When Labour played the racist card

Newly released cabinet papers reveal the shocking truth behind James Callaghan's 1968 Commonwealth I

The news spread quickly like a contamination corrupting the future. From midnight on 30 November 1967, anyone who did not hold citizenship of Kenya would have to apply for an "entry certificate" to remain in the country, even if they had been born there. Most of the 200,000 Asians in Kenya knew they were no longer safe. What frightened them most was what might come next in President Kenyatta's project to "Africanise" his country.

But the Asians did have one thing. In their back pockets, in the top drawers of their desks, kept with the jewellery and the photographs, they each held something respected throughout the world, which they believed they could always count on to protect them: a British passport. Within three months those passports counted for nothing. Alarmed by an increase in the number of Asians from Kenya entering Britain, the Labour government under Harold Wilson introduced emergency legislation to end the freedom of entry of Asians - but not white settlers - from East Africa. The Times called it "probably the most shameful measure that Labour members have ever been asked by their whips to support".

The government always claimed that the distinction made by the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was geographical, rather than racial: those who had UK ancestors were exempt. "I regret the need for this bill," the home secretary James Callaghan told parliament. "I repudiate emphatically the suggestion that it is racialist in origin or in conception or in the manner in which it is being carried out."

Secret cabinet papers, just released under the 30-year rule, tell a different story. They show beyond doubt that the legislation was intentionally aimed at "coloured immigrants" and that evidence cited to justify the legislation did not exist. Further, the cabinet received legal advice that the bill would flout the UK's obligations under international law.

The British had originally brought Indian labourers to Kenya to help build the railway from Mombasa to the interior. Over the following decades they were joined by Indian traders and shopkeepers, and by the early 1960s Asians in Kenya were also working as civil servants, doctors and teachers. When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Asians, who were citizens of the UK and Colonies, could choose either to become Kenyan citizens or to obtain a British passport. Many Asians, anxious about how they would fare under African rule, chose the latter.

By late 1967, as a result of the Kenyan government's imposition of work permits on non-Kenyan citizens and the threat of deportation, over 1,000 Asians a month were coming to Britain. Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys - who as colonial secretary had himself negotiated the citizenship provisions around Kenyan independence in 1963 - vied for Tory prominence with increasingly hysterical calls to "curb the influx of immigrants". Callaghan resolved to act.

He first took his proposals for emergency legislation to a special cabinet committee on 13 February 1968. His cabinet colleague Richard Crossman recorded in his diaries: "Jim arrived with the air of a man whose mind was made up. He wasn't going to tolerate any of this bloody liberalism." The newly released cabinet records show that the only real dissent came from the Commonwealth minister of state, George Thomas: "Previous Commonwealth immigration legislation had covered white immigrants also, but legislation of the sort proposed would in effect discriminate against the Asians from East Africa because of their colour. This would contradict all that we had said on the subject."

The minutes of the meeting dutifully record a defeat for bloody liberalism: "In discussion it was recognised that legislation along the lines proposed by the home secretary would appear to run counter to our international obligations, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights; would be going back on the undertaking given by the British government when Kenya was gaining independence in 1963; and might be presented as the government giving way to racial prejudice. The majority of the committee considered, however, that there was no alternative but to legislate . . ."

The arguments at the full cabinet meeting two days later followed a similar pattern. In a memo, Callaghan conceded that "it would be a breach of international law for a state to refuse to receive its own nationals if they had been expelled by another state of which they were not nationals", and the attorney-general quoted Protocol 4 of the European Convention, which stated that "no one shall be deprived of the right to enter the territory of the state of which he is a national".

But a confidential memorandum to the prime minister from the cabinet secretary, Sir Burke Trend, dated 14 February, suggested a way out. In the view of the cabinet committee, he wrote, "a reasonable case could be put up in reply to international criticism on the ground that the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense and that the obligations imposed, for example, by the European Convention on Human Rights do not therefore apply". It was an extraordinary admission of the real intention behind the bill. Wilson, wary as ever, deferred the decision for a week and asked Callaghan to do some more research.

