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From the NS archive: A challenge to Britain

13 September 1958: Race riots bring the issue of migration to the fore.

By Norman Manley

In the summer of 1958, tensions over the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean led to race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in London. In this piece for the magazine, Norman Manley, then the chief minister of Jamaica and shortly to become the island’s premier, argued for tolerance. Using the language of the time, he said that disgruntled Britons should not scapegoat immigrants for the hardships brought about by economic downturns. Manley reminded the readers that much of the world had been dealing with immigration for centuries and that the number of migrants in Britain remained low, some 200,000 people. Decent people should face down racists and troublemakers: “Evil is noisy and so much good is so silent that its presence cannot be detected,” he wrote. There was no quick fix but Manley had hope that relations could improve.

Migration is, of course, one of the facts of life. It is as old as humanity. It is still a matter of high economic and human significance. In modern times the white man has migrated into every coloured country that offered opportunity. But the current migration of moderately large numbers of coloured people into a white country is something new. And since race prejudice is another of the facts of life and is at its most intense where the racial difference is sharply visible – in other words, where colour is involved – the combination of race and colour prejudice is a matter with grave and serious implications.

If the current troubles in England which have profoundly shocked and disturbed West Indian opinion, and indeed liberal opinion the world over, are to be mitigated, it is as well to accept without rancour these elementary considerations. It is no use trying to put out a fire if you don’t know what is burning.

Jamaicans, and indeed all West Indians, have a long tradition of migrating in search of work. Unemployment is chronic in the West Indies and hard to overcome in countries with scant or negligible basic resources. The migration to England began when the last war was over and thousands of West Indians who had been in the armed services remained to take up life in England on the basis of the skills they had acquired during the war. It was natural that their presence here should result in a trickle of people across the seas – relatives and friends – and the trickle grew to a flood when England needed more workers to make up for the flood of her own people migrating out to Australia, Canada and all over the world.

It is well to remember in this connection two important facts. First, that over the past ten years England has been and continues to be, a persistent net exporter of people; and, secondly, that the migrants to England, West Indian and others, found it easy to get work, filled a gap, and proved useful and teachable citizens in this country. Admittedly the position today is different – a fairly high proportion of coloured migrants are out of work. The number, a mere 17,000, is small; the percentage, 8 per cent, is high by comparison with the overall figure of 2 per cent for all England. As against that, it must be remembered that the numbers coming over now are much less than they were two years ago, and will, I think, steadily grow less.

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But let it never be forgotten that once a strong outward flow of migration starts, the evidence tends to show that for a considerable time nothing that happens in the country of origin will appreciably check it. What checks it quickest and most surely is what happens in the country to which the flow is directed. That is why the economic improvement in Jamaica in the fast five years has not yet had much effect on the outward migration. That is why, to give a classic example, the migration of Puerto Ricans to New York, a migration that has put nearly three-quarters of a million Puerto Ricans into that city, was not checked by Puerto Rico’s magnificent economic advance; but, in fact, in 1953, the very year when Puerto Rico could claim to have finally turned the corner and got on the high road to prosperity, an all-time record of 79,000 Puerto Ricans left for the United States!

The difficulties that the present minor economic recession in England are causing do not, however, explain these recent and unhappy events. We hear talk of housing problems, of the fear of losing jobs, of the effect, magnified and enlarged, of the bad conduct of a few wrongdoers among the migrants, of incompatible habits. These things exist, but do not fully account for the recent explosions all over the place. These things existed in Brixton as I saw it three years ago. Today Brixton, thanks to imaginative and enlightened work by inter-racial groups and to the basic enterprise and healthy ambition of the migrants, is a good example of how the problem can be solved. It is a peaceful, friendly and lively community.

The fact is that all these things are mere trigger mechanisms that have touched off a complex of feelings rooted in race and colour prejudice, and fostered and exploited by the Fascist forces that have found in the hooligan element a handy instrument to whip up and excite and inflame grievances and deep-seated dislikes. The understanding of these things indicates the hope of solution.

Three things are essential. Active violence and disorder must be stamped out swiftly and decisively. It must never be allowed to succeed. Far too much of it has succeeded in terrorising the small minority of migrants all over London and destroying their property. It is not enough at this stage to say the police are impartial. It is necessary to make it manifest to the weak minority group that the forces of law and order are actively and sympathetically on the side of those who are wronged. Confidence (and let it be said frankly as far as the migrants are concerned that confidence has broken down) must be restored. The solid traditional and powerful British opinion which sets its face against colour prejudice and all forms of intolerance must organise and mobilise itself so as to be an effective force at every level – at the top, in government, in political circles, in the trade union movement especially at the working levels, among the ordinary citizens – at their work, at their play, in their houses, in the pubs, wherever men and women meet.

A large part of the success of evil is because evil is noisy and so much good is so silent that its presence cannot be detected. It is only when violence is completely ended and public opinion fully alert that it will be possible to do successfully the third essential thing, which is to try continuously, patiently and laboriously to remove the things that build up ill will and intensify race and colour attitudes; to create on an inter-racial basis the sort of grass-root organisations among the migrants themselves and in the communities where they live which will help to build up enough tolerance and understanding for it to be possible for a real community life to emerge.

The problem of violence is an immediate and urgent one; and all talk of restricting immigration and the like at this time should be set aside till the atmosphere has decisively changed. It would be tragic to allow principle to fall dead at the first blast of violence and disorder – no matter how much that may hurt pride and disturb an illusory complacency.

The remainder of the problem is long term and difficult and will require persistent effort over a long, long time. This effort will never be properly made if the reality of the facts is not faced and if illusions, however comforting, persist. I have great hopes that in time all these difficulties will be gradually resolved. But make no mistake about it, it would be tragic if Britain were to fail the world at this moment and on this issue.

It is much more than a local problem of 200,000 coloured people (.04 per cent of England’s population). This is a world question. One of the great world issues is this problem of race and colour. All over the world – in the United States, for instance, and in Africa – it has reached a moment of historical crisis. The new West Indian nation is setting an example to the world in demonstrating how people of all races and all shades of skin can “dwell together in unity”, how a society can be created in which racial differences do not require tolerance because they have ceased to matter. What a setback to this and all other efforts in the world if Britain, the centre of the Commonwealth, were to fail when for the first time she faces as a living fact a situation that in other lands has for generations been a constant and abiding problem.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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