Press witch-hunt 24 years ago
Scapegoating led to murder
By Charlie Kimber
“SCANDAL OF 600 A Week Immigrants In A Luxury Hotel”, screamed the Sun. “Asian Influx Will Swamp Us”, claimed the Express. “Immigrants-How Britain Is Deceived”, added the Mail. These headlines are not from the press attack on refugees last week or last month. They are a selection of the racist filth that greeted refugees in 1976. The direct results of the press assault 24 years ago were racist murders, a climate of racist scapegoating and a growth in support for the British Nazis.
This is a warning for today. Racist articles and speeches fuel racist attacks. Vicious words encourage vicious actions. In May 1976 the British press announced that 250 UK passport holders of Asian origin had been expelled from the African country of Malawi and were heading for Britain. Worse, according to the press, they were put up in a luxury hotel near Gatwick airport and enjoyed every comfort while “decent British people” were left in poverty. As always with such stories, the reality was very different. The Asians had fled in terror of their lives. When they got to Britain they were dumped in the hotel without any cash or food.
They had no kitchen and could not afford so much as a bag of crisps in the hotel’s bars and restaurants. They went hungry until social services eventually rescued them. None of this held back the press or politicians. They went on a ruthless search for every case that could be bent to serve the anti-immigrant cause. Television announced that immigrants in Hillingdon, west London, were being given big homes in preference to whites.
The truth was these people had been waiting 12 years for decent accommodation and had gone through exactly the same process as everyone else. The House of Commons reacted to the witch-hunt, not the reality. A Tory MP, rising star Jonathan Aitken, moved a motion noting “with concern the changing demographic character of Great Britain, particularly the continuing flow of immigrants from the New Commonwealth”.
He was backed by Labour right winger Bob Mellish, who expressed outrage at the entry of the Malawi Asians and said, “Problems at local level will become worse and worse for our own people unless something is done.” Enoch Powell, who had whipped up hatred of black immigrants with his “rivers of blood” speech eight years earlier, now denounced the “limitless increase in the coloured population in English cities”.
Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins responded by saying it was government policy to “root out” illegal immigrants and overstayers. Aitken’s motion was passed without a division. A wave of attacks against Asians followed, almost on a daily basis. Eighteen year old Gurdip Singh Chaggar was set upon by a gang of white youths and stabbed to death outside the Dominion cinema in Southall, west London. Dragged
A week later three Asian youths were attacked on an Underground train in east London. In September a 76 year old woman, Mohan Dev Gautam, was dragged from her home in Leamington Spa and her clothes set alight. Before she died she told her family that the attack had been carried out by white youths. The police said the death was suicide.
At least four Asians, including Altab Ali, were murdered in east London by white gangs in the two years after the “Malawi Asians” scare. There were dozens of cases where Asians had their windows smashed or fireworks pushed through their doors, as well as physical assaults. The Nazis went on the offensive, revelling in the racist climate created by the press and politicians.
The Nazi National Front (NF) grabbed nearly 3,000 votes, 7 percent of the poll, at the Walsall by-election in November 1976. At the Greater London Council elections of 1977 the NF polled 117,000 votes and threatened to replace the Liberals as the third party. In January 1978 Judge McKinnon ruled that Kingsley Read’s comment on Chaggar’s death-“One down, one million to go”-did not constitute incitement to racial hatred. Read was the head of the fascist National Party.
At the same time Tory party leader Margaret Thatcher used the run-up to the local elections to say her party would “finally see an end to immigration, for this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. The press witch-hunt, the racist attacks and the growth of the National Front all occurred against the background of the increasing unpopularity of a Labour government.
As the press launched its attacks on immigrants, Socialist Worker responded with the front page “They’re Welcome Here”. The paper rushed out thousands of stickers saying, “Don’t be fooled. Unemployment is caused by the bosses and the government, not by black workers”, and, “Don’t be fooled. In the 30s they blamed the Jews. Today they blame the blacks”. It is just this sort of propaganda we need again now.
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