The Home Office civil servants were instructed to report on the allocation of special entry vouchers (which would be needed in addition to passports) to " 'non-belonging' citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies". A committee of senior officials noted: "It would be undesirable in the report to speak in terms of coloured immigration; instead the report should refer to Asian immigration. But it would be necessary at some stage to make it clear that the issues concerned all the countries of the new Commonwealth, not simply those in Asia." (The "new" Commonwealth was distinguished from the "old" Commonwealth of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

At the cabinet meeting the next Thursday, George Thomson, the Commonwealth secretary of state, argued that it would be impossible "to refuse entry into this country to people who had nowhere else to go". Barbara Castle might have been expected to object, too, but, as Crossman records, she had fallen asleep during the meeting.

The home secretary easily won the day with his argument that "if this rate of entry were to continue, the pressure on the social services should be such that large additional expenditure would be required . . . and our race relations policy would be in jeopardy". He announced the proposed legislation in the Commons that same afternoon, with the concession that 1,500 special vouchers a year would be made available for Asians from Kenya and Uganda to come to Britain.

The bill went through parliament in three days, received the royal assent on 1 March and came into force immediately. Though it had bipartisan support, the opponents included Conservatives such as Iain Macleod, Michael Heseltine, John Nott and Ian Gilmour, as well as Liberals and some Labour backbenchers. "There was a clear pledge to these people," Nott said to me last week. "I just thought it was disgraceful that people who had British passports should have them taken away."

Six weeks after the bill was passed, Callaghan wrote another memo, which exposes the thinking behind the bill with startling clarity. "It is sometimes argued," said Callaghan, "that we can take a less serious view of the scale of immigration and settlement in this country because it could be, and currently is being, more than offset by total emigration. This view overlooks the important point that emigration is largely by white persons from nearly every corner of the United Kingdom, while immigration and settlement are largely by coloured persons into a relatively small number of concentrated areas. The exchange thus aggravates rather than alleviates the problem." The same memo, dated 9 April, also casts grave doubt on one of the clinching arguments used to justify the bill, both at cabinet and in parliament. "When we decided to legislate to slow down Asian immigration from East Africa we took our stand partly on the ground that a sudden influx of this kind . . . imposed an intolerable strain on the social services . . . But we were greatly handicapped in deploying our case and in rebutting criticism because we did not have hard information at our ready disposal." Although there was some information on the education service, in the health field "no statistical evidence was available" and "similarly there seemed to be little objective evidence to demonstrate the need and scale of the pressure upon housing and social benefits".

Within two weeks, Enoch Powell was to make his notorious "rivers of blood" speech in Birmingham. But by then the Labour government had already done more to catalyse racial prejudice than Powell's rhetoric ever could. In fact, as Callaghan's biographer, Kenneth Morgan, points out: "From Callaghan's point of view, Powell's antics were a valuable distraction. They enabled the government to appear, by contrast, sane and balanced . . ."

If part of the purpose of the legislation had been to prevent the African governments from expelling the Asians, it failed miserably. Both Jomo Kenyatta and Milton Obote in Uganda sought to quicken the pace of Africanisation. Many Asians, now effectively stateless, were shuttled back and forth between East Africa, Britain and transit countries, and were refused entry anywhere.

In 1970, a group of East African Asians took their case to the European Commission of Human Rights. It found that three separate articles of the European Convention had been breached and that "the racial discrimination to which the applicants have been publicly subjected by the application of the [1968] immigration legislation . . . amounted to 'degrading treatment' ". The commission's report was itself kept officially secret for over 20 years, but the British government increased the annual quota of entry vouchers. It was also forced to admit 28,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Obote's murderous successor, Idi Amin, in 1972. Over the following decades the Asians set themselves successfully to building Britain just as they had helped build East Africa. George Thomson had been right all along.

In his memoirs Time and Chance, Callaghan wrote that introducing the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill had been an unwelcome task but that he did not regret it. The Asians had "discovered a loophole", he wrote - probably the strangest term for a British passport ever coined by a former prime minister. He recently told a BBC interviewer: "Public opinion in this country was extremely agitated, and the consideration that was in my mind was how we could preserve a proper sense of order in this country and at the same time do justice to these people - I had to balance both considerations."

Lord Gilmour, one of the original opponents of the bill, put it to me rather differently: "That was why the bill was brought in - to keep the blacks out. If it had been the case that it was 5,000 white settlers who were coming in, the newspapers and politicians who were making all the fuss would have been quite pleased."

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage