Far-right responses to immigration
The far right sit on the margins of mainstream political discourse, ordinarily noticeable by their extremism, yet when it comes to societal reactions to the arrival of non-white immigration it’s important to determine whether far-right and fascist organisations were leading public opinion or following it.
As has been shown in the previous chapters, British fascism survived the war years and relaunched immediately, albeit with mixed results. However, there is a world of difference between survival and prospering. Even with the effect of the Palestine crisis and the creation of Israel, antisemitism and Holocaust denial was never going to be enough to help the far right break out of the political ghetto in which it found itself. The bombing of the King David Hotel and the Sergeants Affair may have briefly made antisemitism a viable tactic, but coupled with the anti-fascist consensus, the Holocaust loomed over the movement like a haunting spectre making even nominal public support beyond their reach. Yet the arrival of non-white immigrants and the subsequent racist societal backlash offered a glimmer of hope to the postwar far-right. As Thurlow rightly points out,
There can be little doubt that fascism would not have survived as a political irritant in Britain after 1945 if those who adopted revisionist forms of the prewar doctrine, or who still saw Hitler as the saviour of European civilisation, had not latched on to the problems created by the influx of new commonwealth immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.’7
Some scholars point to this shift towards anti-black racism as a key difference between ‘classic’ interwar fascism and its postwar manifestation, yet Macklin more convincingly argues that while anti-black racism was by no means a centrepiece of interwar British fascism ‘it was certainly an ambient presence’, thereby further highlighting continuity between the two periods.’8
While the issue certainly became a more central tenant of their prejudiced politics, it didn’t happen as quickly as one might have presumed. As the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury dock it was greeted by the attention of the national press. Newsreel cameras, expectant journalists and even a welcome plane paid for by the Evening Standard all swarmed to see the arrival of 492 passengers from Jamaica. Finding press reports of that day is easy. Unless one happens to be looking through the newspaper of Britain’s largest far-right party of the period, Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. In what seems an aberration today when the arrival of every new immigrant, black or white, is greeted with howls of disapproval from far-right parties, it seems quite remarkable that Union, the UM newspaper, passed no comment at all. The symbolic arrival of colonial and Commonwealth immigrants, the opposition to which would later become the raison d’être of Britain’s far right, seemingly completely passed the Union Movement and Oswald Mosley by. That is not to say they do not mention immigration at all in the late 1940s. In fact the Union Movement vocally denounce what they saw as ‘Life Blood Flows Out - Sewage Flows In’. However, such prejudice was directed at the arrival of ‘every spiv and shark from Eastern Europe’’9 or the old enemy, ‘the jews’,6" not the increasing number of immigrants from the West Indies, India, Pakistan or West Africa.
In fact Union doesn’t properly mention the ‘coloured invasion’ until July 1951, a full 25 months after the arrival of Windrush. Even then the article is just four small paragraphs about how Lambeth Borough Council had protested the arrival of black people in South London. The article applauds the council and states that it is
certainly high time that some public protest should be made about this influx of coloured work-shys. . . . We are glad to see that one London Borough at least sees the need of segregation not only in Africa but in this country as well.61
For the first two and a half to three years after the arrival of Windrush, Union and the Union Movement limited their comments on non-white immigration to the racist behaviour of others such as borough councils and trade unions. At the beginning the Union Movement was by no means leading the outrage over increasing non-white immigration but rather responding to it.
One only has to take the briefest look at how the far right reacted to the next ‘wave’ of immigrants, the Ugandan Asians in 1972, to understand how between the late 1940s and the early 1970s immigration shot up the agenda with the realisation that immigration was the issue that could help the far right break out of its postHolocaust isolation. The National Front, then Britain’s leading far-right party, greeted Edward Heath’s compassionate decision to grant asylum to many of those Ugandan Asians forced into exile with a ruthless but astute political campaign. Martin Webster, deputy leader of the NF, instantly saw the possibilities for recruitment offered by the imminent arrival of thousands of non-white immigrants. The party seized upon the rapidly growing fear with remarkable speed holding a demonstration outside Downing Street less than 24 hours after the alarming news from Uganda had begun to percolate through Britain. They also held pickets outside Heathrow and Manchester Airport to ensure the arriving Ugandans were made to feel as unwelcome as possible; a marked difference from the total lack of reaction to the arrival of Windrush by the UM. The result of the NF’s swift opportunism was a rapid swelling of their rank and file membership. The speed of mobilisation and the understanding of the political capital that could be gained through anti-immigrant campaigns was a world apart from the sluggish and indifferent reaction shown by the Union Movement in the late 1940s. However, the NF reacted as it did in 1972 because of the lessons that the far right learnt in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s: namely that immigrant bashing sells.
