The new migrants, like the old, are up for abuse

I attended the funeral of a very dear friend a few days ago. He had just turned 62, and had spent all his working life at British Rail and the Ford Motor Company. He was offered redundancy about three years ago, took it and retired to a grim two-bedroom flat in a mighty and miserable council block in the most unattractive area of south London.

He had fought diabetes all his life, and a lifetime of white bread and spam sandwiches did not help, nor did copious tots of this or that alcohol.

At his funeral were scores of Caribbean men, his age, shadows of their former selves clad in loose and ill- fitting suits, their lives all but over. They had arrived in this country as young men, economic migrants, sucked into factories, the Underground or railways at very low wages.

Many of them had made up their minds on the spot with no preparation for a grand departure. There were scores of stowaways in the holds of ships. Many were picked up in swoops by police and charged with being a "suspected person", hauled before magistrates and deported as undesirables. The language in the national press was exactly the same then as is now used for describing eastern European immigrants.

Race riots in inner cities were fomented from the editor's chair. Harassed, haunted and taunted, that generation of Caribbeans survived to spawn what is now described as the black middle class.

They were never allowed to be at ease, and were always reminded that this was not their country: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour." Enoch Powell was the prime mover. The Tories raised the racial ante and, in their desperate quest for votes, the Labour Party was forced into the same game.

I have always wondered whether politicians appreciated the tremendous contribution we were making to this place. Now, I am sure they were, and were cynical enough to reap the benefits of our labour without taking responsibility for our schooling and nourishment. We were also well placed as hate figures for the mobilisation of votes.

I am convinced about the latter because William Hague and Ann Widdecombe are of the same mould. There was a sequence in my Channel 4 documentary, White Tribe, when I went on the hunt for swarthy "bogus" asylum-seekers and could not find them. They do exist. They were gathered by the hundreds in coaches, in the still of the morning, to pick hops, apples and pears and other fruits farmed in the English countryside. Without them, farming would be in serious crisis.

Now I am told by a friend in the Tory party that Hague et al are aware that these economic migrants are vital to the agricultural economy of Kent. Those of us with immigrant experience know the process very well. One enters the workplace in ones and twos, and then the employer draws you aside and whispers: "Any more where you came from?" And then the avalanche. They arrive in Dover in droves knowing exactly where they are needed. Supply and demand. If the immigration service is serious about limiting numbers , it could simply trawl the farms in the south and its officers will discover Romanians, Kosovans and the rest in their thousands.

Every area of Europe is trawled for cheap labour. It has always been a difficult business. Mrs Howe tells me that, as a child raised in the poverty of the East End of London, entire families would camp on some farm in Kent in the fruit-picking season, working for mean wages. East End workers first, then travellers, then foreign students, and now the crisis in the Balkans, have provided scores of farm workers.

Hague knows this because his constituency MPs provide the information for him; the new migrants, like the old, are up for use and abuse. Both serve his purpose. And I have no doubt that, with asylum-seekers herded into reception centres (which are in fact prisons), coaches would appear to take them fruit-picking and their wages would pay their keep. Mark my words.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone