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The myth of the xenophobic working class

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The myth of the xenophobic working class

Ordinary Brits have long led far more ‘diverse’ lives than the elites who scorn them.

David Holland

Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Politics UK

I was raised in a socially conservative, patriotic and very traditional household, of which my grandparents were the heads. They instilled in me what they would have called ‘British values’, and these have guided me through much of my life.

I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in the knowledge that I was a ‘half-caste’ lad, born into a working-class family in Devon, an almost entirely white area. It slowly dawned on my child’s mind that, due to the reactions of some adults, having a parent from another country – especially one that was populated by brown people – marked me out as being unusual, perhaps very different. I did not feel different, but I became aware that others might see me as such.

Generally, people were tolerant, although there were exceptions. In the 1980s, one girlfriend’s father refused to have me in his house, stating he ‘wouldn’t have a nigger at his table’. Similarly, a landlord, with whom I was in dispute, told me he would inform the police to ‘have me deported’. It wasn’t clear as to where I might be deported… Devon, perhaps? It certainly appeared that the ‘one drop’ (of non-white blood) rule of old-fashioned racism still exercised the minds of some Britons back then.

This, for me, sums up the reality of what we called ‘race’ in Britain at the time, and perhaps it still does today. It was not so much about how one felt or what constituted one’s sense of selfhood. It was about how others interpreted an individual – the colour of their skin, their values, their accent and their parentage. I had olive skin, an English accent and a conventional set of basic values, so it was others’ knowledge of my parentage that defined me as ‘half-caste’. While I ‘passed’ (to borrow from the lexicon of racial thinking) as white to strangers, those who knew my family had another set of data to classify me and people like me – if they chose to do so. Yet despite others’ views, I was, to my mind at least, thoroughly British and steeped in British culture, history and language, just like my friends.

‘Race’, empire and class

‘Race’, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall explained, is a ‘floating signifier’. The meanings we attach to the concept have constantly changed over the past four centuries as attitudes and society have changed. In some periods of our history, ‘race’ had little significance in everyday social interactions. At other times, however, ‘racial’ characteristics have acquired meanings that have had a huge, and often disastrous, impact on human lives, from the transatlantic slave trade to the Holocaust.

Many historians of modern Britain would rightly argue that the British Empire has had a similarly significant impact on racial thinking in the UK. This observation is backed up by the many surviving documents produced by those responsible for administering the Empire. These show that the process of seeing, categorising and assigning hierarchical value to colonised populations was integral to the maintenance of the Empire, which at its height encompassed almost a quarter of the world’s population.

Given this, what must life have been like for the small number of non-white settlers in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, not to mention for their white wives or their ‘half-caste’ children, who were born and brought up here?

It was certainly a time of economic, political and moral conflict and crisis across Europe in the early 20th century. Moreover, fascism was on the rise, and racist and eugenicist theories of society were flourishing. Britain was no exception. It had its own fascist movement in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. These uniformed thugs, the so-called Blackshirts, were notorious during the 1920s and 1930s for marching through working-class districts. Historians today tend to see the Blackshirts as symptomatic of the racially charged tensions of the interwar period.

So one might assume that the arrival of the non-white ‘dark stranger’ during the early 20th century – the high tide of the British Empire – would have provoked a forthright and violent response from working-class neighbourhoods. Yet, as I discovered while researching my new book, Imperial Heartland, this wasn’t the case at all. Looking in particular at the Sheffield area in the first few decades of the 20th century, I discovered that non-white people, many of them South Asian Muslims and Sikhs, lived peaceably in working-class communities. And the evidence strongly indicates that this was replicated in several other British industrial towns and cities.

Marriage certificates from the time, recording unions between natives and newcomers, not only provide proof of the presence of this small South Asian population in Sheffield in the interwar period – they also furnish us with an early glimpse of the state of what was to become known as ‘race relations’ within Britain’s industrial towns and cities. The presence of these newcomers transgressed imperial standards of racial difference and separation. Moreover, these individuals and families became rooted within Sheffield’s working-class neighbourhoods. There they made a living, cared for their families and participated fully in the crowded, noisy and tight-knit life of these shared communities.

A certificate detailing a mixed marriage that took place in Sheffield, 1929.
A certificate detailing a mixed marriage that took place in Sheffield, 1929.

