The dishonesty of the immigration card

The truth is that the Tories, and some Labour politicians, have always been against 'coloured' immigration
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On Saturday night my family returned through Stansted airport from a skiing trip in France. My son, his fiancée, my daughter, and my husband made up the group. My children are brown skinned, dark eyed, like me, even though my daughter's father is a blue-eyed Englishman. My future daughter-in-law is blonde and fair. According to my husband - not a man who succumbs to waves of outrage - the immigration officers greeted white British incomers with courtesy and warmth and British people of colour with cold disbelief. Their faces changed from light to day and back again as they dealt with white and black citizens. It was, he says, humiliating and infuriating to watch his children being treated like interlopers.

On Saturday night my family returned through Stansted airport from a skiing trip in France. My son, his fiancée, my daughter, and my husband made up the group. My children are brown skinned, dark eyed, like me, even though my daughter's father is a blue-eyed Englishman. My future daughter-in-law is blonde and fair. According to my husband - not a man who succumbs to waves of outrage - the immigration officers greeted white British incomers with courtesy and warmth and British people of colour with cold disbelief. Their faces changed from light to day and back again as they dealt with white and black citizens. It was, he says, humiliating and infuriating to watch his children being treated like interlopers.

Late into the night we talked about this recent wave of resentment against immigrants, and again wondered if we should have fled the land when we nearly did, seven years ago. It was 1998. I was finishing a book on public attitudes to immigration and multi-racial societies, a book which was launched in the House of Commons with Tony Blair and Jack Straw in attendance, all smiles. One of my case studies was Canada where the government had clear public education strategies and an unswervingly positive approach to immigration. After returning from my research trips, I felt that perhaps our children should grow up in a country where they wouldn't have to spend so much time and energy fighting for their rights.

We went on a recce to Toronto and Vancouver, and felt we could be happy there. My friends from Uganda who have settled in Canada said that they had never felt under pressure to justify themselves, the way settlers are in Britain. We returned, filled in the immigration forms, and started exploring employment possibilities. Just as things were coming to fruition, I got the chance to write this column - my dream job - and that plan slid away.

The following years brought a sense of optimism and confidence that we had entered a new era under Labour. Britain was re-imagining herself as a nation of multiplicity, finally acknowledging that diverse bloodstreams had made her what she was and that the mix was now in the country's DNA.

An island race can never be "pure". How far back do you want to go? In the first millennium came the Celts from the Russian steppes; the Roman occupation was in the first century AD, followed by invasions by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, later Scandinavian attackers, the Normans and so on. Between 1066 and 1900 came the Irish, Chinese and Indian seafarers, Huguenots and other Protestant exiles, weavers from the Low Countries, Lombards, Hansa, political refugees from Europe, slaves and their descendants from West Africa and the West Indies, and Jews escaping various pogroms. In the 18th century there were over 25,000 black people in London alone; you see their presence in paintings and etchings.

After 1900 came Belgian refugees, people displaced by fascism and Stalinism, children of the Empire and later the Commonwealth, East African Asians, Hong Kong citizens, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, workers from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, Vietnamese, Arab, Iranian and South American refugees, EU nationals, Americans, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders. The most recent wave is from the old East European countries.

And almost every group of arrivals - particularly if they had "alien" features - was greeted with uproar and the politics of fear mongering. Daniel Defoe wrote about it; Shakespeare too. Some periods have been worse than others and, although there are a small number of examples of genuine hospitality, this country has never been an easy haven. The national tolerance is so superficial that it vanishes without trace just when it is most needed.

Just as discontent and devastation is leading to an unprecedented movement of peoples around the globe, 69 per cent of Britons today (of various backgrounds) are vociferously opposed to immigration, claiming that the country is full up.

The UN refugee agency has castigated the Conservatives for spreading myths about asylum as they play the immigration card. The truth is that the Tories, and some Labour politicians too, have always been against "coloured" immigration. Over the past five and a half decades there has never been a level of immigration and multiracialism which made them feel content.

In 1948, as the Empire Windrush landed in Tilbury with the first 492 Caribbean immigrants to arrive after the war, politicians complained they would destabilise this country - these black Christians, English speaking and utterly loyal. No state policies helped them though. White Polish immigrants were assisted through the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947. In the Fifties, Britain invited workers over from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean, who were then accused of bringing diseases and trouble. The Tory Cyril Osbourne and other MPs promoted these pernicious views. Race riots erupted; race discrimination was rife even though there were barely a hundred thousand black and Asian migrants.

In the Sixties, a time of full employment, expansion, great love-ins, racism was vile and overt. In 1964, the Tory Peter Griffiths unseated the shadow Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker by running an anti-"nigger" immigration campaign in Smethwick. Enoch Powell made his "rivers of blood" speeches in 1968 and was buoyed up by white support. In the same year Labour passed an immoral law denying British passport-holders in the Commonwealth right of free entry into their country unless they had white heritage. In 1972, when Ugandan Asian Britons were expelled by Idi Amin, they were met with howls of xenophobia. In 1978, the year my son was born, Mrs Thatcher spoke of this country being "swamped" by people like him and me.

Through the Eighties, Norman Tebbit and others kept alive anxieties about the British identity which, they said, was weakening and disintegrating as the over-breeding "ethnic minorities" and new barbaric immigrants continued to swell the population. Hansard records of the 1995 Asylum and Immigration Bill show hideously prejudiced politicians at work. Andrew Lansley, now a Tory MP, said this at the time: "Immigration, an issue we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the European election campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt." A Home Office report (1997) showed massively high levels of racial abuse and violence perpetrated by people who said their country was being overrun.

Contrary to what the Tories now claim, immigration has never been a taboo subject. Calls for immigration controls are not new. Labour MPs and peers who know better remain shamefully silent: people such as Paul Boateng, Valerie Amos, Patricia Scotland, Oona King, Bhikhu Parekh, David Lammy, Peter Hain, Patricia Hewitt and Marsha Singh, who once fought unequivocally on the side of migrants. Some of these power-merchants are my friends. They were upset when I told them I wanted to emigrate in 1998. Today I bet they wish I had gone, because I remind them too often of their complicity, their betrayal. And there are days now when I again wish we were in Canada, well away from this place which never lets us belong, and probably never will.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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