shop where they had to serve the public. Employment agencies where we went for temp work would magically find they had no vacancies when a black or Asian person walked in. 

There were lots of reasons why this changed over the years, including laws, attitudes, education. But in my view the most important reason was the migrants and the children of migrants, along with some sections of the left and trade unions, consciously campaigned to change things and to determine that future generations would not be treated like this. The 1970s was a key decade, where there were huge fights against racism and fascism, leading to the creation of the Anti-Nazi League and the defeat of the National Front (although not of racism and scapegoating of immigrants). The riots of 1981 in Toxteth, Brixton and elsewhere showed that young black and Asian people were not prepared to put up with police and other institutional racism. 

While the 1940s and 50s migrants from the Commonwealth countries (who all were entitled to British passports as citizens of the former empire) tend to be in much more settled communities spanning several generations today, their modern-day counterparts are being treated with the same contempt, hounded over their papers, their accommodation, their jobs, their health treatment, in a system which has echoes of a police state.

There has been something of a rehabilitation of empire in establishment circles in recent years, rebranded as a benevolent and humanitarian affair. Instead, it was built on slavery and indentured labour, on expropriation of land, raw materials, and wealth. There was no democracy in the British Empire, with direct rule from London. Racism has always been at its heart and the legacy continues. We still have a massive fight on our hands against it but a starting point should be that May and Rudd should go, and their policies with them.

War abroad, racism at home: the default position of Trump, Macron, and May 

What was the point of the missile strike against Syria last week? It had only one: to show that the western imperial powers can carry out strikes (not that those of us who see increasing money going into military spending and war had much doubt about that). There was no military purpose, it made no difference, and it will do nothing to change this bloody and barbarous war. It was done with the agreement of Russia, desperate not to provoke a bigger war. The government here carried it out without a parliamentary vote, then allowed a fake vote, then rushed to move on. 

That hasn’t gone so well for them as they are now bogged down in Windrush and their usual default method of racist scapegoating to get out of problems isn’t working. Nor is their default method of banging the war drum. As I said last week, there is a wave of revulsion at all this, and protests across the country. Opinion polls show a majority clearly against the attacks. 

This is important because it means that the legacy of the Iraq war is haunting them still and will continue to do so. We have just heard that Trump is likely to visit Britain in July, and there will be mass demonstrations against him, not least over his warmongering. The movement can mobilise in huge numbers between now and July, when he is attending a Nato summit in Brussels. 

It looks as though there are major moves towards peace in the Korean peninsula, which we should remember is not what Trump wanted. But the people of North and South Korea has suffered terribly from war and confrontation going back over 60 years. The moves towards denuclearisation and a proper peace deal are both highly significant. 

They are also a reminder that there are different answers to foreign policy problems than war. This has been the instant response since George Bush declared the War on Terror nearly 18 years ago. It has been nothing but a failure, leading to a huge arms race, much more terrorism and an unstable world. Trump is going along with the Korean plans for now. But he wants to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, which most other countries say is working. And he is moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Not much peace on the horizon there. 

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.