It is true that in the socially and economically tumultuous years after the First World War there were occasional violent disturbances. Nevertheless, the everyday interactions between natives and newcomers – as spouses, in-laws, workmates and neighbours – tell us something important. Namely, that the reactions of Sheffield natives to these immigrants were far from hostile. In fact, the (mostly) white working classes engaged in friendly and cooperative inter-ethnic relations.

The hostility to the newcomers came from elsewhere – principally, from imperial reactionaries and reform-minded, middle-class progressives.

At the time, the idea of interracial mixing (especially between men and women) was viewed with great concern by imperial administrators. They were worried that it could undermine white prestige and power within the colonies. Progressives, including many leading Fabian socialists, were also concerned. In line with their embrace of ‘scientific’ and eugenicist theories of race, the reform-minded middle classes wanted to maintain ‘racial hygiene’ within Britain. They fretted that ‘miscegenation’ between non-white or Eastern European peoples with white Britons (and the birth of ‘half-caste’ children to the ensuing mixed marriages) would cause a weakening of the ‘British race’ and undermine its ability to maintain and defend the Empire.

Progressives, socialists and outright imperialists were therefore united in scrutinising and criticising the life choices of working-class people, from who they married to who they had children with. Yet despite these attempts by cultural and political elites to stigmatise mixed marriages and portray their children as racial pariahs, many relationships appear to have endured. And that was because of their widespread acceptance by their working-class families, neighbours, workmates and friends.

Life in the imperial heartland

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, all people born in Britain’s colonial possessions were formally entitled to equal protection under British law. This followed Lord Palmerston’s outlining of the imperial principle of Civis Britannicus Sum to parliament in 1850. Drawing on the Civis Romanus Sum principle of the Roman Empire (to which all European empires compared themselves), Palmerston argued that all people within the British Empire’s borders were subjects of the King Emperor. Henceforth it was widely accepted, for reasons of good imperial relations and Britain’s global image, that (in theory at least) Indians, as British subjects, had the right to live and work in Britain. Their wives could not, therefore, be stripped of their British subject status, unlike those women who married men from outside the Empire. This also removed the possibility of South Asian men marrying Britons with the primary motivation of acquiring British subject status. Despite itself, the British Empire’s globalising endeavours provided its subjects with the means, opportunities and legal status to successfully migrate and settle in the imperial heartland.

Sheffield’s initially small settlement of South Asian men mostly comprised former Lascars (Asian seafarers) who had originally been recruited by the British merchant-shipping industry. They worked in the city’s heavy industries during the First World War and their settlement was bolstered during the interwar years. The first marriages to local women occurred from 1918 onwards. The households of these mixed marriages often acted as anchor points for chains of migration to Britain for the kin and countrymen of the husbands. This was not a conscious collective plan. It was simply a case of individual families striving to make a better life for themselves.

Lascars at the opening of the Tower Hill Memorial in London, 1928.
Lascars at the opening of the Tower Hill Memorial in London, 1928.

Unlike the Jim Crow era of US history, racial discrimination within Britain was informal rather than legal. The exceptions to this were the Asiatic articles governing the employment of Indian seafarers at Asian ports. They enforced poorer working conditions and much lower pay for Lascars compared with European seafarers. The articles were a major factor prompting Lascars to jump ship in Britain. These South Asian seafarers, now based in British home ports, could sign on with ships on the same terms as Europeans. Many also chose to leave the sea for employment in non-maritime industries, where they were paid at the same rates as other workers.

While Britain’s imperial elites, cheered on by assorted progressives, promoted racial division and separation, in largely working-class communities natives and newcomers mixed happily on an everyday basis. Evidence, gathered from both census data and oral testimony of the children of mixed marriages, shows that South Asian newcomers lodged with white working-class families. Conversely, white workers also lodged in the households of couples in mixed marriages. Workers shared the intimate spaces of hearth and home, all ‘mucking in’ together at work and as neighbours. These are certainly not the types of behaviour one would expect from people focussed on maintaining racial separation. Based on this evidence, it is fair to claim that the early immigrants spent at least as much time with native Britons as they did with their fellow countrymen.

Judging by occupancy lists, other accommodations such as commercial boarding houses and low-cost hotels also appear to have been racially integrated, with white natives and non-white newcomers sharing facilities. The distribution of the home addresses of South Asians and their families in the Sheffield area also shows that they were not confined to ethnic enclaves or ghettoes. Instead, they made their homes in many working-class areas, including on a new municipal housing estate built by the local authority.

