Politicians playing the race card and scapegoating immigrants is a depressingly familiar feature of modern election campaigns. As I write these words, those vying for our votes continue to talk tough and compete to outflank Ukip as refugees die in their hundreds off the coast of Fortress Europe.
Socialists and anti-racists have rightly responded by highlighting the positive contribution that migrants have made to British society. This has involved exploding the myths about “foreigners” simultaneously taking all the jobs, claiming benefits and jumping the queue for public services.
The most welcome aspect of Virdee’s book is its focus on the much wider and richer contribution made by “minority groups”. He starts by reminding us that immigration didn’t begin with the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948. Britain’s colonial adventures always brought with them not just goods but people. “The English working class was a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic formation from the moment of its inception.”
Virdee’s particular interest is in considering how both racism and anti-racism have shaped developments. He focuses on the social relations between minority groups and the English working class, the significance of racism in structuring social relations, and those episodes of class solidarity and anti-racism that have marked the period under consideration. Virdee’s primary concern is to show how black, Asian, Irish, Jewish and other minority workers have played a critical role in breaking down the divisions sown by the ruling class.
Figures such as Olaudah Equiano, Robert Wedderburn, Eleanor Marx, Claudia Jones and Jayaben Desai have led struggles and organisations which helped to forge unity and strengthened the combativity of the working class as a whole. These pioneers often had to face down hostility from unions and workers’ political organisations that were happy to prioritise nation over class.
Virdee also assesses the Anti Nazi League, praising the role of “a multi-ethnic group of socialist activists” for its success. He examines how self-organised black and Asian workers allied with the socialist left to forge employment opportunities in the non-manual public sector in the 1980s. In so doing they enriched the trade union movement and strengthened its commitment to fighting racism.
Virdee demonstrates that minority groups are not simply the passive victims of bigotry or the grateful recipients of humanitarian protection. They are an integral part of the working class who have fought for and demanded recognition, respect and solidarity.