Racist rhetoric hasn’t been consigned to Britain’s past | Kenan Malik

The ugly sentiments that gave birth to 1968’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act are still seen as legitimate by many politicians

Fifty years ago last week, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act became law. It remains perhaps the most nakedly racist piece of legislation of postwar years.

The background to the law was Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta’s “Africanisation” policy and his insistence that anyone without Kenyan citizenship faced expulsion. Thousands of Asian Kenyans with British passports decided to leave for Britain. In London, the Labour government panicked, fearing a racist backlash. Home secretary Jim Callaghan, Richard Crossman recorded in his diaries, had come to an emergency cabinet meeting “with the air of a man… [who] wasn’t going to tolerate any of this bloody liberalism”. Callaghan pushed through parliament in three days a law whose sole aim was to prevent Kenyan Asians with British passports from entering this country.

Cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend acknowledged that Britain would be in breach of international obligations by refusing entry to British nationals. But, he wrote in a memo, “a reasonable case could be put… that the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense”. It only made clearer the racist reasons for the law. The Times commented: “The Labour party has a new ideology. It does not any longer profess to believe in the equality of man. It does not even believe in the equality of British citizens. It believes in the equality of white British citizens.”

We can look upon all this as simply history, albeit a particularly shameful episode. Britain has changed enormously since 1968. The raw, visceral racism that disfigured the nation then is much rarer now.

And yet today’s politicians equally panic about popular anxieties over immigration and seek to assuage it through harsher rhetoric and legislation. Many are happy to proclaim: “We will not tolerate any of this bloody liberalism.” So-called “white identity politics” is defended as legitimate by many mainstream politicians and academics. In 50 years’ time, how will people look upon today’s immigration debates?

• Writer, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

Contributor

Kenan Malik

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sadiq Khan’s 24/7 security challenges our notions of non-racist London | Nick Cohen
London’s mayor needs heavy security to guard against extremists but who protects him from the new rightwing politics?

Nick Cohen

09, Oct, 2021 @6:00 PM

Article image
The royals are just like much of our press - trapped in a fantasy version of Britain’s past | David Olusoga
We can’t enjoy a better future until we begin to reshape institutions no longer fit for today

David Olusoga

14, Mar, 2021 @9:15 AM

Article image
The past haunts the present in all areas of our national conversation | David Olusoga
The debate over the racism of Max Mosley’s youth is just the latest example of history taking a central place in today’s most urgent stories

David Olusoga

04, Mar, 2018 @12:05 AM

Article image
The Observer view: statues should be the prompt to a wider analysis of our past | Observer editorial
The toppling of a statue should be the moment for this country finally to confront historical injustice

Observer editorial

14, Jun, 2020 @5:15 AM

Article image
Culture wars risk blinding us to just how liberal we've become in the past decades | Kenan Malik
Britain appears to be fractious, divided. And yet the nation has never been more united in its social attitudes. What’s really going on?

Kenan Malik

21, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Justin Trudeau – not so much racist as slight and ineffectual | Leah McLaren
The blackface row has exposed the failings of the Canadian prime minister

Leah McLaren

21, Sep, 2019 @5:19 PM

Article image
Britain’s failure to honour black and Asian dead is a scandal of the present, not just the past | David Olusoga
Why did it take our TV documentary to push the Commonwealth War Graves Commission into righting a wrong they had long known about?

David Olusoga

25, Apr, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
The sheer scale of the crisis facing Britain’s decrepit constitution has been laid bare | Will Hutton
To achieve no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson has exploited the weakness of our democracy

Will Hutton

01, Sep, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Why are so many afraid to confront Britain’s historical links with the slave trade? | David Olusoga
Cambridge University has been accused of opening old wounds, but in curing itself of amnesia it might help Britain understand its past

David Olusoga

05, May, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Racist abuse in the real world is in decline, so why not on Twitter? | Sunder Katwala
The social media platform is still failing to root out its vilest and most hateful users

Sunder Katwala

25, Aug, 2019 @7:00 AM