Over time, the South Asian men’s social networks became increasingly mixed. They included their working-class wives, in-laws, white friends, workmates and neighbours. Their networks spread across the country and internationally through continuing links with seafaring and the sea. These social networks show that the level of inter-ethnic mixing was not, by any means, confined to the Sheffield area. These networks enabled further immigration of kin and countrymen, and encouraged the integration of native Britons and newcomers.

A significant number of the men were temporary economic migrants rather than settlers and are much less well recorded in the surviving records. They planned to work in Britain for five years or so, sending cash regularly back to their families in India before eventually returning home. As rural smallholders and tenant farmers, cash was scarce. To become proletarians in Britain, even temporarily, meant that they could pay off debts to moneylenders, extend farmland, construct buildings and dig wells. This transient and frugal lifestyle of ‘just for five years’ – otherwise known as ‘the myth of return’ – was to dominate the lives of those who followed in their footsteps after 1945.

By the 1930s, news had spread within the villages of Punjab, Kashmir and Sylhet that a decent living could be made in Britain. Increasing numbers of rural South Asian men (or ‘impecunious Indians of the agricultural class’, as one senior civil servant dismissively termed them at the time) travelled to Britain by ship, passage paid by their kin, in the time-honoured practice of adventurous young people going off to seek their fortunes. As passengers, rather than as seafarers, their migration was later mirrored by the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and of many thousands of Pakistani and Sikh migrant workers in the postwar era.

The Second World War accelerated non-white immigration to Britain via the Merchant Navy. Many Lascars crewing ships braving the routes to Britain from India and across the Atlantic found themselves stuck in Britain after their ships had been sunk by German U-boats. While some shipped out again and continued seafaring, others sought out work in heavy industry, engineering and armaments manufacturing. Here we see a continuity of migration and settlement through both world wars and the interwar period. South Asian settlements, such as Bradford’s, were said to have been founded at this time.

Racial tensions at the ports

Why was Sheffield so much more tolerant than some areas during the interwar years, such as the port cities of Liverpool, Cardiff and Hull? This is a complex issue, but certain factors do seem to have played a significant role. In Sheffield, jobs – especially in the steel industry – were more stable and long-term, and competition for them was not as intense as in the ports. The maritime industry, in contrast, largely depended on casual day labourers for dock work, and the recruitment of seafarers was not well regulated. Ships’ masters often preferred one racial group over another for work in particular departments of the ship, thus excluding others on racial terms. The scrum of potential recruits for these positions in the yards of shipping offices only served to highlight racial differences and apparent favouritism. Competition among workers was fierce in an era when the workhouse awaited those who could not make ends meet.

In February 1921, Sheffield, amid a deep economic slump in which thousands were laid off, did experience a brief race riot. It was ended very quickly by the prompt intervention of the police. The racial element of the disturbance was quickly forgotten and the South Asian men on the receiving end of the hostility still settled in the district. Some even married there.

The situation was different in the imperially oriented ports. The police were willing to stand back and let racial disturbances get out of hand. Sometimes they even appeared to condone the violence. The local press blamed the ‘problem’ of interracial mixing, printing a steady flow of articles denouncing ‘miscegenation’. The Sheffield newspapers did not engage in this kind of editorialising about race. In fact, in the wake of the 1921 riot, the local press immediately pointed out that the South Asian men were well-regarded by whites in the neighbourhood.

Postwar ghettoes

As the Sheffield experience shows, the successful migration and settlement of South Asians within Britain laid the foundations for the further immigration of South Asian workers in the post-Second World War era. Indeed, the districts of origin of many of the early settlers, such as Attock and Jhelum in Punjab, Mirpur in Kashmir and Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) have long remained major sources of migration to Britain. It is no coincidence that all were originally areas for the recruitment of Lascars by Britain’s Merchant Navy.

With the rapid increase in South Asian migration during the postwar boom came significant changes to the lives of new arrivals. Local and national social networks and an accompanying cultural framework had already been established by the early 20th-century pioneers. Thus, the same spirit of adventure and willingness to adapt to local circumstances and culture was no longer required of new arrivals to the same degree.