As such one might temper Richard Thurlow’s declaration that the UM ‘was amongst the first to take up the issues posed by coloured immigration’62 and Skidelsky’s view that
for a number of years the Union Movement, with the idiosyncratic exception of Cyril Osborne, the M.P. for Louth, had the field virtually to itself in drawing attention to this phenomenon, and the social tensions inherent in it, which did not really hit the public and the political system till the celebrated Notting Hill race riots of August 1958.63
While Oswald Mosley and the UM would later declare this to be the case, the reality is that they lagged behind wider popular reactions. It is true to say that
Mosley outlined his commitment to apartheid in his ‘Decision on the Coloured Question’ issued on T1 February 1952, but the UM only truly adopted immigration as a campaign issue after realising its appeal. However, if a little slow out the blocks, the UM were quick learners and soon sought to exploit the existing sense of public anger and racism. One can see the change by looking at the primary UM campaign issues at two elections in this period. At the L.C.C. Elections in 1949 the UM campaign slogan in South Kensington was ‘Above Parties: Against Communism’.64 Conversely, at the 1952 L.C.C. Elections the UM declared that they would fight the elections in Brixton and ‘make the coloured question one of the main planks of its policy for the locality’6’ and adopted the now infamous slogan ‘Keep Brixton White’66 (often shortened for graffiti purposes as K.B.W.).67
However, it would be wrong to deduce that Brixton was a major turning point when non-white immigration became the core of UM policy. An unscientific survey of Union shows that black immigration drops back off the agenda after the Brixton election campaign with few mentions in 1952, not a single dedicated article to the issue in the whole of 1953 and doesn’t pick up again until May 1954. Throughout this whole period, the issue receives far less coverage than the ‘Jewish threat’, imperial decline, communism and even a campaign to boycott Japanese goods. Non-white immigration and its effects don’t become a prominent theme in UM publications until 1955, over seven years after the arrival of Windrush. On the one hand this is not particularly surprising as the rate of immigration began relatively slowly and it took some years before they became visible communities. However, on the other hand, as has been shown earlier, racism towards Black immigrants started as soon as they stepped off the boat, including anti-black rioting in Liverpool in 1948; Deptford, London, in 1949; and the attacks on the homes of Indian workers in Birmingham in 1949,68 all of which passed without any comment from Mosley or the Union Movement. There was only a cursory mention of the interracial violence that broke out in Camden in August 1954.69
None of this is to say that the Union Movement was not genuinely racist; it was, stridently so - one only has to look at the numerous article on race, imperialism and apartheid during the same period. It is simply to point out that non-white immigration was not a political priority for UM until the middle of the 1950s, and it only became so because of the popularity of the issue; the UM were responding to popular demand rather than pushing the agenda.
From 1955 onward, anti-‘coloured’ rhetoric had ascended to become the primary public Union Movement issue during the second half of the 1950s. A shift exemplified by the decision to move UM operations from the Jewish areas of East and North London to the new immigrant areas in the South and West of the city.7" However, as Macklin rightly states ‘This is not to suggest that visceral antisemitism did not remain at the core of UM politics’.71 This tension between internal and external ideological priorities - private antisemitism at the core and anti-immigrant racism in public - has remained a core problem ever since, right up to the modern British National Party. Trevor Grundy, leader of the UM youth movement, remembers a meeting he attended with his father in 1956:
The debate following The Leader’s speech had turned to immigration. Members had said that too many West Indians were coming into Britain and that there’d be trouble. My father rose and said that the problem wasn’t the blacks, it was the Jews. Red-faced and with great passion he’d screamed, “And if you’re looking for the first man in Britain to turn on the gas taps, I’m here!” ... As we moved from our seats, a few old members slapped my father on the back. One said, “Suppose you shouldn’t have said that, Sid, but I would, too”.72
Trevor’s father was not alone in expressing frustration at the public shift away from antisemitism and towards ‘coloured’ immigration. Alan Neame, a friend of Lady Mosley and contributor of poetry to another Mosley publication The European, expressed his support to Trevor,
Your father is quite wonderful. He seems to think that The Leader is copping out, taking on the blacks and not the Jews. I rather agree. My goodness, at least the Jews were a reputable enemy. I can’t say that for most of the poor dears walking around here with banjos and bananas. I feel rather sorry for them, don’t you. I mean coming from their lovely island in the sun to Latimer Road.73
In addition, one witness to an Oswald Mosley speech in North Kensington commented on how
The claque [which surrounded him] frequently seemed bored at the concentration on West Indians and disappointed at the absense of full-blooded antisemitism. When Sir Oswald made an incidental reference to the Jasper case, there were eager shouts of “At last we’ve got the Yids on the run!”74
For some of the old guard of the Union Movement, forged as fascists during the antisemitic campaigns of the interwar period, the public change of priority rankled.
