(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, by Nadine El-Enany

Georgie Wemyss considers how the UK’s legislation about immigration is still entangled with its imperial history

March 12, 2020
Windrush Day demonstration, 22 June, 2019 in London, UK
Source: Getty

When David Lammy MP tells Parliament that the Windrush scandal is inextricably linked to Britain’s role in the enslavement of Africans or tweets that the government’s hostile environment reforms are a “colonial hangover” of legislation that “abused and violated black British citizens”, anonymous Britons bombard him with vile letters and tweets. Sections of the mainstream media and Twitterati may call out the racism of the tweeters, but they do not fill in the gaps that would explain that the Windrush scandal is only one visible outcome of immigration laws that are a continuation of the British Empire.

Through drawing together critical legal studies and post-colonial scholarship, Nadine El-Enany systematically maps out how the law was put to work in both bordering and racially ordering Britain over centuries of colonial expansion. Viewing Britain and its colonies together, (B)ordering Britain details how past and present laws result in the spoils of British colonial power being located within the borders of Britain, evidenced by infrastructure, welfare provision and future opportunities for citizens. Immigration legislation ensures that these assets are increasingly inaccessible to most descendants of Britain’s colonial subjects. The author cites legal cases and contextualises successive immigration and nationality acts to show how the borders that are created and policed via immigration laws maintain a global racialised order that was established by colonisation.

Post-Brexit government announcements about the UK introducing an Australian “points-based system” echo earlier immigration legislation. The 1905 Aliens Act grew out of laws that governed the movement of British subjects within the empire. In a series of examples from different times and colonial spaces, El-Enany exposes the deceit through which intentionally discriminatory legislation is made to appear race-neutral. In 1897, the government of the British colony of Natal passed legislation that required entrants to have £25 and knowledge of a European language. The English-speaking Indians who were the target of the control could be “presented with a form in German” to ensure their exclusion. In 1947, the home secretary stated that while the planned labour voucher scheme “can be presented as making no distinction on grounds of race or colour…its restrictive effect is intended to and would operate on coloured people almost exclusively”.

(B)ordering Britain details how ignoring historical injustices has led to the depoliticising of refugee debates and reminds us how European Union integration is being built on inequalities created by European empires. However, in tackling a subject so consistently ignored, it cannot cover all histories of exclusionary colonial legislation. Missing, for example, is detail of maritime laws that prevented the settlement of working-class Indian seafarers in Britain and its white settler colonies. Their invisibility in British history-telling stokes common understandings that South Asian communities are “recent arrivals”, low down in a mythological hierarchy of belonging. For them, “jumping ship” to escape the exploitative conditions on board was an act of resistance as they crossed the border to enter Britain illegally. El-Enany concludes that contemporary irregular migrations from the Global South should be viewed as similar acts of “anti-colonial resistance” against a Britain that looks like an island soaked in imperial nostalgia but whose violent legacies of empire continue to be experienced across the world.

Georgie Wemyss is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of East London. She is the author of The Invisible Empire: White Discourse, Tolerance and Belonging (2009) and co-author, with Nira Yuval-Davis and Kathryn Cassidy, of Bordering (2019).

(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire
By Nadine El-Enany
Manchester University Press, 312pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781526145420
Published 10 February 2020


Print headline: Imperial colour lines hold fast

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