During the 1950s, Attercliffe, the steel-making district of Sheffield, already scheduled for demolition by the local authority, rapidly became an ethnic enclave for South Asian and Arab workers. Contemporary ethnographers, who have studied the process of enclave formation, note that this was not initially a product of racially imposed ghettoisation. Rather, it was the desire of large numbers of young single, male workers to live according to the ‘myth of return’. That meant living as frugally as possible, often doing so in dormitory style – in cheap, run-down accommodation. Indeed, the myth of return, which is found as a social narrative among many expatriate populations (such as the British in India or Hong Kong, or Turkish ‘guest workers’ in Germany), serves to maintain a degree of separation between immigrants and the host nation, binding the incomers together in a temporary, alien environment. The myth protected the customs and practices of home from foreign influence and prevented individuals among their number from ‘going native’ (as British colonists in the Far East described those Brits who became too fond of Asian cultures). Like immigrant workers the world over, the myth enabled men living in Britain to endure poor conditions and preserve their bonds of culture and kinship, while they saved as much money as possible before returning home – although many ended up remaining here for the rest of their lives.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a hardening of racial attitudes among many Britons, actively fuelled by the bitterness and disenchantment of the former imperial elites. For three centuries, their prestige and purpose rested on the control of a now rapidly shrinking empire. The presence in Britain of those they had recently ruled over only reminded them of their loss. Nationally, an increasingly toxic atmosphere developed across all social classes due to resentment over Britain’s declining global prestige, the shrinking or disappearance of traditional industries and anxieties about rapid cultural change. The growing acceptance of overt racism as an acceptable feature of life pushed the old ways of rubbing along together quite tolerably, sharing public and private spaces, into the fading realm of memory.

Demonstrating dock workers march past Monument in the City of London, in support of Enoch Powell, on their way to the House of Commons, April 1968.
Demonstrating dock workers march past Monument in the City of London, in support of Enoch Powell, on their way to the House of Commons, April 1968.

To illustrate the shifting nature of racial attitudes over the years, one interviewee, who arrived in Britain from Kashmir in the 1960s, told me that he remembered being treated well by Sheffielders, despite the growing tensions elsewhere (a view repeated by many South Asian men of similar age). His son, who grew up in the 1980s, expressed his disbelief at his father’s statement, having experienced racism as a constant feature of his youth.

A distorted view of past and present

This gap between the experiences of a father and son suggests that Hall was right to call race a ‘floating signifier’. While its meanings shift over time, in response to many external factors, race still haunts our imaginations. That said, it would be a mistake to accept the claim that racism in Britain is ever present and as bad now as it ever was, just as it is a mistake to claim that racism has been a constant and dominant presence among the working classes throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Yet these claims have constantly been made by many cultural commentators and politicians who wring their hands over the ‘bigotry’ of working-class people, their baked-in ‘xenophobia’ and their apparent insistence on patriotism. This was especially the case during the Brexit referendum, and it continues to this day. Many pundits insist we are witnessing a rerun of the 1930s and that ‘history is repeating itself’. Their nightmarish imaginings obscure a far more complicated, nuanced and sometimes very positive picture of race relations in Britain over the past century.

Our view of inter-ethnic relations in the past is all too often distorted by our present preoccupations. We often overlook the everyday interactions between natives and newcomers in favour of the extremes of riots and disorder. Just as important, we ignore the historical instances when immigration, settlement and integration worked well for all concerned… and when they did not. Partly, this is because of a tendency to define ourselves as being more ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ than people in the past, who we assume were all aggressively preoccupied with racial differences. By doing so, events, such as the race riots of the early interwar period, appear to us as representative of the attitudes of the majority.

Historians frequently view the past through sources such as newspapers or official documents. The news media, however, only report what is newsworthy. Likewise, officials tend to record only what was considered problematic for themselves. People getting on with each other is considered far too banal to make the headlines or to be recorded by officialdom. While necessary as part of the historian’s craft, using these sources as the sole focus obscures people’s everyday interactions. And it can unwittingly provide a foundation for simplistic narratives about racism being a natural and defining feature of life in Britain for centuries.

As shown by the case of Sheffield, the past is far more complex and nuanced than today’s moralistic narratives about it suggest. We are not today seeing ‘history repeat itself’ or a rerun of the 1930s. The attempt to present the past in this simplistic manner allows a small minority of people to portray ‘race’ and ‘racial’ differences as insurmountable hurdles.

All this does a huge disservice to the past – and to the present.

David Holland is an academically-trained independent historian, based in Sheffield. His latest book, Imperial Heartland – Immigration, Working-class Culture and Everyday Tolerance, 1917–1947, is published by Cambridge University Press.

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Graham Linehan and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

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Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Politics UK

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