As with the reactions to the news of Nazi atrocities as discussed in the previous chapter, the reaction of the far right to non-white immigration was, while universally hostile, not universal in nature or form. As one might expect the reaction of A.K. Chesterton and his followers in the League of Empire Loyalists was similarly hostile to those of Mosley and the Union Movement. Chesterton’s newspaper, Candour, started in October 1953, first mentions non-white immigration in January 1954, but as with UM publications the issue does not gain prominence until the end of 1954 and the beginning of 1955. The supposed motivation for immigration to Britain bears striking similarities to those articulated by the modern far right. Chesterton explained how
Settlement in Britain has much to offer the Black or coloured man from Africa or the West Indies. . . . News of the Welfare State has apparently penetrated to the remotest villages, and the lure of a better standard of living, with no conditions attached, has set many a black foot upon the gangplank.75
Chesterton was a fanatical conspiracy theorist, thus unsurprisingly, the arrival of non-white immigrants in Britain was not the result of economic ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors but rather a dastardly plot to weaken Britain. The conspirators were, as always, the ‘international Jew’: ‘That the Communists may have a hand in organising this dusky traffic to Britain is all too probable’.76 He offers various explanations for why the conspirators might want to encourage black people to move to Britain. One theory was that they wanted to create the equivalent of the ‘men of Marseilles’, a contingent of people ready to cause disorder on the streets when necessary. However, he eventually settled on the far more racially motivated conclusion that the ‘International Jews’ were encouraging black immigration ‘as a long-term means of poisoning our national life’ by breaking down all ‘national and racial pride’, which amounted to a ‘sort of Satanic genocide’.77
While Chesterton and Mosley both led movements of note in the 1950s, there was a much smaller and more extreme group of revolutionary fascists, the ‘SS of British fascism’,78 whose pre-occupation was rabid antisemitism. Their entire worldview was filtered through an extreme form of racialism, thus making their reactions to the arrival of black and Asian immigrants offensively blunt, crude and lased with pseudo-scientific racial theories. Chief among this group was Arnold Leese, who as with reactions to the Holocaust, was far and away the most extreme when reacting to non-white immigration. As such, unsurprisingly, unlike Mosley and the UM, Leese was quick to comment on the arrival of Windrush.
In June there were imported into Britain 492 black Jamaicans for labour in this country. We have not yet traced the maniac who arranged this - perhaps it does not matter, as this country is so completely devoid of any race-sense that no-one, so far as we know, has raised a voice against it.79
The overwhelming majority of articles in Leese’s Gothic Ripples were related to his obsession with the Jews. However, anti-black racism against new immigrants became far more prominent during 1951 and 1952, and by May 1953 he had started his infamous column ‘Nigger Notes’. Much of his racism was tied up with resentment against nationalist movements in the empire where he believed Jews were promoting the notion of racial equality with a view to encouraging descent and uprisings in the colonies. In his view ‘The only sensible white man’s policy with Niggers is to STAY ON TOP and stand no nonsense about equality’.80 However by 1955 his focus was increasingly on domestic racial issues as he commented on wider racist stories about black crime and sexual stereotypes in Britain. Similarly to Chesterton, Leese placed the blame for non-white immigration squarely with the international Jewish conspirators. In a crudeness absent in Chesterton’s explanations, Leese stated:
The policy of importing nigger labour into Britain is sheer madness from the white standpoint; but it is a Jewish policy, and far from mad from the Jewish standpoint. It encourages interbreeding between the races, with permanent results; it increases the Communist army; and it increases also the housing shortage and food security.81
Leese was to die in 1956 and pass the flame of British racial Nazism to his apprentice Colin Jordan.